The Importance Of Spiritual Formation In The Training Of Ministers

The Importance Of Spiritual Formation In The Training Of Ministers

Don Whitney

An African pastor-friend told me the tragic story of an influential friend/scholar/minister in his homeland. After losing his ministry to an adulterous scandal, the man openly confessed that the beginning of his downfall was becoming “so busy in the Lord’s work” that he “simply neglected to read the Scriptures and pray.” The long-term effects of this spiritual decline, the dishonored minister believes, led to his immorality.

When my friend related this story to a well-known British minister, the Englishman said, “I almost interrupted you before you told me [about the neglect of the Scriptures and prayer contributing to the adultery] because I wanted to say that I knew exactly what [the reason was] in the light of discovering this to be true of every known case of ministerial adultery in the UK!”[1]

It’s no secret that scandal in the ministry is as common in the American church as anywhere. Research done in 1991 by the Fuller Institute of Church Growth indicates that 37 percent of ministers confess to “having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.”[2] A year later Leadership magazine reported that 9 percent of the pastors they surveyed said “yes” to the question, “While married, have you had sexual intercourse with someone besides your spouse?”[3]

For all those who would disqualify themselves from vocational ministry for reasons of immorality, there are many more who leave–or seriously consider leaving–the ministry due to stress. Always on call, always giving of their spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical resources, always expected to meet needs, and always just 72 hours or less away from having to deliver another fresh, insightful, and life-changing message to the same group of people, armies of ministers labor on dutifully, but dispirited.

A Connection?

As with the stories from Africa and the UK, is there a connection between the moral failures or moribund feelings of the American ministers just mentioned and a chronic spiritual marasmus? To put it another way, is moral weakness a sign of spiritual weakness? Is ministerial burnout ever a symptom of spiritual coolness?

The predecessor to Henry Blackaby, Glenn Shepherd was the first director of the Office of Prayer and Spiritual Awakening at the Home (now North American) Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He told me of an informal survey he took of two thousand pastors and wives who attended seminars on prayer which he conducted during the mid-1980s. When asked how long these spiritual leaders prayed every day, the average answer was a mere “seven minutes.” If prayer is as vital to Christian living as we say it is, how can such anemic prayer habits not have negative consequences in many areas of personal life and public ministry?

I am an assistant professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. I am here because our president, Dr. Mark Coppenger, believes that vigorous spiritual formation is both the antidote and the preventative for many rampant ministerial problems. He believes this so strongly that the creation and filling of the chair of spiritual formation was the first change in the faculty he made upon arriving at Midwestern in 1995. Since that time, as each of us has traveled to local churches, local and state associational meetings, pastors’ conferences, and national denominational settings, we have repeatedly heard comments about the spiritual formation position such as, “This is exactly what I needed at seminary,” and “Seminaries should have been doing this all along.”

Should the Position Exist?

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the school’s new emphasis, some may still wonder if such a position has a legitimate place in an academic institution. “Shouldn’t ministerial students have developed a strong devotional life before they are admitted to seminary?” someone may ask. “Shouldn’t they be able to testify of a consistent ‘quiet time’ as a prerequisite to their church’s recommendation or the seminary’s approval of their application?” The essence of this argument is that spiritual formation classes in a theological seminary are the spiritual equivalent of literacy classes in a Ph.D. program.

For starters, there’s more to spiritual formation than guiding a student into the path of an enriching devotional life. The goal of spiritual formation in the seminary curriculum is the same as it is in the Christian life–godliness. I want to urge my students in the same way the Apostle Paul instructed his pastoral protégé, Timothy: “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). We want our seminarians to grow in godliness, i.e., Christlikeness, and to do so both as ministers and as individual Christians. This is a bigger task than simply establishing an habitual “quiet time” (though this is part of our strategy).

But in one sense, yes, it is right to expect a student who enters ministerial training to have certain capabilities, not the least of which are related to the Bible and personal holiness. This is the job of the local church more than it is the role of the seminary. The local church should be training its members (especially ministerial candidates) in the practical aspects of a daily devotional life. It is also the place of the local church to teach the basics of Bible knowledge.

