A naked man wandered into a worship service. One of our students, the church’s associate pastor, had to diagnose and respond to this awkward situation. A teenaged boy took his life after an argument with his mother. Another of our students provided pastoral care, including meeting with the deceased boy’s siblings to help them process their loss.
A pastor behaved unethically. One of our students, a member of that church, had to confront the pastor and help his church’s leadership team manage the consequences. Spiritually challenging ministry dilemmas like these happen to seminary students, not just to graduates.
A student’s spouse was hospitalized with serious depression. Another student’s spouse gave birth to a child with numerous physical challenges. A student lost her secular job, meaning she could no longer afford tuition. Another student lost his part-time ministry position when his church declined economically, and he had to scramble for the resources to stay in school. Personal difficulties like these are common among seminary students.
Spiritual challenges — ministerial and personal — are part of life, thus part of life for seminary students. We often imagine that seminary is an idyllic phase of life. For most students, though, the years of preparing for ministry include problems that test a person’s spirituality at its deepest levels. God prepares people for ministry challenges by sending challenges, not merely by giving them time to read and talk about life’s problems.
Board members often focus on issues such as finances, buildings, and personnel. The spiritual development of students seems far from normal board agenda concerns, but schools suffer when this critical aspect of seminary life is ignored by those in charge of governance. What can board members do to help students with their spiritual formation?
First, they can pray for the students. They can ask God to protect, guide, and give wisdom to all who take classes at their institution. Board members can ask God to sustain students through discouragement, and to motivate them when life is hard. Leaders in governance can ask for prayer cards or some other means of providing personal information about individuals who can be prayed for by name.
Second, board members can insist that their school’s curriculum include spiritual formation, both as a discipline and as a mindset. Spiritual formation can be centered in a particular course, but it should also pulsate throughout the entire academic program. This does not compromise academic excellence or demanding intellectual standards. It simply reminds academic leaders their work is transformational, not simply informational.
Third, board members can support co-curricular activities as part of their school’s total effort to shape students for ministry. Conferences on marriage and personal finance, retreats focusing on moral purity and ethical responsibility, and activities designed to promote community and train people to live and work together are not superfluous to the seminary experience. Make sure these activities are included in your school’s strategic plans and budget.
Board members make many contributions to a school’s success. They provide financial support and business acumen. They share wisdom and lend expertise. And crucially, they realize that their oversight and responsibility extend to spiritual support, and that they can and should make a genuine contribution to spiritual life at their schools, and to the spiritual formation of students preparing for ministry.