Is your theological school board paying adequate attention to spiritual formation? Theological school boards have ultimate responsibility for every asset and every activity at the school that they serve. That includes the spiritual lives of students. But how can a board assess whether spiritual formation is being addressed adequately?
I have found that using a check list based on five indicators of institutional health can be an enormous help in responding to this question.
Mission. Are spiritual formation and development integral to our institutional mission of preparing students for ministry in the church and the world? Is our vision for formation — the ideal of the mature Christian who becomes a mature religious leader — consistent with our theological heritage and the current expression of our overall mission? How we accomplish spiritual formation reflects the religious location and ethos of our institution, so we must always ask: Is our vision for spiritual maturity consistent with our mission and our particular theological heritage?
Faculty buy-in. The only hope for genuine transformation within the lives of students is for faculty to embrace this agenda, understand how it is integral to the mission of the institution, and teach to this vision. Faculty can play a determinative role only if they recognize that they have a critical role in spiritual formation rather than viewing spiritual formation as something that happens outside the classroom. Faculty must embrace the principle that the academic process itself, the work of teaching and intellectual enquiry, is an essential dimension of spiritual formation.
Liturgy and worship. Encountering God through worship is an integral dimension of theological education. Other than the crucial role of faculty, nothing is so vital as worship to the process by which a theological school embraces an agenda of formation for students. For faculty and students alike, the process of teaching and learning should be infused with the presence of God. We view worship as an essential counterpart to the classroom — we seek to have worship that is informed by learning, and learning animated by worship.
Spiritual disciplines. Good theological schools recognize how essential it is that students learn, through practice, the essential spiritual disciplines through which they will grow in grace. The seminary setting is the ideal opportunity for students to be exposed to and to learn these practices, which should become a core part of their lives as religious leaders. For many students, seminary is the ideal season for beginning a habit of working with a spiritual director.
Professional counseling. Schools that take spiritual formation seriously also recognize that many students face significant obstacles to personal formation and development. They provide opportunities for students to receive professional counseling so that these challenges are addressed earlier rather than later, and ideally before a graduate assumes parish and congregational responsibilities.
It is critical that board members ask themselves, “Does our school take spiritual formation seriously? Do we have mechanisms in place for monitoring and assessing effectiveness in the formation of students?”
But there is an additional challenge: What about newer forms of education? What about the part-time or online student? Schools committed to spiritual formation must address the needs of nontraditional, nonresidential students as well as their on-campus counterparts. The challenges of spiritual formation for off-campus students can be much greater, but the stakes are high as well, especially as ever greater numbers of students opt for part-time and web-based education.