It takes a village, as the saying goes, to raise a Christian leader. In terms of preparation, close partnerships between seminaries, churches, and other ministries are instrumental in ensuring that graduates not only exhibit competence in diverse and complex skill areas, but also possess the spiritual maturity, good habits, and personal resources that their vocations demand.
"Engagement with and in the church helps students develop ministry skills that cannot be learned elsewhere, while providing immediate integration of classroom work," says Carol Kaminski, associate professor of Old Testament and dean of faculty at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. (Gordon-Conwell also has branch campuses in Boston, Charlotte, and Jacksonville.)
"There is no substitute for personal experience, and there is no better way to gain it and grow than by being able to work alongside and be supported by a conscientious and caring mentor and/or church."
Seminaries have long depended on theological field education to give students valuable hands-on experience. Many schools now refer to these programs as "Mentored Ministry," a name change that acknowledges the significant role of relationships in the student's personal and professional development.
"The seminary curriculum has formational ends," says Matthew Floding, dean of students and director of formation for ministry at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Identifying an appropriate placement is generally the first step of a mentored ministry experience, with the supervising pastor or leader serving as the student's mentor. Most seminaries require at least one placement to be with a local congregation; other options include clinical settings, parachurch ministries, and social service agencies, depending on the student's interests and sense of vocation. The practice of ministry in all of these contexts is supported by learning covenants that define professional and personal development goals, frequent meetings with mentors/supervisors, and regular participation in on-campus peer formation or reflection groups.
At Western, master of divinity (M.Div.) students complete 800 hours of ministry experiencehalf of that in a full-time settingutilizing what Floding describes as "action-reflection" learning. "That is, one grows more competent in ministry, as well as [more] self-aware, by lots of practice and reflection on that practice with supervisor-mentors, peers in reflection groups, and seminary faculty," he says.
"If the student does not have opportunities to reflect on the ministry with a mentor, peers, and faculty, the experience will lack meaning and soon be forgotten," says Ellen Marmon, associate professor of Christian discipleship and co-director of mentored ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Students bring case studies from the field to their groups for analysis from biblical, theological, and experiential perspectives under the guidance of a faculty facilitator. She explains, "Pairing the practical ministry with critical reflection allows students to address the 'why?' of ministry. Without intentional and communal reflection, students get swallowed up in the 'what and how?'"
As students engage in ministry, reflection also stimulates personal growth. "Mentors, other students, and faculty [members] create safe places where each student can honestly evaluate his or her [own] prejudices, fears, strengths, and joys," Marmon says.