How We Teach Forms People for Ministry
Published by ronaldfeenstra
Professor of Systematic Theology
We at Calvin Theological Seminary are a learning community that forms people for faithful Christian ministry. When we use the language of formation, we realize that not only what we teach but also how we teach shapes all the members of our community and forms students for ministry and work in the church and the wider society.
In light of our formational goals, we have committed ourselves to “provide a safe, healthy learning environment for all of our students and their families,” and to “support students in their formation for ministry.” We also call all members of the Calvin Seminary community to “show hospitality and compassion to one another, while avoiding behavior that undermines community” (quotations from the Calvin Seminary Student Conduct Code). In the words of our 2013 “Vision Frame,” we form “leaders who cultivate communities of disciples of Jesus Christ” by nurturing a “community of hospitality.”
Given these commitments, how can we develop a hospitable learning community that contributes to effective formation for ministry? In particular, what might such a formational community of hospitality look like in the classroom? How should we shape our teaching and learning to encourage the formation of those virtues and behaviors that should be exemplified by those who speak in God’s name? This article focuses on three key areas in which teaching and learning can serve to form people for effective ministry: hospitality to all, listening charitably, and telling the truth graciously.
HOSPITALITY TO ALL
In teaching and in ministry, we sometimes find it hard to provide a welcoming place for those who differ from us. We slip into “insider” language, jargon, and acronyms as comfortably as we step into our favorite pair of shoes. We make casual references to “what we all know” or “a Bible story your parents taught you,” or numbered denominational reports (e.g., Report 44). We try to establish connections with people who have familiar last names, but not with those whose last names are unfamiliar.
But such habits and behaviors send a message that some people belong and others do not. Those with the “right” kind of surname, denominational background, or insider knowledge get the message that they are part of the group. Those with other surnames, backgrounds, and background knowledge get the message that they do not belong.
Yet, as we realize upon reflection, faithful ministry does not treat “insiders” better than those coming from outside of a particular community. God calls all Christians, and especially those who serve in the church, to welcome and serve the “foreigner” among us (Matt 25:35; Rom 12:13; Heb. 13:2-3). Jesus calls his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). We see the benefit of a welcoming attitude in ministry that opens up to and welcomes those who come from a background different than the majority of members already present. Faithful ministry means speaking to those who are who are new to the faith, or new to our tradition, just as warmly as to those who have been members for life.
How, then, do we shape a learning community that forms people for a faithful ministry of hospitality to all? How do we form students and graduates who readily and joyfully engage with those who look, act, or behave differently than they do? At Calvin Seminary, we use a multidimensional approach. For example, we encourage students to interact with people whose background is different than their own. So students in some programs are required to do a cross-cultural internship in a context different than one they already know. All students are invited into a program that pairs North American students with those from other parts of the world. And a number of faculty and students have taught courses or tutored in a prison near campus. Faculty have also led travel courses to Angola Prison in Louisiana and to a number of other countries, all with a goal of better understanding people in other cultures.
In addition to these efforts outside the classroom, we also promote hospitality within the classroom. Our template for course syllabi says that “Calvin Seminary welcomes and respects the diversity represented among God’s people.” The template encourages faculty and students to respect the various cultures represented in our class and community and to “use gender-inclusive language in speaking and writing about humans,” all on the basis of “mutual respect and hospitality.” Faculty also show hospitality to students by making sure that all members of a class, and not just the talkative ones, are encouraged to speak. In these and other ways, we hope to impress upon all members of our community that showing respect for and hospitality to others is foundational for effective witness to the gospel.
Like hospitality, charitable listening is often in short supply. Whether as teachers or as those engaged in ministry, we often find it hard to listen charitably. Someone comes to speak to us and we quickly jump to an opinion about what they are saying. We see their appearance or hear a few words that they say and we already “know” how we will respond. Sometimes we even cut them off midsentence rather than listening through to the end of what they have to say. And if they come from a culture or perspective different than our own, we readily view them through the lenses of our own prejudices and stereotypes. Especially if we disagree with what they are saying, we listen, not to understand their point of view and the reasons for it, but to develop our own response to or refutation of their position.
Of course, such behaviors are lethal to good relationships, whether in ministry, in teaching, in friendships, or in families. People can tell when we are not listening carefully or taking their point of view seriously, and they don’t like it. If people get the impression that we are not going to listen carefully to them, they sense the arrogance in our attitude and likely will not be inclined to listen to our response to them.
