New Initiative Changes How Seminary Prepares Pastors for Ministry

(this article originally was published in the Banner)

By Bruce Buursma

For churches and clergy alike, forging a mutually satisfying and long-term “fit” between congregation and pastor is a matter of considerable art and science, not to mention continuous supplication.

At Calvin Theological Seminary, faculty and administrators are putting sharper focus on preparing students to not only explore and respond to their call to ministry but to seek their particular pathway and passion to serve the local church with gifted leadership even while pursuing their education.

“This is vocational formation for head and heart and hands,” said Calvin Seminary President Jul Medenblik.  “Having the seminary classroom and the local church in partnership and in dialogue together to prepare the next generation of leaders and pastors will continue a positive trajectory for a more hopeful relationship between pastors and congregations.”

Added Geoff Vandermolen, the newly installed Director of Vocational Formation at the seminary:

“There is a well-documented, perceived lack of leadership (in the church today). I have a passion to encourage and form emerging leaders. We want to place students at the intersection of academic learning and real-time ministry as a crucible for their formation as leaders. We want our emerging leaders to live  at this crossroads with a seasoned, engaged leader to help them so that when they are on their own they are better equipped to be well prepared and successful.”

The move toward concurrent, contextual learning means that seminarians will be spending time in the classroom and in real-life ministry settings, benefiting not only from academic learning but also from practical, intensive experiences in congregational life and other hands-on ministry venues. The new vocational formation program is designed to help seminary students better discern their needs and gifts at the dawn of their education. What’s more, throughout their years at Calvin Seminary, all MDiv and M.A. students now will be matched semester after semester with gifted and experienced mentors in the Partner Churches and Ministries — not merely in short-term summer internships as before.

Academic Dean Ronald Feenstra noted that Calvin Seminary has been taking steps in this direction for several decades. “We’re continually trying to integrate what students learn in actual ministry experiences with what they learn in the classroom,” Feenstra said. “If you can connect classroom with real ministry, it enhances both. We’re working to deepen the connection between seminary and local churches, and bring together a real connection between ministry experience and academic reflection.”

A new tool of the in the vocational and leadership formation initiative at the seminary is a 65-year-old,  strengths-based assessment called the Birkman, a tool that both Calvin Seminary and the CRCNA’s Pastor-Church Resources office is using with promising early results.

“We’re seeking to help pastors thrive and find joy in their work,” said Rev. Samantha DeJong McCarron, a ministry assessment consultant who works with Pastor-Church Resources and partners with both the seminary and Resonate Global Mission. “A big part of that is having people in a better fit as the scope of ministry is changing. There are a lot of job possibilities in ministry today, some that remain traditional. But when it comes to vocation and finding a good place for pastors to work, there are a wide variety of possibilities for pastors to engage in ministry today.”

Discerning an individual’s needs and talents as early in ministry training as possible, she added, “can help people use their gifts in a God-glorifying way, and help them live into their call sooner, and with greater potential. if we are doing our job well, the gospel will advance and the kingdom will expand and God will get the glory.”

DeJong McCarron contended that the new initiative should also offer a strong response to a recent report to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which was prompted by an alarming uptick in reported cases of unresolvable conflict between pastors and congregation. That report to Synod of 2016 called for a myriad of measures to reverse the tide of Church Order Article 17 cases, including a fresh emphasis on mentoring for prospective and fledging pastors.

Aaron Einfeld, the Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at the seminary, noted that Calvin Seminary “is recognizing that more and more students are coming to seminary with a clear sense of call to ministry but a vague sense of what that looks like and where that will lead them.”

For Einfeld, the new emphasis on vocational and leadership formation responds to a growing need for a more robust career and leadership  development components  during a student’s time in seminary.

“Instead of having summer internship assignments, when some church ministries might not be that active, students are going to be placed in one setting for two full years,” he said. “So they will be going to class and jumping into ministry that same day. Each semester there will be an anchor course — pastoral care, for example, or preaching — and the hope is they will get good and meaningful contextual experience along the way.

“At Calvin,” Einfeld added, “we are serving a student body that is more diverse, representing far more different denominations than in the past. We know there is a wider vocational path for our students. We need to provide an integrated approach to formation for ministry. We know that students desire and need spiritual formation through the process of earning their degree. With the new approach for our students now, they can know that when they are finished with seminary they will have had intentional vocational discernment and mentoring so they are much further along in where God is calling them next.”

Joan Beelen, Calvin Seminary’s Registrar and Academic Program Advisor, also is enthusiastic about the shift in approach.

“The most obvious improvement is that students will be doing and learning at the same time,” she said. “Ultimately, we hope that students will graduate feeling they are better prepared, so 10 years down the road when they are asked about their seminary experience they won’t say that they were only given a lot of head knowledge, but that they could take what they were learning and apply it immediately.”

Beelen, who is a trained facilitator for the Birkman Assessment, believes that the tool will enrich the students’ experience at the seminary by helping them identify their strengths and passions for ministry.

“It’s part of an overall growing in self-awareness and helping us see how we can function at our best,” she said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a good tool because it’s strengths-focused. Unlike the psych evals that are designed to catch issues, the Birkman is more about how we’re made and what we’re meant to be and do.”

Chris Wright, who coordinates the work of the Vocational Formation Office, is one of six training coaches or facilitators for the Birkman available to Calvin Seminary students and to the pastors who are assigned as mentors.

“We’ll use all of that assessment info for students and mentors to get our seminarians at the right ministry sites and with the right mentors — along with prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit,” she said. “I think this change to a two-year contextual learning internship, where students goes through the cycles of church life during the church year, is really important. I can see real value in this for our students and for the church.”

Vandermolen, who came to the seminary posting after 20 years in ministry, primarily as a church planter, is hopeful that fresh approach to vocational and leadership  formation will help Calvin Seminary graduates serve more effectively in today’s North American culture.

“We have great academic learning happening already, but academic won’t always win the day by itself,” he said. “Ministry today is too hard to simply lead or preach out of your head alone — you need a well-formed mind, heart and character. With the plurality of religious life right now, it’s not  enough to only say we have the right answers. We have to lead out of more than knowledge and theological acumen, beautiful and important though they are.”

During the inaugural academic year for the new vocational formation initiative, Vandermolen has engaged about 40 congregations and mentors for the first cohort of seminarians. His goal for the future is to have incoming first-year students meet their local church pastor-mentor before they crack open a book in any classroom on the Calvin Seminary campus.

“This is all about partnering in education for the seminary,” said Vandermolen.  “I hope that churches understand the deep need and desire that we have for partnership. In fact, we need the local church to help shape emerging leaders with us.  We simply cannot do it alone.”