Students Reflect on a Year of Transition
On October 16, 2008, Forum talked to seminary students Sarah Steen Schreiber and Phillip Westra and recent graduate John Lee about the new M.Div. curriculum introduced in this issue. The conversation was moderated by Kathy Smith, Director of Continuing Education and Forum committee member, who began by asking the students about their relationship to the new curriculum.
John: As Student Senate President last year, I served on the committee that developed the new curriculum—CTS’s Culture, Pedagogy and Curriculum Committee, which included a variety of staff from the registrar to the president, and faculty from across the curriculum.
Phillip: I’m a brand-new student, but I was looking into seminaries for the past four years, so I’ve seen it from a potential student point of view for a while.
Sarah: I am in the third and final year of my M.Div., so these changes won’t directly affect my program. Still, I’m looking forward to the future of our school. This year I’m serving on the seminary’s new Church Relations Committee, and I’ve enjoyed learning how our new curriculum will serve the needs of our church.
Kathy: When you heard about this new curriculum, what was most attractive about it to you?
John: The thing that caught my attention was the change from a linear class-by-class education to one that would be developmental and integrated. I found the components of my education at CTS to be solid, but often had to figure out for myself how they would work together and transition me into ministry. This new curriculum will help people do that as they go through the educational journey.
Phillip: I’m thrilled to see an educational institution focusing on the whole person of a pastor. When I’m living only in my head I need to think, “What am I doing with my hands, and how am I treating my family?” There’s a lot more to becoming a pastor than absorbing information. I value the emphasis on formation because it keeps us thinking about how to live what we learn.
Sarah: I was delighted to see that our Bible professors will team up with our preaching professors in class. They will lead students through the entire process from working with the text in the original language to discussing how the text applies to the church today.
John: I’m also excited about the move to semesters and the attention to a rhythm of worship together as a community, and how the daily and weekly calendar fosters community. Curriculum is much broader than the courses in a catalog—it’s also about how our formation groups and mentored ministries fit into coursework, and what the rhythm of life teaches about ministry patterns and the values we put on relationships.
Phillip: I was intrigued by the “Reading Congregations” course that will definitely help people start thinking about a congregation instead of their textbooks before they go off to an internship.
Kathy: Yes, that is a one-week course at the beginning of the summer where you will learn tools for reading a congregation and then spend ten weeks in a congregation using those tools. You’ll be practicing exactly what you’re going to do when you get your first call, in terms of reading that congregation.
Sarah: I think the course “World Religions and Global Christianity” is a great addition to the curriculum. During my summer internship questions came up, like “Do Muslims pray to the same God we pray to?” or “What’s the difference between Christianity and The Secret [a popular book Oprah endorses]?” In our increasingly pluralistic society, church members are asking questions all the time, and we should know how to think about these issues and where to look for guidance.
John: The approach to language learning in the new curriculum is one of the things that’s most beneficial, not only for prospective students, but also for the church. Today computer programs help us study the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek without some of the busy-work and the rote memorization of the past. Including language tools right away helps students be efficient in a way that will pay off in ministry, when there are so many things to do. At the same time it also increases the depth of biblical study, because these search engines are so powerful that digging into the text is like using a backhoe versus a spade shovel.
Phillip: Those of us who are second-career persons come with various levels of knowledge of theology. I studied on my own and have some ministry experience, but some of my classmates came straight off a construction job, and haven’t read a book cover to cover in quite a while. This new curriculum is more adaptable for people who are in either place. I think that flexibility is really important.
Kathy: Being able to receive advanced standing for college courses in Bible and theology will give some students an opportunity to take more electives or even gain a specialization in worship, or missions, or youth and family ministries.
John: There also are classes for those who come in without Bible study or an understanding of the confessions. My friends who came to know Christ and came to seminary in their twenties didn’t hear about the Heidelberg Catechism until they got here, so they were always on a steep learning curve. Having a Bible Survey class and a Reformed Confessions and Worldview class at the beginning of seminary for students who need those foundations will help the rest of their studies.
Kathy: Professors are busy writing syllabi for next year, and having cluster meetings to compare notes and make sure topics are covered but not duplicated. What do you want the faculty to think about as they finalize some of these things?
Phillip: I would say a big thank you! I just met with the registrar to plan for the transition, and I see that a lot of thought and work has gone into this. I’m confident that it’s going to work out well.
