Calling. Vocation. Ordained ministry. Christian service.
These are the stock words of our work in theological education. And yet their meanings are changing.
Perhaps not their literal meanings. North American theological schools still look for students who have a call to serve God in some way that sets them apart from their peers -- generally as leaders of congregations, but also as teachers and professors, religious sisters, chaplains, denominational officials, mission organization staff members, directors of Christian education, musicians, and lay leaders of many varieties. Theological schools have modeled flexibility, creating popular new programs and degrees to train people for these many roles. And they have reveled in their broader calling to nurture not just pastors for one denomination, but a variety of kinds of leadership for interdenominational and perhaps even postdenominational Christian service.
But variety and diversity sometimes arrive at the expense of clarity of purpose. A multiplicity of degree programs attracts a student body with many interests -- aspiring worship leaders to the master of music degree, future professors to the M.A. in theology, retirees with an enthusiasm for the Bible to nondegree certificates in Christian studies. Students increasingly arrive at the seminary door with a desire to serve God or their fellow people in some vague way, but often they aren't sure whether they want to lead a congregation. Do theological schools have a responsibility to help them? To be sure, boards take on the responsibility for ensuring that their schools achieve clarity about mission and vision, but can they also be responsible for vocational clarity among graduating or even incoming students?
Theological schools admit men and women who are not simply responding to economic pressure to earn a living, but who also recognize a spiritual calling, the seeds of which began germinating long before a decision was made to earn a theological degree. As such, these schools are in a unique position -- connected but very separate from the communities they serve. Theological institutions, of course, evaluate potential students, but they have little control over the church experiences (or lack thereof) of those who apply. While the quality of education a school provides and its reputation may open doors after graduation, schools have little control over how churches will receive their alumni.
Perhaps that is why board members must think about how seminaries prepare their students vocationally -- not only how they prepare them theoretically and practically, but how they help students develop a vocational identity. This means taking into consideration how the experiences students had before graduate school shapes their understanding of the church and recognizing that the leadership needs of the church are continually evolving.
Putting a face on vocation
According to a recent Auburn Center study (see "Field Notes" on page 15), Christian and Jewish theological schools in the United States are generally doing a good job of routing students into pastoral ministry. A high percentage of those who entered seminary in the 1990s with vague vocational goals left with a desire to work in a congregational setting.
The Rev. Mark Peake is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey. Just 10 years ago, he was taking his final load of courses at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and preparing to graduate with a hard-earned master of divinity degree. The road from seminary graduate to solo pastor and head of staff of a small congregation has been a formative one. For a time he worked at an evangelical camp in California as a staff chaplain and later as part of the camp's administrative staff. While on the West Coast, he circulated his personal information form (PIF, a Presbyterian resume) and soon became an associate pastor at Grosse Ile Presbyterian Church in Michigan. These experiences greatly influenced his understanding of ministry. He credits seminary, however, with giving him the basic tools he's needed to become an effective pastor.
Learning biblical languages, principles of exegesis, church history, and how to think theologically were just part of the story. When Peake first considered ministry as a vocation, he was a junior at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Involved with an evangelical fellowship on campus, he spent a summer working at a summer camp in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Up to that point, he had been planning on a career in law, but one day, he found himself considering seminary, and there was an aha moment. "There was this mental connection, a click, when I realized it wasn't something I was just interested in, but rather, it felt like something I was supposed to do," he explained.
When Peake went off to seminary, his vocational goals were still fluid. At first, his experience with youth ministry had him thinking of earning a master of arts in youth ministry rather than the master of divinity. Eventually he chose the M.Div., and while in graduate school, he discovered new gifts and felt others reconfirmed. By the time he graduated, what began as a roughly defined desire to serve God had become a full-fledged call to congregational ministry.
