By Bill Weber
Bible colleges and seminaries are charged with preparing leaders for the church in an increasingly sophisticated and complex world. An institution’s value is determined by the success or failure of its graduates. A school’s visibility may be enhanced by special programs or presentations, new buildings, faculty publications, or successful sports teams, but the effectiveness of the graduates indicates whether or not a school is fulfilling its mission.
These schools are expected to serve the educational and developmental needs of students. The first goal is to provide a knowledge base in important areas: Scripture, theological concepts, leadership theories, contemporary issues facing the church and the world. Graduates should be conversant in a wide variety of subjects.
Second, graduates of these colleges and seminaries are expected to do ministry—to put the information into practice. They must possess the skills to lead the contemporary church; exegete a passage of Scripture; prepare and deliver a Bible lesson; preach; get things organized; be effective in recruiting, training, and motivating volunteers; manage conflict; and accomplish many other tasks.
But is this all? Not according to nearly 100 church leaders in five different cities Bill Bravard and I interviewed several years ago. We heard their concerns about current educational practices and the preparation of individuals for Christian leadership.
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE
The No. 1 issue they identified was the Christian character of persons entering vocational ministry. They raised frank questions of morality, integrity, honesty, and purity and offered lots of illustrations. Unfortunately, most of the examples were negative. Too often the leader had failed to live up to expectations of godliness.
These focus group members also expressed concerns about the high attrition rate in ministry. Too many leaders experience burnout because of the emotional, intellectual, and physical demands of ministry. The inability to establish and sustain meaningful relationships within the congregation or address conflict with church leaders was viewed as a spiritual problem. The idealism of a biblical understanding of the church pitted against the reality of congregational life became an untenable situation for some leaders.
This failure of men and women to persist and find fulfillment in ministry was attributed to the lack of an adequate spiritual foundation to sustain leaders through the difficult times of ministry.
These church leaders agreed the greatest challenge facing Bible colleges and seminaries was the development of Christian character. More attention needed to be given to spiritual formation, to helping students identify with the values and character of Christ, to facilitating a deeper relationship with God, and to gaining a greater understanding of discipleship.
NOT A BYPRODUCT
Spiritual formation must be intentional, not a hoped-for byproduct of course work and cocurricular activities. Establishing learning outcomes for academic work is straightforward and quite easy to measure. By contrast, discipleship is more fluid and defies quantifying. Some would argue you cannot determine whether or not the school has been effective in creating disciples.
A question Bible colleges and seminaries are asking is, “How can we recruit more students?” But it would be better for them to ask, “What motivates students to enroll in our schools today? Do they have a sense of call to ministry? What is their understanding of ministry?”
Seminary students generally understand vocational ministry, believe they are called to ministry, and enroll to prepare for service in the church. Traditional Bible college students, on the other hand, have a different perspective of the church. Their life experiences are more limited. Their church experience may have been largely confined to youth ministry activities, so they lack exposure to the breadth of congregational life.
These educational institutions must recognize the magnitude of the task at hand. They should expect students to continue to grow, mature, and display Christian values. Providing classes that teach content and skills is not enough. Schools must provide a comprehensive educational experience that focuses on the character development of their students.
Here are five suggestions:
First, be intentional about spiritual formation. Because much spiritual guidance taking place on the Bible college and seminary campus is informal, the results are uneven. The curriculum affects everyone; cocurricular activities miss some individuals; disciple-making relationships are hit and miss at best. Some faculty members connect with particular students, developing nurturing, mentoring relationships. Other students go largely unnoticed by the faculty.
Part of the Bible college experience is the spiritual highs triggered by dormitory devotions, an especially meaningful service project, a high-energy conference, or a short-term mission trip. Although valuable experiences, they only support an ongoing intentional effort to build disciples. The educational institution, and particularly the faculty, must make spiritual formation a priority. All students should have the opportunity to develop disciple-building relationships.
Several Bible colleges structure spiritual development activities around small groups or required classes for incoming students. At Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College and Seminary, all college students are required to be in spiritual formation groups led by a faculty or staff member meeting with five to seven students weekly. Tom Tanner says, “We teach our students from day one to approach their lives with an emphasis on their gifts, their passion, and their sense of calling from God.”
Second, create an atmosphere for spirituality, not some elusive concept of success. The greatest goal for Bible colleges and seminaries is to graduate men and women who have encountered Jesus Christ during their course of study and have grasped what it means to be his disciple. They should have hearts that long for God.
