The great NT scholar, Richard Hays, once spoke at a conference I hosted on the topic, Reading Scripture in Community. He made a brilliant presentation on “practices of the resurrection” that should inform the way we engage Scripture as a community. In a follow-up Q&A time, he was asked how these reading practices informed by the experience or reality of the resurrection were represented in his course syllabi at Duke Divinity School. He seemed to me surprised by the question. They weren’t. Whatever he was doing in those classes was somehow different. It didn’t occur to him until that moment that the “spiritual” practices he was describing for the people of God should be in play in his seminary courses. (I’m trusting he has remedied this at some level. That seemed to be his inclination that day).
This story represents in a striking way my experience in ministry preparation. The life of the minister before God was never really stressed in my ministry training. I was there to learn certain skills, not to become a certain kind of person.
Thankfully, that has changed to a great extent in many places, including those places where I received degrees. Still, I think it is a challenge to instill in an academic program a sense that the pay-off is the development of a God-centered life. We hope as we teach our courses that this is the by-product of our teaching, but the design of the curriculum and the way the training is often delivered suggests that we have other specific outcomes in mind.
Again, this is something we are trying to address in our program at Rochester College. First, we think that this kind of emphasis cannot be reduced to a course on spiritual formation. Nor can it be thought of as the practice of an isolated individual. It has to be built into the degree at every level. In some sense, every course has to be about this or have it in its sights. Second, this has to occur in a real life practicing community, what we like to call our learning community.
So, our program is cohort learning. Every student takes the same course in the same sequence with the same 10-15 people. They begin our degree with a retreat where they take the first steps to developing a shared rule of life, a set of shared commitments to practices in pursuit of a sense of the ongoing presence of God. We bring in Randy Harris to coach them in the importance of this way of conceiving life together before God, and to help them take initial steps in forming their common rule.
And then we coach the rule of life through the course of the degree. Currently, Natalie Magnusson, who has graduate training in spiritual formation, is our current coach. This means that she checks in with them throughout the semester and offers them both encouragement and guidance. We check in with our students at a retreat time at the beginning of each semester. And most of our courses have a reflection assignment where the course content is brought into dialogue with the rule of life.
I’ll admit, we’re not very good at this yet. But I do think we have the set the expectation that this is at the heart of our program. It is the first level of assessment we do with our students throughout the program and especially at the end of the degree.
The most powerful aspect of this to date, is that it allows a rich and thick sense of spiritual community to develop among the students very quickly. It is not uncommon for posts to appear on the facebook group they create to share prayer concerns.
I know that for me, the temptation for me to establish my identity in ministry related to certain roles or skills–preaching, teaching, leading groups–was significant. And ultimately, none of them can sustain a prolonged life in the crucible of ministry. I like what Paul says in 2 Cor as a recommended stance for ministry: “We appeal to the consciences of everyone, standing in the presence of God.” We want our students to know where to stand as they lead God’s people.