Peake remembers moments of questioning his calling while in school. At some of these times, encouraging words from professors and others confirmed what he felt to be the moving of the Holy Spirit, and his own vocational identity developed from all these experiences.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches and nearly all Protestant denominations have well-defined steps that lead toward ordination. As a Presbyterian, Peake was in close contact with his denomination throughout his years in seminary. His Reformed tradition, like others, teaches that three things confirm a person's call to ministry: personal inclination, relevant giftedness, and the recognition and affirmation of the community. Peake had the inclination, and his gifts for ministry were tested and confirmed by his seminary education and field experience. The recognition and affirmation of the community is officially a denominational matter, but he found much affirmation in seminary as well. "It was encounters with specific people in seminary that reaffirmed my call," he says. Friends, professors, and pastors he worked with all played a role in helping shape his vocational identity.
Today, Peake sits on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in his presbytery, supervising students as they go through seminary and the ordination process. During his own discernment process and education, his committee liaison had become a good friend, and now he wants to be able to help nurture future ministers.
Vocation in its historic context
Dr. Malcolm Warford is professor of the practice of ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, and the director of the Lexington Seminar, which offers faculty development opportunities to Protestant seminaries in the United States. As such, he has long studied ministry in both its contemporary and historic shapes. The vocation of ministry is not just a personal decision made by individuals, he says. The community, however defined, has much to say about whether particular people minister and how they accomplish that ministry. And there is, of course, a hard-to-define but essential spiritual calling as well.
The Christian call to ministry, he points out, is a large part of the meaning of baptism. "In the earliest baptismal services, a person was baptized into the body of Christ," Warford explained. "At the same time, there was a sense of being sent on a mission, so baptism was both an inclusion into the community and also a kind of authorization for ministry."
Board members must think about how seminaries prepare their students vocationally - not only how they prepare them theoretically and practically, but how they help students develop a vocational identity.
From the earliest records of the Christian church, new leaders were culled from within congregations. Young people deemed suitable for full-time ministry were identified by older and wiser leaders, either from within the ranks of the clergy or within the larger community of laity. But within recent decades, Warford says that something has changed.
"A generation ago, people coming to seminary came out of a whole network of experiences and communities that nurtured and evaluated them, and in one sense encouraged them into these roles of leadership," says Warford. Most young people had attended parochial schools or Sunday schools, they had served as assistants during worship or as guardians of younger children in the congregation's nursery, and they had attended religious camps and participated in youth groups.
"Now, it's not uncommon for a large number of seminary students to have had very little experience in the actual community of the church," says Warford. Instead, they have more experience outside the church walls -- in evangelical youth groups or Newman Centers, or mentored by coaches or teachers. Their vetting for ministry, if it has taken place at all, has often come from an ordination committee rather than from the lifelong nurture of a single congregation.
There are many possible causes for this change. Warford suggests that congregations and denominations need to do a better job at encouraging people to live out their ministry in the day-to-day world. "I am struck by the extent to which we're not real adept at helping someone who all of a sudden discovers the power of the Gospel -- helping them understand the way in which that can transform the work they do as a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or anything else," he says. "Because the general commonplace is that if the Gospel has meaning for you, you have to go to seminary and become a minister or a pastor to express this new sense of faith." That means that seminaries attract enthusiastic believers who may or may not be suitable for full-time ministry.
New students tend to be more individualistic in their approach to ministry, Warford says. Rather than being borne out of a community, these new students see ministry as something they need to bring to a congregation, rather than understanding that their role is principally to equip the congregation to carry out its communal mission.
In some ways, seminaries have participated in creating this changing student body. "I can remember when seminaries began to appoint recruitment officers -- it's been within the past 30 years," said Dr. Warford. "In an ideal world, seminaries shouldn't really 'recruit' students on their own. They ought to be receiving students -- evaluating them, of course, for admission, but doing that in partnership with the church, not doing it in the way your typical liberal arts college does, in terms of recruitment and cultivation." Of course, he admits, seminaries are under great financial pressures, and enrollment numbers are a big piece of the financial success of an institution.
Given that board members are sometimes geographically removed from the schools they serve and often well connected in their own communities, they are particularly well placed to influence congregations and denominational leaders to become more active in identifying and raising up leaders from within the community. At a very basic level, board members can get involved in their own congregations -- talking with pastors about the need to cultivate the next generation of ministers and working with church leaders to identify and nurture these individuals.