We need to recognize that some students who come to prepare for ministry are good church members but have a very limited understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
These schools must confront some of the contemporary notions of success in ministry. Henri Nouwen writes of the heart of a Christian leader and the temptations to seek personal recognition, to become powerful, and to yearn for acceptance in the world rather than desire the heart of Jesus. In part, spiritual formation involves the transference of values.
Young graduates enter the ministry expecting to be successful in their chosen career. But what does that mean? Have they seen leaders who have achieved some success in standards that society has imposed on the church? Are they driven by their own ego needs? Or is there a deep longing in their hearts to be men and women of God?
These campuses should be centers of learning where the greatest thing that can be known is the heart of God. An objective at Emmanuel School of Religion (Johnson City, Tennessee) states that preparation for ministry “strengthens the integration of personal faith, emotional maturity, and moral integrity.”
Third, place a greater emphasis on the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prayer, fasting, confession, meditation, submission, worship, and other corporate and personal disciplines are a means to exploring the inner life and bringing about real change in those seeking God. Christians are placing renewed emphasis on these ancient traditions. Bible college students and seminarians benefit from the practice of spiritual disciplines when they are drawn out of a society that emphasizes self-indulgence and are integrated into a community that values a contemplative approach to their relationship with God.
Fourth, make sure the curriculum supports spiritual formation. Since all students enroll in classes, the course of study is one way to address spiritual development.
Rick Beam, academic dean at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee, reports, “All of our courses intend to promote spiritual development.” He also acknowledges some courses accomplish this better than others. But Johnson’s unique approach is that course evaluations ask students about the spiritual influence of the class.
Most course objectives tend to be cognitive and content based. However, spiritual development happens when both behavioral and affective objectives are included.
Finally, recognize the role of the faculty as disciple makers who have influence beyond the transmission of knowledge and skills.
Faculty members are the key to spiritual development of students. These men and women have continuous access to the students; they develop ongoing relationships. Their tasks are to teach and guide, and in the process students learn to be accountable.
Many graduates can point to mentors who have formed, inspired, corrected, challenged, and blessed them. They remember and value the investment in their lives as students. Chris DeWelt of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, echoes what many faculty members note, “I seem to spend a lot of time doing life counseling.”
Robert Hull of Emmanuel School of Religion adds, “Most faculty members counsel with students, not only about academics, but also in spiritual growth issues.”
The reality is that many Bible colleges and seminaries assign their faculty members a heavy teaching load. While class preparation, grading, academic advising, and meetings diminish the time to develop mentoring relationships with students, exit interviews consistently indicate student satisfaction is greatest when faculty members are connected with their students. Bible colleges and seminaries will serve their students’ needs better by facilitating more frequent interaction with students.
Every Christian’s experience is unique. Students come into the formal educational setting at a Bible college or seminary with a personal spiritual story. Those stories continue to unfold as they progress through their educational journey. Bible colleges and seminaries have the unique opportunity and responsibility to intentionally develop the spiritual lives of these students.
Bill Weber teaches spiritual formation at Cincinnati Christian University where he serves as professor of practical ministries.
Textbooks I’ve Used to Teach Spiritual Formation
By Bill Weber
Among the many good books on spiritual formation in print, here are a few that I have used as textbooks for a seminary class.
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)
Written 30 years ago, this Christian classic remains in print. After an excellent opening chapter on the spiritual disciplines, Foster devotes a chapter to each of the following: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship (HarperOne, 2006)
For three decades, Willard has written extensively in the area of spirituality, spiritual formation, and Christian discipleship. This 2006 volume compiles some of his best writings on spiritual development from 1988 to the present.
Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperCollins, 1991)
This is Willard’s basic work on the spiritual life, spiritual disciplines, their practice, and implications for discipleship.
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress, 2002)
Willard examines the inward life and suggests that transformation into the likeness of Christ is not only possible, but expected. Too many Christians do not display the character of Christ because they have not experienced the revolutionary makeover that comes from being a mature disciple.
Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be With God (InterVarsity, 2008)
Now in its third edition, with Lavonne Neff and Ashley Wiersma listed as coauthors, this practical guide continues to help thousands of Christian leaders balance their personal lives with the demands of ministry. Although theologically light, and some will take exception with some of Hybels’s views on prayer, this volume provides useful ideas for daily Bible reading, prayer, and reflection.
Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Zondervan, 2001)
This volume is a comprehensive and systematic textbook for the study of spirituality from a biblical perspective with application for spiritual development of the individual.
Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad, 1989)
Nouwen, a Catholic priest, left his teaching position at Harvard to minister with a community for the mentally handicapped. This short work written 20 years ago deals with the heart of a Christian leader and the temptations to seek personal recognition, to become powerful, and to yearn for acceptance in the world rather than to desire the heart of Jesus.