Formation for Ministry Isn’t Just for Seminarians

The New CTS Curriculum and Making Communities of Disciples

David Rylaarsdam

How do you form faith in a child? How do you teach young people to walk with the Lord? How do adults learn to grow up into Christ? And how do pastors help to mold all of these people?

Countless conversations about teaching and learning took place as Calvin Seminary’s new Master of Divinity (M.Div.) curriculum was developed this past year. Faculty and staff consulted pastors, surveyed and held Town Hall meetings with students, and dreamed dreams with one another.

Many of these conversations about teaching and learning are relevant not only for a seminary but also for congregations. As the Apostle Paul indicates, all disciples of Jesus Christ are to be formed for works of ministry (Eph. 4:11). Since ministry leaders play a critical role in equipping God’s people for ministry, consider how you might use the following teaching and learning themes.

Teach from who you are, not simply what you know.

A seminary student once told a professor, “I can’t learn from you until I know that you love me.” While we can learn a lot from teachers who don’t appear to care for us personally, learning is immeasurably enriched when teachers let their lives speak. It should be obvious that a professor—or youth pastor or Sunday School teacher—loves God deeply and loves her students as herself.

The content of a Reformed theological education is profoundly important, but how the content is delivered also forms students for ministry. CTS recognizes that pastors who have problems in ministry suffer less often from heresy than from burn-out or from character deficits. So CTS is increasingly attentive to forming healthy rhythms, habits, and characters in our community. In fact, since studies show that the culture of a seminary teaches as much as its curriculum, CTS is seeking to renew not only its curriculum and pedagogy but also how we live and worship together, our internal organization, and the structure of our daily schedule and yearly calendar.

With one ear to our graduates and the other ear to the Christian tradition, we are renewing our emphasis on spiritual formation. Augustine, for example, trained preachers to be persons of prayer before they spoke, to memorize the Bible as the first step of interpretation, and to embody Scripture in their way of life. Such training is not anti-intellectual sentiment, inappropriate for solid theological education. Augustine said it. Better yet, it’s biblical.

How is the culture of your congregation forming disciples for good or ill? The “curriculum” of excellent worship services on Sunday morning can form disciples; but a process of planning services and discussions about worship that are filled with anger and self-righteousness can undermine the Sunday morning formation. The “curriculum” of a sermon might proclaim the importance of seeking justice and loving mercy, but is this embodied in the community? Curriculum and culture are formative. The radar of young people and seekers is exceedingly quick to pick up on who we are. One of the most persuasive apologetics for the gospel is a way of life that radiates the character of Christ. Let your life speak!

Teach as you learn, learn as you teach.

Do you picture Augustine and Calvin as Ivy League scholars, hunkered down in their studies all week reading books and emerging only to preach sermons? If so, someone sold you a bogus picture. Augustine recommended learning by doing. He argued that it’s natural to learn through practice, whether we are learning to speak as toddlers or learning theology. As he taught and counseled and wrote and advised, Augustine found that his understanding of theology grew and his positions sometimes changed significantly. He confided in a letter to a friend: “I strive to be one of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” This quote is found at the beginning of John Calvin’s Institutes, because Calvin also learned by doing. As he taught and ministered to others, he continued to learn; and as he learned, he repeatedly revised and improved his teaching in the Institutes.

At CTS, we want faculty and students to practice this rhythm. When students pass on what they learn, their learning is sticky—it stays with them longer because it is being reinforced. In addition, when students are pushed to theologically reflect on their teaching and other ministry practices, they develop the habit of engaging in thoughtful ministry which is rooted in good theology.

So in the new curriculum, learning to interpret the Bible will be more snugly integrated with teaching it. Bible courses will require students to interpret texts, preach one of these in a real ministry setting, and learn from the experience with the help of a faculty mentor. In other words, students will teach as they learn and learn as they teach. Similarly, a Service Learning course, which stretches over students’ entire programs, will require them to serve the unchurched or oppressed and to integrate these experiences into assignments in courses such as ethics, evangelism, and apologetics. Students will serve as they learn and learn as they serve.