Yet I can testify from my professorial experience that most students come to the seminary struggling for consistency and depth devotionally. For example, after a class on how to pray through a passage of Scripture, the next day’s class involves thirty minutes or more where the students get alone and practice what they’ve been taught. Several of these present and/or future ministers and missionaries admit afterwards that they’ve never prayed this long before. From exams that I’ve given I would estimate that fewer than one in ten from each entering class could name the Ten Commandments and list the books of the Bible in order and correctly spelled. (Could you?) Such facts as these ought to be learned by our children in Sunday School before they are teenagers.

So from this perspective, the necessary presence of a chair of spiritual formation in a seminary represents a failure on the part of the local church.

In another sense, however, a chair of spiritual formation can justify its “remedial” role on the fact that the seminaries generally have little choice but to work with the students sent to them by the churches, regardless of how well the churches prepare them. To lament the spiritual foundation of incoming students is one thing, to leave them in that condition is another.

Furthermore, many seminarians enroll without the blessing of growing up in a family that went to church. Unlike a number of their classmates, they’ve never had years in Sunday School or under Biblical preaching to learn the rudiments of a religious education. If they are converted as college students, and within a couple of years show up in seminary classes, we must begin with where they are in their spiritual maturity. The alternative is to reject everyone who wants formal ministerial training or a theological education until they can pass a Biblical/spiritual proficiency exam. In my opinion, the disadvantages of this approach outweigh the benefits in most situations.

In any case, even where the new student comes to the seminary from ideal circumstances and is well-prepared both in piety and knowledge, the seminary should provide advanced training in the disciplines that lead to godliness. Yes, the local church should provide training in godliness. But the local church should also give the student a knowledge of the Old Testament, the New Testament, ethics, evangelism and practical ministry, etc. If the seminary should provide advanced training in these disciplines (and it should), it should also provide advanced training in spirituality.

While it’s true that ministers grow in godliness in the same way as all other Christians, i.e., through the spiritual disciplines, nevertheless, ministers need specialized training in spiritual formation. The spirituality of a preacher, according to Paul’s first Pastoral Epistle, has a direct bearing on his hearers: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, NIV, emphasis added). There are many other occupations in which one may succeed regardless of spiritual condition. People can be successful merchants, farmers, and professionals even if they are dishonest or immoral. But an unspiritual minister is a contradiction to his own calling. He is more of a denial to his office than a blind ophthamologist or a toothless dentist.

Beyond that, those in seminary will soon be (if not already) directly responsible for training many others in godliness. Shouldn’t we develop these students in the art of the spiritual formation of others just as we train them in ways of preaching to others and counseling others?

The Increasing Need

The New Testament emphasizes a minister’s role as one of devotion “to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). As just mentioned, the minister is also exhorted, “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” Conversely, contemporary trends tempt pastors down different paths. The conferences he attends and journals he reads lead him to believe that he could be more “productive” if he saw himself primarily as an executive and majored on leadership skills. Examples from Christian radio, as well as religious and secular best-selling books imply that he could be more “effective” if he followed a therapeutic model of ministry.

Additionally, people’s expectations pressure him to devote himself to everything but his biblical priorities. “Running the church” to meet these ever-growing demands is itself more than a full-time job. Above all else he is expected to “grow the church,” and if the church isn’t “exciting” and expanding numerically he will soon hear grumbles about his abilities. Regardless of his spiritual depth or grasp of Scripture, what seems to matter most is whether he can produce “results.” If he can’t, people will either fire him and shop around for a new pastor, or shop around for a new church. To watch his life and doctrine closely doesn’t sound like a very pragmatic way to help solve such a problem. So when, in the spirit of the age, church members become religious consumers, pastors often adapt by becoming more adept at marketing.