But God calls all Christians to a life of humility (Rom. 12:3-5; Phil. 2:1-11). One aspect of humility is being willing to listen to and learn from others (James 1:19-20), without assuming that we already know what they will say or already have the right response to them. Christian humility also recognizes that each person we meet is the image of God, just as we are, and therefore deserves our thoughtful attention. We see the benefit of humble, charitable listening in ministry that listens long and patiently, and in ministry that realizes that sometimes we don’t really disagree but only think we do because we have not listened carefully enough to what the other person has said. Charitable listening of this sort is vital to effective Christian ministry, since ministry often involves dealing with people who see things differently from one another.
If we want our graduates to embody humble, charitable listening, what sort of learning community do we need to be? For starters, a community of hospitality, as described above, is also a community of charitable listening. Those who cultivate Christian hospitality need to be charitable listeners. We share lunch with those we don’t know well because we want to listen and learn, realizing that God might well use them to speak truth and wisdom to us. As faculty members, we meet with students to hear how God called them into ministry and to understand how we might best serve them. In fact, several faculty members at Calvin Seminary make it a regular practice to meet outside of class with all the students in their courses precisely in order to listen to what they have to say.
And how do we promote charitable listening in the classroom? We do so, in part, by having students read a diverse array of perspectives on the topic at hand, including perspectives that challenge their own preconceptions. Then we encourage one another to find the strengths in positions with which we disagree, and also to recognize the weaknesses in positions with which we agree. As we learn to find strengths even in readings with which we disagree, we gain the valuable ministry skill of listening charitably to others. Students and faculty are also encouraged, in their interactions with one another, to listen carefully to one another as God’s image bearers, looking for the wisdom and truth that the other has to offer. In many courses, group projects and small-group discussions serve this formational goal. Through these and other ways, Calvin Seminary is developing a learning community that shapes a ministry of faithful, charitable listening.
TELLING THE TRUTH GRACIOUSLY
Gracious truth-telling is at least as hard as being hospitable and listening charitably. Those engaged in teaching and ministry may find it easy to tell the truth, but not to do so graciously. And sometimes simply telling the truth is itself a challenge. When we disagree with others, we readily lapse into the sort of distortions of the views of others that are all-too-common in life, and that we see displayed, for example, in many political campaigns. Despite the Heidelberg Catechism’s interpretation of the commandment not to bear false witness, we twist someone else’s words, we engage in gossip, and we harm rather than advance our neighbor’s good name (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 112).
Such behaviors undermine our attempts to speak the truth of the gospel. Rather than serving as gracious witnesses of the gospel message, we serve our own self-interests and prejudices. When people recognize our distortions and half-truths for the lies that they are, they no longer believe us when we try to represent God’s truth.
But God calls us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), with tongues held in check (James 3:1-12). Faithful ministry does not corrupt the truth of God with lies and distortions from an unbridled tongue. God calls those who deliver the gospel of grace to do so in a way that is both gracious and truthful.
So how can we cultivate a learning community that forms people for a faithful ministry of telling the truth graciously? For starters, we show our respect for others and our desire to serve them by communicating clearly in both writing and speaking (which is no small task in itself). In addition, we must be a community marked by both grace and truth, where speaking the truth in love is the order of the day. We also need to be a community that is willing, if we see something that seems wrong, to say something. Our saying something, whether to the offender, the person hurt, and/ or someone in authority, must be motivated by a desire to stop the wrong and bring healing to the situation.
In the classroom, telling the truth graciously means giving the best interpretation of what someone else says or does, especially if we disagree. Telling the truth graciously also means encouraging students to develop their own voice and to “contribute to the class from [their] own cultural richness” (Syllabus template). Rather than expecting students simply to repeat what they say, good teachers try to equip students with tools to address new issues they will confront in ministry. An effective classroom promotes the knowledge, skills, and character that students need in order to develop their own theological and ministerial voice. For example, in many programs, students in a capstone course are given a “case study” of a difficult ministry situation. Students have time to develop a response to the case study, then present and defend that response in front of a panel of two faculty members and a local pastor. This is one of many ways in which we encourage students to develop their own gracious and truthful voice.
We at Calvin Seminary continue to work to be a learning community that is marked by the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and that forms people for effective Christian ministry. We hope that a community that exemplifies hospitality, charitable listening, and gracious truth-telling will form both faculty and students to serve as God’s faithful witnesses in church and society, thereby cultivating communities of faith that draw people to love and serve the God who shows hospitality to sinners, graciously listens to our cries for help, and tenderly speaks to us the truth of the gospel.
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