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Prepare to Lead: The Changing Seminary Experience

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Christian higher education is placing a greater emphasis on outreach, spiritual formation and leadership development. And it's getting more flexible and affordable too.

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Soul Care and Spiritual Formation

Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology is known for its cutting edge education, and its spiritual formation component, called the Intentional Character Development program, is a great example. The program, which is essentially group and individual counseling for students, addresses any emotional or spiritual struggles the students may have that could later harm their ministry.

“Historically, most people who went to seminaries came from smaller churches and rural areas,” says Gary McIntosh, a professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Talbot. “They typically came from Christian families, so they typically came out of pretty stable backgrounds. A number of years ago, we began to notice at Talbot that a lot of students were coming from broken homes. They were receiving Christ maybe in their senior year of college and were coming right into seminary.”
Bob Whitesel, associate professor of Christian ministry and missional leadership and a founding professor at the 4-year-old Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, agrees that seminaries across the U.S. are shifting from a total focus on intellectual pursuits to one that balances academics with spiritual formation.

“Most seminaries are set up to develop the intellect more than inner heart spirituality,” Whitesel says. “Developing the intellect can become consuming, so that the personal spirituality gets lost. The research shows that if your seminary is not intentional about fostering spirituality, the students will get so wrapped up in the practice and theory that they will ignore their spirituality. In the old model of the seminary, people came out tending to read their Bible less, to pray less. This is because seminaries in the past tended to be knowledge focused and theory focused.”

“A seminary has to include a strong foundation of creativity and innovation so it can stay connected to the people it serves.” —Bob Whitesel, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University

At Wesley Seminary, every student pursuing an MDiv degree takes a spiritual discipleship course, which pairs them with a professor and small group of fellow students through their entire degree program.

“They open up, encourage and hold each other accountable and are discipled in that environment,” Whitesel says. “They share spiritual growth.”

Back at Northern, McKnight relates similar new programs.

“This is a major new development in seminaries, and we are totally on board with this,” he says of a soul-care emphasis.

At Northern, spiritual formation is written into the syllabus of every class. It’s not uncommon to begin class meetings with prayer, or for students to keep a devotional book or journal, exploring an assignment’s personal significance to the student’s life.

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