Forming Better Leaders for Today’s Churches 

Date Published

April 1, 2017

Home / Blog / Forming Better Leaders for Today’s Churches 

Published by Geoff Vandermolen

Director of Vocational Formation, Director of Doctor of Ministry

“Our interns have been life-giving to our congregation,” wrote Pastor Nate DeJong-McCarron in a recent email to the Vocational Formation Office. DeJong-McCarron, pastor at Fuller Ave CRC, went on to say that Calvin Seminary interns at Fuller have strengthened Fuller’s ministries and helped several of Fuller’s members recover their own passions for ministry. DeJong-McCarron concluded, “Interns have spurred on a culture of ministry engagement at Fuller!” 

Reflect for a moment on these descriptors: life-giving, strengthening ministries, and spurring on a culture of ministry engagement. Most ministry leaders would be honored to have these words define their ministry impact.

With that in mind, it is wonderful to hear that these are the outcomes arising from the work of a small group of first year seminarians engaged in a pilot project at Calvin Theological Seminary. The goal of this initiative is to marry Calvin Seminary’s fine academic learning with the day-to-day classroom of local church ministry. Participating students attend their regular classes and serve simultaneously in a local church setting. This process encourages students to integrate academic learning with contextual experience. This integrative strategy is being implemented with the hope that students will gain the kind of ministry experience and skills to be well formed for ministry leadership upon graduation.

The students engaged in this project were asked why they took up this challenge. Derek Ellens, an MDiv student from Canada, wrote:

When the opportunity to jump right into a pastoral internship, rather than wait for two years, was proposed to me, it was only natural for me to say yes. What also drew me to contextual learning was that I was intrigued with how I could put into practice what I was learning in the classroom immediately.

Matt Mulder serves alongside Ellens as an intern pastor at Fuller Ave CRC. Mulder offered these observations:

I have enjoyed building a practical bridge between my academics and the tangible work of ministry. I’ve also enjoyed embracing and being embraced by a church community that is glad to have me in their midst.

In addition to building bridges between the classroom and their ministry context, students are realizing that this experience has a formative impact on their life. Zachary DeBruyne, also from Canada, was able to offer this important observation:

My concurrent internship changes the way I interact with my education. I regularly incorporate and contextualize the classroom content that I am learning. It has changed me to become a more reflective, organized leader.

These statements are hopeful signs that Calvin Theological Seminary is once again improving the formation of the hearts, minds, and leadership skills of emerging leaders in the church. In fact, the findings of this pilot project have caused the faculty of Calvin Seminary to courageously create and adopt a new plan to integrate contextual and classroom learning as the new normal.

Starting in September 2017, students from both the MDiv and MA degree programs will be placed in concurrent contextual learning environments as part of each degree program. In addition to having the opportunity to learn in the classroom from astute and insightful faculty for which Calvin Seminary is already known, opportunity will also be given for students to in real time ministry aimed at increasing their engagement in theological, practical, and formative learning.

Within a concurrent contextual learning environment, each student will be paired with an on-site Vocational Mentor. This mentor will be from the concurrent site at which the student is serving, and will teach ministry skills and encourage the formation of emerging student leaders. This mentor will also process vocational assessments such as the Birkman, as well as engage in theological and evaluative conversations with the student from within the context of ministry. In addition, students will also be part of a modular, peer based Formation Groups. These Formation Groups will be a consistent group of peers with whom the student can study, learn, grow, reflect and pray. These Formation Groups will be led by a new leader each semester who is skilled in the area of ministry focus for that semester. Finally, each student will participate in deliberate vocational assessments at both the launch of their degree program and the midpoint of their studies.

Why would Calvin Seminary make changes to well established programs? In short, because we care deeply about local churches. We also care about the formation of excellent pastoral leaders who can lead with humility that is born out of the potent mix of biblical and theological training, healthy self-knowledge, and formative ministry experience. Finally, we care about helping our students meet the challenge of being well formed disciples and leaders for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.

Want to learn more about these plans? We would love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact the Vocational Formation office by emailing vocationalformation@, or simply give us a call at (616) 957-6045. We would love to share more about our passion for forming emerging leaders for God’s Kingdom.


by Geoff Vandermolen, Director of Vocational Formation 


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