The Spirit's Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry, by Malcolm L. Warford with Kenneth Huggins (Alban, 2011, 227 pp., $18)

Five experienced, talented pastors sat around a table, talking about ministry. Out of school for 20 years or more, they were participating in a project organized by the Association of Theological Schools, (ATS) examining the influence of theological education on ministry.

Most participants admitted that some of their theological education had a short shelf life. The most durable part of their theological study was the biblical and theological framework they learned. After decades of ministry, they were still working with these fundamental theological and biblical structures.

When I read The Spirit's Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry by Malcolm L. Warford, I thought again about the conversations that were part of that ATS project.

The Spirit's Tether chronicles the reflections of eight pastors from seminary days through 30 years of ministry. The project began in the late 1970s, when Warford was director of educational research at Union Seminary in New York, and conducted annual interviews with 17 Union students. The open-ended conversations invited students to reflect broadly on their call to ministry, backgrounds, and experiences at Union.

The interviews were taped, transcribed, and archived. Four of these students left seminary before graduating, and three graduated but chose professions outside of ministry. Thirty years later, of the 10 who graduated and entered pastoral work, one had died and one retired. Warford gathered the remaining eight for a seminar in which they read and reflected on the transcripts of their seminary interviews, and then discussed the ensuing years of ministry practice.

Seldom have theological educators had this kind of witness from ministers — frank discussions of who they were as students, how seminary influenced them, and how decades in ministry have changed them.

Warford lets his subject tell their own stories and, in addition, he weaves a coherent narrative that interprets their seminary experiences and reflects on the blessings and burdens of full careers in pastoral ministry.

The book's title is drawn from a hymn text associated with Union Seminary, "Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether." The hymn's last stanza offers this prayer:

All our meals and all our living
Make as sacraments of thee,
That be caring, helping, giving,
We may true disciples be.
Alleluya! Alleluya!
We will serve thee faithfully.

These stories from eight former seminarians bear nuanced and reflective witness of those lines. This is not a scientific study of the influences of theological education, and a few students from one seminary at one point in history do not comprise a basis for broad generalizations. These reflections are, however, faithful to these students, their education, and their work of ministry. While they are only eight stories, they are similar to the stories that pastors often tell. They resonate with what I heard many pastors — educated in other seminaries in other times — share in those ATS meetings several years ago.

I found the book informative and moving.

Seminary education is formational, not just informational, education. It gets into students' hearts as well as their heads. Most students do not make the decision to come to seminary lightly, and most pastors do not stay in congregational ministry for 30 years without thoughts of leaving. Warford's book offers a unique account of why these stayed, and how they embody the hymn so closely associated with their seminary.

The Spirit's Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry, by Malcolm L. Warford with Kenneth Higgins (Alban, 2011, 227 pp., $18).

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