Despite the recent proliferation of spiritual and character formation training within seminary programs, it is still hard — and according to some, nearly impossible — for seminary leaders to answer a key question about the education their institutions offer: Can they accurately assess the success of formation training? Is it really making an impact on the spiritual, character, and virtue development of seminarians who will one day lead future churches and denominations? 

These questions lie at the heart of the mission of theological schools. Yet according to researcher David Wang, the answers are “largely unknown, especially from an empirical standpoint.” He believes that, for the most part, seminary leaders are ill equipped to accurately and robustly assess whether the education they provide brings about positive changes in the character and spiritual vitality of their students. 

Wang and his colleague Peter Hill are both professors of psychology at Biola University. With funding from the John Templeton Foundation for the last three years, the two of them and a team of researchers have piloted a spiritual/character development assessment instrument for seminarians at five schools. The instrument was designed to help seminaries and religious educators more thoughtfully and effectively measure the growth their students undergo in virtue, character, and spiritual vitality. Participating schools represent a variety of faith traditions: mainline Protestant (Boston University School of Theology), nondenominational evangelical Protestant (Talbot School of Theology at Biola University), Baptist (George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University), and Catholic (the Benedictine Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon and the diocesan Saint Mary Seminary in Ohio).

In July 2019, after receiving an additional $1.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Wang’s research team began the next phase of their project. For the next three years, they will be extending the scope of their data collection by including students from 15 additional North American seminaries. They also have entered into a formal collaboration with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) to help faculty members at ATS member schools better shape the character and spiritual lives of their students. The team is also continuing to hone the mobile app they built to collect the data and will be meeting with stakeholders to discuss their findings and troubleshoot challenges to their efforts.

Pie-in-the-sky questions

The project grew out of conversations Wang and Hill had been having with their colleague Steve Porter, professor of spiritual formation and theology at Biola — who is now a co-leader of the project with them — and Rich Bollinger, program officer at the John Templeton Foundation. 

“We started with a pie-in-the-sky question,” Wang says. “We wanted to know whether character and spiritual development are even related to each other, and if so, how? Are people who are spiritually mature more humble, for instance, or do they have more empathy?” 

The team was familiar with the extensive research on character development and virtue ethics that had been done in recent years in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology — some of which included the creation of questionnaires and methods not only to define virtues, but to measure them. Hill himself has studied the virtue of humility and developed more than 10 validated tools to measure it. 

“The timing seemed right to jump into a cross-disciplinary project to bring this recent research to bear on the world of theological education,” says Wang, who, in addition to his academic work, is formation pastor at One Life City Church in Fullerton, California. While the cross-disciplinary groundwork provided a strong foundation for the formation assessment project, Wang and Hill and their team encountered plenty of complications during the early phases of their project, not the least of which was how various seminaries define formation and how they assess it.

Accrediting standards emphasize learning and formation alike

Around the same time, but independent of the Biola researchers’ project, ATS began surveying faculty at more than 130 member schools about formation at their institutions, including how formation is defined and assessed, and who conducts the assessment. Jo Ann Deasy, director of institutional initiatives at ATS, reported the key findings of the survey in an October 2018 article in Colloquy Online. The survey found that only 59 percent of the responding schools had a formal definition of “personal and spiritual formation,” but 96 percent had formal learning goals related to “personal and spiritual formation” for their M.Div. and M.A. degrees. It can be difficult to assess something that’s not clearly defined, but ATS now expects its accredited schools to define what formation means to them. 

The survey results are informing the redevelopment of the ATS accrediting standards — a once-in-a-generation project that is taking place right now. One of the documents drafted by the redevelopment task force, “Key Principles for Good Graduate Theological Education,” articulates the following:

Good theological education prioritizes student learning and student formation. Good theological education demonstrates sound pedagogy and appropriate student learning outcomes in the context of a cohesive curriculum, and sees formation, even transformation, as central to the student experience.

Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, rector-president of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, is chair of the ATS standards redevelopment subcommittee on formation. While the work of the subcommittee is confidential until it rolls out a first draft of the redeveloped standards in 2020, Vaccari says that the issue of formation is significant and has captured interest across the landscape of theological education. “Good graduate theological education carries a genuine, integral formational/transformational component,” he says. “Its impact has multiple dimensions on the person in his or her diverse lived contexts.”

According to Deasy, a greater emphasis on accountability in discernment regarding formation will benefit both the students being assessed and those doing the assessment. At most schools, formal assessment of formation occurs in required courses and field education settings, the ATS survey found. Furthermore, schools reported that a wide range of personnel assess a student’s personal and spiritual formation — academic deans, formation-specific faculty members, field education supervisors, faculty, and even other students. 

Also, 90 percent of responding schools report that they use some kind of assessment tool and almost three-quarters of that group use a tool created in-house. For nearly half of that group, Deasy reported, the in-house instrument is the only tool they use, but other schools use instruments like Myers-Briggs, Spiritual Gifts Assessment, Enneagram, and StrengthsFinder.

New app measures the development of virtues

This brings us back to Wang and his team, who connected early on with ATS about their project, realizing they “were tapping into a real felt need.” In her Colloquy article, Deasy reported that the 41 percent of schools that didn’t have a formal definition of formation were evenly distributed across ecclesial family, enrollment, country, and institutional structure. The exception was Catholic seminaries and theological schools, where an emphasis on formation has long been mandated by the Vatican. (For more on Catholic formation, see “New program helps ‘form the formators’ in Catholic seminaries” in the Spring 2018 issue of In Trust.)

The Biola researchers discovered a dynamic similar to the one Deasy found. “We needed to take a step back from our pie-in-the-sky questions,” Wang says. Many of the institutions they contacted hadn’t clearly thought through their institutional perspective on formation. “This was a chance for seminaries to look at questions like, What defines spiritual maturity? How do we expect people to grow while they are here? What do we expect to observe in them?” Conversation about the nature of formation is now part of Wang’s agenda for the project. 

In the current phase of their research, Wang and his colleagues are collecting longitudinal data from seminarians with the app they developed. They are going to measure humility, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, joy, patience, kindness, self-control, honesty, and alterity — and the growth of these virtues over time.

“Empirical scientific methods do have limitations,” Wang says, noting that diverse student populations — in terms of age or experience in work and ministry, for instance — may follow different formation trajectories. “At the same time, the field of psychology has developed many instruments that may be helpful for gauging formation of seminary students.” 

They’ll also collect data from 10 percent of faculty members at ATS-accredited seminaries about the degree to which they feel adequately equipped to engage in formative work with students. The researchers are also interested in the general seminary environment and are taking an “ecological approach” to institutions. 

“What started as a pure research project has really broadened,” Wang says. “The data is central, and we’re positioning the data to speak to the larger issue of what formation means to each school, and how they measure it. We want to be able to say to schools: ‘Given how you define formation, how are you going to assess what you’re doing and if you’re accomplishing what you set out to do?’”

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