Help on the journey
One organization that helps identify, nurture, and support young people with a gift for pastoral ministry is the Fund for Theological Education (FTE). Established in 1954 to "attract promising but otherwise undecided candidates to seminary education," the fund received a significant grant in 1998 that made it possible to expand its mission to "advocate excellence and diversity in pastoral ministry and theological scholarship." FTE helps students with grants for graduate-level theological education -- some who plan to teach in theological schools and others who are preparing for ministry. The fund also encourages young people to consider ministry as a vocation, working in partnership with congregations, denominations, and schools to identify leadership candidates from high schools, colleges, faith-based volunteer year-of-service programs, and seminaries.
Melissa Wiginton is the vice president for ministry programs and planning at FTE. In that role she has listened to the stories of hundreds of young people considering vocations in ministry. Wiginton agrees that many students pursue a theological education with only vague vocational goals and sees this as part of a larger cultural reality. She makes reference to the October 9, 2007, New York Times op-ed column by David Brooks titled "The Odyssey Years." "Adolescence lasts longer in this culture than it used to," she says. Students in their mid to late 20s have not yet achieved many of the hallmarks of adulthood. Career decisions are still somewhere on the horizon, and there is a "roaming quality to life," as she describes it.
Students in this stage of life, she explained, may experience an impulse to ministry. "Seminaries have the opportunity to be companions with these students as they struggle to discern what kind of ministry they are called to do," she said.
Working at FTE since 1998, Wiginton has seen attention to the need for pastoral leadership grow as congregations feel the impact of a generation of ministers retiring. "When a pastoral search committee can look through a whole stack of excellent resumes and find a candidate they want, people don't pay attention to the need to cultivate leaders," she says. "But when they have fewer choices -- both in quantity and quality -- people in the pews do start to be concerned. This is why it's important for churches to be continuously vigilant about developing leaders. When qualified candidates are not available, it's too late to start looking to your young people to fill the gap -- it takes time to grow a leader."
Another concern, one especially relevant to theological school board members and administrators, is the changing leadership needs of churches. "This is an exciting time for board members to be asking themselves a lot of questions," Wiginton said. "We need a diversity of institutions to prepare leaders because the church is so diverse. And so board members can be asking, 'What is the vocation of this institution?'"
Most seminary boards would say that their vocation is to train church leaders, but do they have a clear sense of the kind of leaders they are trying to create? If they want gifted, interesting, and amazing students to become gifted, interesting, and amazing young leaders, Wiginton says, schools have to ask themselves what they are offering to support these gifted, interesting, and amazing young people as they discern a vocation for ministry. Students coming to seminary following a vague "impulse to ministry" need some direction. They may be invigorated and engaged when they are ladling soup at a shelter for the homeless or teaching a confirmation class or visiting an elderly person or bringing Bibles to a remote village in a faraway country. But she says that seminaries "need to figure out how to imbue that activity with the profound wealth of theological education."
At a very basic level, board members can get involved in their own congregations - talking with pastors about the need to cultivate the next generation on ministers and working with church leaders to identify and nurture these individuals.
Some observers are describing Christianity in North America as increasingly postdenominational. An increase in parachurch organizations, intercongregational ministry organizations, and nondenominational congregations suggests that denominational loyalty is waning. But what does this mean for theological education? Denominationally affiliated schools have already noticed that students are often more interested in the school's geographical location than its relationship with a particular denomination. Some find that fewer than 10 percent of their students are members of the school's sponsoring denomination.
This, of course, means that schools need to reconsider their own institutional vocation. Can they continue to train up leaders to fill particular roles when churches are calling for different kinds of leaders?
Multicultural, interdenominational education
One example of this is found at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Founded in 1784 by the Reformed Church in America, the school used to attract mostly Reformed students who went on to serve that denomination. But for the last 20 years, the seminary's evening program has been attracting more and more students from the surrounding community -- students not affiliated with the Reformed Church in America but with a wide variety of other denominations like Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Methodists. No longer mostly Dutch, the student body reflects the diversity of community, including a strong showing of Koreans, African-Americans, and Latinos. No longer exclusively young, single, and male, seminarians tend to be older, with many already involved in full- or part-time ministry.
