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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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Mentorships and Practical Elements

Sometimes a Christian higher education doesn’t come via a traditional seminary or college. Allison, a proponent of lifelong learning, applied informal education and mentorship to his own Star Fellowship, a program he created through the Billy Graham Center a decade ago. Allison serves as a mentor to about 10 colleagues a generation below him and from countries worldwide who themselves will one day be able to mentor the next generation. For one week a year, they meet in one member’s hometown.

“I follow the model that has been developed by Leighton Ford, and that is drawing together a group of what he used to call ‘guys and gals to watch,’ ” Allison says. “In other words, emerging leaders who have a heart for a lost world. What they’re looking for is intense life on life stuff in the real world of ministry.”

For emerging and executive leaders who are interested in mentorships but perhaps don’t have access to a network in which to form a Star Leadership-type cohort, there’s the Arrow Leadership program (based out of Washington state and British Columbia), an informal training program for evangelistic and missional Christian leaders.

The two-year program includes residential learning experiences, practical leadership training, assessment feedback, mentoring relationships and ongoing academic education. Participants meet with their cohort of 20 people for a week every six months and work with guest practitioner thinkers who are experts in all aspects of missions and evangelism, Allison says. Upon completion of the program, leaders can receive transfer credit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, Nova Scotia’s Acadia Divinity College and Saskatchewan’s Briercrest College and Seminary.

“It really works well for people who already have been in the field, they’ve been involved five to 10 years in either the pastorate or in missions, and they say, Boy, there are just lots of questions I have now that didn’t get answered when I was in seminary or Bible school. Something like Arrow Leadership is a very good way of doing it.”

Gordon-Conwell is embracing mentorship and practicality in its own way. Its Boston campus, known as the Center for Urban Ministerial Education, is located in the heart of Boston’s multi-ethnic Lower Roxbury neighborhood, and it takes its calling to serve its neighbors seriously, through its Field Based Mentored Ministry courses.

“We can’t just teach in isolation of the church,” says Mark Harden, dean of the Boston campus and associate professor of community development and outreach. “We have to be in their house, and they have to be in our house so that there is more of an interface.”

To that end, the courses, introduced just last year, replicate real-life ministry by sending groups of students to local churches or parachurch organizations. Under the supervision of a project mentor, the students can work together, like they would outside of the classroom, to solve problems at these partner churches or agencies.

“In real ministry situations, you don’t do it by yourself like a lone ranger. We have to engage with the real church [using this group modality], and that has never been done in seminaries before,” Harden says. “It’s like at a business school like Harvard, where they send a group of students to India to do community and economic development in a third-world village. It becomes the actual laboratory for these business students to contextualize their learning in such a way that they are really doing business work, even though they are technically in school. Leadership skills are soft skills, and it’s hard to teach those in the classroom.”

In addition to field based mentored ministry, Gordon-Conwell is also exploring the option of introducing new degrees in compassion-driven, humanitarian ministry, like disaster relief, counseling, community development, social justice or human trafficking. Right now, Harden says, such a degree is only a possibility, but the hope is that such degrees could soon become part of Gordon-Conwell’s offerings. They’ve identified 48 specific areas that fall under humanitarian ministry, and right now they’re trying to decide which they want to emphasize.

“The younger generation wants to serve people,” Harden says of the seminary’s interest in humanitarian ministry. “That’s what’s popular now.”

He also is seeing a demand for such a degree from an older, bi-vocational population. Perhaps someone is a doctor, he says, and they want to serve Christ without abandoning their career. They might earn a humanitarian degree and then seek work with an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

“For all seminaries, those are the two fastest growing areas right now,” he says, “and so we’re trying to respond to that need.”

Back at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, Bob Whitesel says his school is working in its own ways to bring practicality to the classroom.

“You have to balance teaching theory with teaching best practices,” he says. “Most seminaries focus almost entirely on theory. One of the reasons we started Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University is because we wanted a seminary where the students would take the principles we were teaching and apply them to their local ministry. Our homework in all of our classes is based on the student applying it that week to their local ministry contacts and reporting back to the professor how they did.”

To teach both theory and practicality, every required course at the seminary is team-taught by one theory-based professor and one who knows how to apply those theories to real-world scenarios.

“This is one of the radical things we’ve done as a seminary,” Whitesel says. “When you partner with another professor, it means the student is getting the whole picture. That’s something no other seminary I know is doing. That’s because we started by building the seminary from the ground up. We all felt that seminary could be done better, and that’s what we’ve done here.”

By shaking up the traditional modalities of seminary education, Whitesel and many of his colleagues across the country are working to reverse the impression among many in the Christian world that seminaries are irrelevant or that their educations are unattainable.

“The common seminary today is viewed as theory-laden without a lot of practical application,” Whitesel says, “and it’s viewed as elitist in that it’s expensive and requires pastors to leave their ministry and go away for three years to earn a degree. That model worked in the past, but today, people in the churches want their pastors [to remain at the church], and young people want to enter the practical ministry sooner. They don’t want to wait and get all the theory before they start to practice, and so this is a great new world in which you are learning the theory and applying it at the same time. I think in the future you’ll see more seminaries moving in this direction. A seminary … has to include a strong foundation of creativity and innovation so it can stay connected to the people it serves.”

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