What is the rhythm like in your congregation? Learning from a sermon is good, but it can be passive learning. How can we creatively shape our worship services or Sunday adult education or small groups so that we actively discuss with others what we are learning and how we plan to apply it? Having children and teens attend Sunday school is good, but inviting them to lead parts of the worship service, to assist in the food pantry, and to serve on various ministry teams reinforces their classroom learning and produces further learning. Some of our twenty-somethings keenly desire a faith community where they can serve while they learn. Picture Augustine and Calvin nodding in agreement.

Train Leaders.

In the process of steering a child away from pre-marital sex, parents might unwittingly communicate that all sex is shameful. Similarly, a seminary might over-steer when it comes to talking about leadership. Bad models of leadership do exist in the church, and students should be warned about them! But leadership is not a dirty word. It’s a classical concern. Many church fathers wrote substantial theological essays on pastoral leadership. Since unbiblical forms of leadership were too prevalent, they taught healthy alternatives. When they read Paul’s letters, for example, they read them not as systematic theology first of all, but as videos of pastoral leadership in action. Their color commentary on Paul’s leadership moves produced some vivid sermons. Listeners could see Paul’s grace and truth as he handled the sex scandal in Corinth or addressed the works-righteousness teachers in Galatia.

Like the early church, CTS trains pastoral leaders. A new “Reading Congregations” course will help students to understand congregational systems so that they can provide effective leadership in different ministry contexts. The new curriculum also has a “Pastoral Identity” retreat and a capstone course in “Pastoral Leadership.” Students learn how God can use their personal strengths and weaknesses and their various ministry skills (preaching, pastoral care, etc.) to help a community of disciples work through conflict, learn from challenges, and mature in Christ. Throughout their entire seminary program, each student is also mentored by a pastor, because every Timothy needs a Paul.

When each Timothy is ordained, we expect that they will develop and promote the leadership abilities of others. Who is your pastor mentoring and equipping? Are elders, deacons, worship leaders, small group leaders, and others being equipped for ministry? And who are these people training? Leadership training should be reproductive. As disciples mature in the use of their gifts, they should become community catalysts, mobilizing others to participate in ministry, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Always assess, always reform.

The work of seminary professors would be much easier if we could simply assume that all students pray to God, received solid Bible training in the church of their youth, are free of narcissism, and are electrifying communicators. But that’s not reality. Students vary widely. Some are recent converts to Christianity, others have cross-cultural ministry experiences, and still others are theologically astute but wonder what possessed God to lead them toward ministry. CTS will more thoroughly assess entering students so that their programs will meet their real educational needs. Programs can be customized in a variety of ways, such as with advanced standing in courses, optional skills development seminars, flexibility in course assignments, and M.Div. specializations.

In addition to assessing individual student needs, CTS is also developing a concrete process of assessing its programs and culture more consistently. Since our assessment has shown that graduates often are not able to use their languages regularly in ministry, we have added a course in learning to use Bible software and have integrated that software through all Bible courses so that learning biblical languages is easier and more effective. In order to increase student knowledge of global Christianity and world religions, we have reshaped a history and a philosophy course. Since students need more evangelism experience, we have transferred much of a missions course to the streets, pushing students into more regular contact with the unchurched.

The “new” curriculum will never completely arrive. It will always be a work in progress, adapted in response to weaknesses revealed through assessment. Similarly, the ministries of congregations must also be always reforming. The assessment questions found in Duane Kelderman’s article (pp.3–5) can be used to improve the teaching and learning processes in our congregations.

One of the great models of constant assessing and reforming is John Calvin. When he led a massive effort to re-educate the church in the sixteenth century, Calvin kept stressing that all Christians must have a spirit of teachableness [docilitas]. This humble, eager desire to grow and improve, he insisted, was not just a virtue for students. Teachers must be teachable too. Whether seminary profs or congregational leaders, we should be eager to learn from the Word and Spirit and each other how to best form people for ministry. We’re in this church-wide education project together.

Facebook Twitter Email