John: It takes a lot of bravery and humility on the part of the faculty to make so many changes, and I’m certainly thankful for that. My suggestion would be a call for balance and wisdom in selecting content. The committee began by asking, “What does a well-formed graduate who is going out into ministry look like?” and they worked backward and asked, “How do we get people there?” We quickly realized that the calling to ministry is so high and the mystery of God and the amount of history and tradition is so broad that in three years you can’t possibly cover everything. As a student there’s a painful triage: How do you balance reading and writing papers, being a spouse or a parent or a friend, and being involved in a local church? So it’s great to hear the faculty say, “Here are the key things we want students to learn in this limited period of time, and we will also encourage them to be lifelong learners, and to have a rhythm and a balance that allows them to grow as persons, to be faithful spouses and parents, and faithful participants in their local church.”
Sarah: It’s great to see the faculty collaborating to improve our education. As we enter ministry we will always have to be team players, so we can learn from our professors’ example. This year we’re getting an inside look at the collaborative process, including the creative ideas, surprises, and challenges that naturally arise when we work together.
Phillip: It might be that a few years after graduation, a pastor thinks, “I must have daydreamed through this course” or “I would really like to revisit that topic.” Having continuing education opportunities will help us revisit and reinforce some of these things later.
Kathy: Right. We hope that instead of creating learned pastors we’re creating learning pastors. What do you want the church to hear about what’s happening at CTS?
John: I would want them to know one thing the seminary is not doing, and one thing it is doing. First, the seminary is not moving away from the Reformed tradition, and it’s not giving up any academic excellence. What we are doing is better integrating thought and study with the formation of the person, and also grappling with how different disciplines like Bible study and theology inform each other and challenge each other, and integrating how ministry and what happens in the classroom fit together. So it’s not in any way cutting what have been the strengths of the seminary, it’s only continuing to reform and to deepen those strengths.
Phillip: Pastors need skills and disciplines to keep themselves from getting off-track. I think churches will be glad to hear that we’re trying to foster in pastors a rhythm to keep on going even when things are difficult.
Sarah: I want the churches to know that the seminary is listening to their needs. Our school exists to serve the church, not to promote or maintain a certain image of ourselves. The seminary is equipping leaders for the ministry contexts of today.
Kathy: The new curriculum is being described as biblical, authentic, contextual, and life-changing. Can we tell the church, “Calvin Theological Seminary is producing people who are biblical, authentic, contextual, and life-changing—through this curriculum”?
John: Yes. One of the joys of seminary is to sit down in the student center and listen to stories of grace—how God has brought second-career, first-career, young, and old to this place with a passion to serve God and to, as Ephesians 4 says, “equip the saints.” We start with Scripture—so everything that follows is biblical. But if you’re biblical, then you need to be a person who not only studies Scripture, but lives by it. That’s being authentic. And then, an authentic person formed by the Bible says, “Where do I minister?” Well, I have to be able to “read” the place where God places me. That’s contextual. And then, of course, the end goal of this is that Christ changes our lives. What is dead becomes alive, and that’s life-changing. I think these four areas working together is the heart of the gospel, and to have a seminary education that embodies that is exciting.
Sarah: In the past, a seminary education may have focused on forming people who excel in perhaps one or two of these four areas. So, it’s good to continually hold all four of these values before us. This will help us have a rich and balanced ministry.
Phillip: The four all fit into preaching the gospel from a Reformed point of view—taking the word of God, being true to who we are as sinners saved by grace, using the language of today so people know what we’re talking about—and when that happens, the Holy Spirit changes lives.
Kathy: Did you expect that going to seminary would change your life?
Phillip: Yes. Actually just thinking about going to seminary has changed my life, so I figured being there for three years would really keep changing things.
John: Before I went to seminary I was told by different people, “Don’t let seminary change you.” I came off the mission field, and had been occasionally preaching in my home church, and people didn’t want the seminary to make me bookish or to lose the spark of faith. Quite the contrary; God used the community of seminary, the wisdom of professors who became friends, peers who challenged me, and engagement with God’s word daily to change me, to grow me, to deepen me. I think this new curriculum creates even more space for those changes to continue.
Phillip: People are concerned that if you’re in the books all the time, you’ll lose your ability to connect with the person who’s just come off the street and walked into church. The focus on contextual addresses some people’s concerns about a pastor becoming too abstract or not connecting with people who are going to fill the pews.
John: We certainly welcome the prayers of God’s people—for wisdom for those who implement this curriculum and for students as they go through the transition. We also invite confidence in those prayers, that God is at work at Calvin Seminary, that the church can send their sons and their daughters to this place with full assurance that they will be challenged by God’s word and challenged in community to develop as a person, to develop their awareness of God’s world, and then to hopefully go back into ministry with a heart to see lives changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.