Boards should take the time to understand these changes. They ought to ask themselves if their historic mission and heritage can be preserved while the school changes to meet the needs of new students.
The shift in demographics created a challenge for the school. Is the mission of New Brunswick Theological Seminary to educate leaders for the Reformed Church in America, or is it to form leaders for the wider church? The school has moved decisively toward the broader mission, changing to meet the needs of the new students. Working with leaders from local denominations, New Brunswick has added courses that serve the particular needs of Baptists and Presbyterians -- classes that teach denominational polity and history. Moreover, African Methodist Episcopal students can take four to five classes that help prepare them for ministry in their denomination.
Dr. Mark Tyler, pastor of Macedonia AME Church in Camden, New Jersey, is on the board of the seminary and chairs the Institutional Structures Committee, which is creating a strategic plan for the school. Though Reformed students have become a minority, Tyler said the Reformed Church in America remains committed to preserving the school as a center for theological education in central New Jersey. He is just one of many board members who come from outside the sponsoring denomination. The non-Dutch, non-Reformed board members not only serve as leaders, but they act as liaisons to their respective denominations.
As Tyler and the board create a strategic plan, the needs of the student body are being carefully considered. For example, they are asking if the faculty is representative of the community and if future students will find professors that match their own cultural and theological backgrounds.
But the board has many more questions to grapple with as well. If the nature of vocation is changing, then boards should take the time to understand these changes. They ought to ask themselves if their historic mission and heritage can be preserved while the school changes to meet the needs of new students. And of course they need to know where the money will come from. At what point should other denominations start contributing to the operating budget of a school preparing their future leaders for ministry?
The challenges are many, but a clear understanding of a theological school's own vocation, along with an active attention to the changing needs of churches and students alike, will keep leadership aimed in the right direction.
FUND FOR THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION MINISTRY FELLOWS
Chandra Allen Payne, 24
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Vanderbilt University Divinity School
At Davidson College, Payne decided to participate in one of the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, a national initiative supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. "I looked at the program and at first said 'no way,'" remembers Payne, who had plans to become a teacher. But she later felt an urge to apply. "I never thought I would be in ministry," she says, "but it seemed like something incredible to explore. I've only known one definition of ministry, and I wanted to know about other paths."
David Chang, 24
United Methodist Church
Wesley Theological Seminary
The son of Korean-American missionaries, Chang grew up in Bangladesh and India, where he attended boarding school. After studying psychology at the University of Illinois, he worked for a year at a psychiatric hospital in a teen residential ward. "It was spiritually and emotionally hard," Chang remembers. "I found myself searching for a reason and a purpose for their suffering . . . for evidence that God was still in control of their lives." Now he is preparing for ministry, planning to work with Korean-American youth.
Kara Reagan, 28
American Baptist Church
Eden Theological Seminary
A second-year seminary student, Reagan works closely with youth groups and spent the past year as a hospital chaplain. She feels "as if I'm being led toward campus ministry, maybe even college chaplaincy," and to other places where she can continue to explore life's big questions with a group of faithful seekers. "My passion is to challenge others -- both believer and nonbeliever -- to consider Christ, the nature of the church and to find their role in it."
Zac Willette, 34
Roman Catholic Church
Weston Jesuit School of Theology
After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in elementary education and a self-created service learning minor, Willette headed to a primary school on a large Arizona reservation. There he taught kindergarten and learned a fair amount of the native language. Teaching 24 full-daykindergartners wasn't all he did. Willette worked to help found a college prep high school that opened a year later. The first of its kind in Arizona, the school integrates tribal language and history into the curriculum and is still going strong. His future plans: ministry that promotes education and justice.
Jon Bergstrom, 26
Evangelical Covenant Church
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
While a student at Gustavus Adolphus College, Bergstrom spent his junior year in India, where he studied and worked with a community development nonprofit. Along with other student volunteers, Bergstrom says he gained new perspective on "social involvement and how the Gospel calls us to work for peace and justice. It took me outside my comfort zone. But it also showed me how power works within Christianity -- how we are called to be servants and to give away power to others."
Photos by Allison Shirreffs