God’s call doesn’t always fit with marketing plans. That makes even more challenging the perennial effort of admissions offices and boards of trustees to figure out what influences people to attend a theological school.
The influences are various, but some congregations appear to send more than their share of students for theological education. Aware of this datum, In Trust asked a sampling of students at one school, Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, what it was about their congregations that inspired them to seek theological education for ministry in the church.
No single, dominant factor emerged in their responses, but Westminster students described five qualities that seemed to characterize their congregations: strong lay ministry, a high value placed on an educated clergy, mentoring by pastors, the opportunity to assume leadership roles, and affirmation of each person’s gifts for ministry.
It’s safe to say the list might vary depending upon the ethos of the seminary. Westminster is a conservative interdenominational seminary, rooted in the Reformed tradition, with strong links to the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It serves a wider community, however, enrolling students from forty countries and a hundred denominations.
Nine out of the ten students interviewed were men, a reflection of the fact that the Presbyterian Church in America and many other denominations that send students to Westminster do not ordain women.
Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a 4,000-member congregation that places a high value on theological education, according to Cody Ray, a student at Westminster. “There was a strong emphasis on pursuing your call whatever it might be,” he said. “It was not, ‘Hey, we need pastors.’ It was, ‘What is God’s plan for you? Figure it out and go do it.’”
Ray said the size of his congregation meant plenty of opportunities for lay ministry. Members were integrated through new member classes and small groups and encouraged to learn more about how they could serve. In his own case, Ray discovered he had a gift for counseling that over time turned into a vocation. He wants to be pastor who also does counseling.
Nurturing a Call
North Darien Baptist Church in Batavia, New York, was the congregation Chris Fanatuzzo attended before coming to Westminster. While he subsequently has become a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Fanatuzzo credits the independent Baptist congregation with nurturing his call to ministry through an opportunity to teach Sunday school. He added that the congregation saw a real value to educated clergy and encouraged him to further his education.
But while some congregations are affirming, Josh and Shannon Geiger, a husband and wife who are both M.Div. students at Westminster, found out that doors aren’t always opened. They were talking to their Presbyterian Church of America pastor in Georgia about coming “under care,” the term traditionally used by Presbyterians to describe sponsorship of ordination aspirants. Their pastor agreed to meet with them, but when both turned up, he told Shannon she wasn’t welcome. Women could not be ordained in the PCA, he explained, and therefore could not come under care. There had been a misunderstanding. The Geigers thought he meant to meet with both of them. He only intended to meet with Josh.
Shannon Geiger hasn’t let the rebuff stop her from pursuing theological studies. She had realized the PCA doesn’t ordain women, but she had thought that even nonordination-stream students could come under care. She and her husband are now considering the possibility of mission work with the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. “I guess we’re not a very good example of how congregations inspire people to pursue ministry,” she said.
For some students, the sending congregation played little role in their decision. John Kraus, who came to Westminster from a congregation of the Conservative Baptist Association of America in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, had wanted to pursue theological education for years but had put it off to raise a family. While he had taken a leadership role as a lay person, he said his congregation played no particular role in encouraging his vocation to ministry. What attracted him to Westminster was the seminary’s strong academic reputation.
Nearly all the students interviewed cited strong lay ministry as important to their vocation. Matthew Baker, who has belonged to a number of congregations over the past ten years, said lay leadership was a common thread. When he decided to go to Westminster, he was a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. A number of key members of the congregation had attended Westminster, and they encouraged him to follow their example.
Encouraging members to explore their gifts is a quality cited by Benjamin Byerly, who came to seminary from Washington Community Fellowship, a youthful interdenominational congregation in Washington, D.C., that is loosely affiliated with the Mennonite tradition. “We were challenged to find out what God is calling us to do,” he said. “A lot of time was spent on that.” A board of deacons appointed for two-year terms conducted much of the congregation’s ministry. Byerly said deacons led the Sunday school and the adult education program. Members of the congregation often enrolled in evening and weekend theology classes by extension.
In large congregations that have numerous professionals on the staff, opportunities often exist for better training and supervision of lay leaders that encourages a call to ministry. That’s what Erik Bonkovsky found at Calvary Presbyterian Church, Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. He got involved in ministry by teaching Sunday school, leading Bible studies, youth work, and a program called Evangelism Explosion, which was led by a seminary student. Now that he’s a seminarian, he’s been given the opportunity to preach at evening services, attend meetings of the session (the church’s governing body), and join in an internship program.
Another large congregation, the interdenominational Church of the Saviour in Wayne, Pennsylvania, has a tradition of calling pastors who were educated at Westminster. Two of the three current ministers are Westminster graduates, as was the church’s founding pastor, Dr. William Hogan. Seminarian Jason Cuzzolina said that tradition played a role in his call to ministry and to theological education.
A number of the congregation’s 6,000 members have gone into ministry. Cuzzolina himself started in youth ministry. He said it is “exciting to see how God works” in encouraging vocations. One of the young people he worked with is now studying at Westminster a year ahead of him.
The chair of Westminster’s board, John L. Ykema, is an elder at Church of the Saviour, and Cuzzolina said, “He practically did backflips when he found out I was going to seminary.” That kind of encouragement is backed up by strong financial support for members of the congregation who attend seminary.
Recognizing gifts is also a key congregational role, according to John Currie, a pastor who is at Westminster studying for his second degree, a masters of arts in religion. Currie said a youth pastor at the Fort MacMurray Gospel Church in Fort MacMurray, Alberta, recognized his gifts and affirmed them by giving him a chance to lead a Bible school. Currie said the congregation was fairly pastor-centered, but the lack of emphasis on lay leadership didn’t prevent him from getting noticed and encouraged to pursue his ministry.
Most of the Westminster students interviewed agreed that God’s call is best established in the context of a Christian community. Ministry-centered congregations that encourage members to explore their gifts and where pastors provide mentoring and place a high value on theological education are most likely to be the congregations that end up sending members to seminary. Those congregations also have to have a mission outlook, because in sending a strong lay leader to seminary, a congregation is often losing one of its core leaders.