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Forming future pastors holistically

The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is an accrediting agency for 270 graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada. According to its website, ATS member schools enroll around 74,500 students.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an ATS conference where it was reported that only 50 percent of Master of Divinity students in ATS schools of theology were interested in parish ministry. Does that shock you? It shocked me! I assumed that those who were in a Master of Divinity program were actively pursuing parish ministry. But I quickly learned that this is not the case in many of our fellow graduate schools of theology.

During the conference, Daniel Aleshire, who has served as the executive director of ATS, made a presentation about the formation of pastors for parish ministry. He challenged the participants to think about how we can move from being simply managers of ideas to forming pastors who care for the hearts and souls of God’s people. For most of the conference participants this was a revolutionary idea.

They praised Aleshire for his vision and forward thinking of forming theology students not only in intellectual matters but also in spiritual, relational, emotional and cultural aspects of ministry. I sat in amazement as they discussed, with great passion, the various ways schools of theology could form pastors beyond the intellectual. I was astounded by all of this because at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, we already take this approach to pastoral formation.

I came away from that ATS conference with a new appreciation for our Lutheran universities and seminaries. Yes, we do spend substantial time teaching our students about Scripture and Lutheran doctrine. The intellectual knowledge they gain while being at the Seminary is what makes them theologians. But we also spend significant time shaping and forming them spiritually, vocationally, relationally, culturally, physically, emotionally and financially.

Concordia Seminary has been and continues to shape and form pastors holistically for parish ministry.

Gary Harbaugh states in his book Pastor as Person, “Pastors who have never been taught to learn from their own feelings often approach interpersonal situations as problems to be solved rather than people to be served.” A seminary that focuses only on the intellect will produce great theologians that can solve theological problems. But they will be poor pastors if they lack the ability to serve God’s people. Concordia Seminary shapes and forms students to be pastoral theologians. They are top-notch theologians who can preach and teach the Word of God with authority. They also are top-notch pastors because they have learned how to practice that theology. In particular, the revised curriculum that took effect in fall 2017 for our residential pastoral students has identified the following eight curricular goals to help students gain insight into their personal and spiritual identity:

Spiritual health

Our identity is rooted in our Baptism. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7 ESV). Students are encouraged to live out their baptismal identity by remembering their Baptism, attending daily chapel, reading God’s Word daily, praying daily, and practicing Confession and Absolution.

Relational health

The relationship we have with God (Baptism) shapes the relationship we have with our neighbor. We see our neighbors as people whom God has redeemed. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4 ESV). Students are encouraged to build relationships with their neighbors, pray with their neighbors and bring the Gospel of Christ to their neighbors.

Vocational health

Students fulfill many different roles or vocation. One of those vocations is being a student. Other vocations might include being an employee, being a husband and father, and being a vicar. According to Luther, the purpose of vocation is to serve our neighbor. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:8-10 ESV). Students are encouraged to live out their vocations according to God’s will as they learn how to balance their many responsibilities.

Cultural health

Scripture is clear that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23 ESV) but “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Students are encouraged to be aware of their own presuppositions about various cultures. The culture of a rural congregation is different from that of an inner-city congregation. The approach to ministry might look different but the Word of God never changes. Students learn to apply the Word of God to various cultural settings.

Emotional health

Culturally speaking, German Lutherans may get uneasy talking about emotions. But understanding and managing emotions is important. “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty” (Prov. 16:32 ESV). “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22 ESV). Students are encouraged to be aware of and manage their own emotions. They also learn how to identify the emotions of those they are called to serve so that they can provide appropriate care.

Physical health

Sometimes in ministry we neglect the care of our own bodies. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20 ESV). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing a specific issue of immorality relating to one’s body. But the encouragement to glorify God with your body can be applied to all aspects of life: eating, exercise and sleeping. Students are encouraged to assess their overall health and create action plans leading to healthy choices.

Intellectual health

It is assumed that if you are pursuing an academic degree, you will learn new things and engage in critical thinking. There is much to know about historical theology, exegetical theology, systematic theology and practical theology. “The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools” (Prov. 15:7 ESV). “For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Prov. 2:10 ESV). Students are encouraged to have a spirit of intellectual curiosity. An intellectually curious student will desire to know and seek answers to the “why” questions of faith, life and theology.

Financial health

It is important to be faithful stewards of our finances. Joseph (Gen. 39:1-6 and Gen. 39:11-20) was a faithful steward, managing what was given to him according to God’s will. Students are encouraged to be faithful stewards of their finances. They learn about creating personal budges, limiting debt and the joy of giving. During the first-year course, Introduction to Pastoral Ministry, students learn about the theology and practice of pastoral ministry and they are introduced to the eight personal and spiritual areas of formation described above. Each student is assigned a mentor who will journey with them throughout their Seminary experience and help them to value and practice their personal and spiritual identity. In addition, each student participates in a formation hour each week facilitated by mentors.

“Concordia Seminary is dedicated to forming and shaping students to be pastoral theologians who care for the hearts and souls of God’s people.”
— Dr. Mark Rockenbach

Students are placed into winkel groups that simulate the circuit winkel they will experience in pastoral ministry. Students remain in their winkel group throughout their Seminary experience and learn how to build godly relationships and practice reconciliation among themselves.

Unlike many other graduate schools of theology, Concordia Seminary is dedicated to forming and shaping students to be pastoral theologians who care for the hearts and souls of God’s people. The revised curriculum has provided a more strategic focus on personal and spiritual formation. And it is our hope that this approach to pastoral formation will produce godly pastors for service in our Lord’s kingdom who will be a blessing to the church and the world in which they will be called to serve.