Now a professor of spiritual theology, Eugene Peterson made this observation after pastoring for several decades:

North American religion is basically a consumer religion. Americans see God as a product that will help them to live well, or to live better. Having seen that, they do what consumers do, shop for the best deal. Pastors, hardly realizing what we are doing, start making deals, packaging the God-product so that people will be attracted to it and then presenting it in ways that will beat out the competition. Religion has never been so taken up with public relations, image building, salesmanship, marketing techniques, and the competitive spirit.[4]. . . I found that gathering a religious crowd was pretty easy, provided I didn’t get too involved with God. . . . Religious consumers are like all other consumers, easily attracted by packaging and bargains. But I also knew that to follow this route I would have to abandon the very thing that gave the life of a pastor its worth: a passion for God.[5]

Would so many ministers be so willing to “abandon the very thing that [gives] the life of a pastor its worth” if their preparation for ministry had included an intentional cultivation of the passion for God they had when they first followed His call? Without the appropriate spiritual influences, the seminary itself can be the breeding ground for misdirected zeal. In the process of training a man, the seminary can inadvertently get him more focused on fulfilling his call than following the One who called him. Once a pastor’s passion for God is sublimated into a passion for success, church growth, power to change others, excellence, or anything else, it should not surprise us when he falls. Since only God is infinitely interesting, unceasingly satisfying, and unfathomable in His beauty and glory, anything else is eventually disappointing and unfulfilling. As a result, anyone who replaces a supreme passion for God for anything in the service of God makes himself much more susceptible to emotional burnout, moral fallout, mental rustout, or becoming a ministerial dropout.

Applications/Implications for the 21st Century

1. The first priority of a man of God is to be a godly man.

Those who are the most visible and public representatives of the Holy One must be above all holy men. People are often longsuffering regarding many shortcomings in a minister’s skills, but if he is ungodly it is a scandal. A lack of holiness is much worse than a lack of ability. If a man does not make Christlikeness his highest pursuit, he should not be in vocational ministry, regardless of how great his gifts or talents. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a godly Scottish pastor in the 1800s said, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”[6]

When a church is considering a pastoral prospect, they should not call him unless his first priority is to be a godly man. How can a church find out this information? Contact his references and ask them about his personal holiness. Ask several specific questions of the man himself. Inquire about his devotional habits. Don’t just listen to his preaching, listen to him pray.

2. If seminary education is to provide a well-rounded preparation for ministry, it must include spiritual formation, i.e., it must help in the “first priority” of godliness.

If the first priority of a minister is godliness, and if seminaries exist to provide training for ministers, it follows that seminaries should intentionally cultivate the spiritual life and growth of ministerial students. Otherwise they are abdicating their responsibility for one of the most significant parts of ministerial training.

In his article, “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary,” Princeton seminary professor B.B. Warfield asked a century ago, “But does it not, even on first sight, commend itself to you with clear convincingness, that any proper preparation for the ministry must include these three chief parts–a training of the heart, a training of the hand, a training of the head–a devotional, a practical, and an intellectual training?”[7] (emphasis added).

Before moving on, prospective students should observe Warfield’s reminder that even with the proper spiritual formation emphasis, the seminary is still an academic institution. Eugene Peterson knows, “The most frequently voiced disappointment by the men and women who enter seminary has to do with spirituality.”[8] Many enroll with the expectation that their time on campus will be like an ongoing Bible conference, each class having the fervor and feel of an exhilarating worship service. I myself went from law school to seminary and, despite the many delightful differences, I found several surprising similarities. To recognize the seminary’s academic orientation is no license for administrators to ignore the need to strengthen spiritual formation in the seminary. But it does serve as a warning for those students who would think that all they have to do is show up for class and automatic spirituality will result. As they must before and after seminary, during their time there they will have to engage in the classical spiritual disciplines if they are going to grow in godliness (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”).

3. Seminaries need both faculty and courses devoted exclusively to spiritual formation, while recognizing that not all spiritual formation will come from such faculty and courses.

Spirituality looms so large in New Testament ministry that it should not be relegated to a part-time job for a professor whose specialty is in another field. Seminaries should find a place in the faculty offices for a Chair of Spiritual Formation, preferably with its own department (although some, depending upon how the school is organized, would appropriately place it under Practical Theology). Moreover, sufficient spiritual formation cannot take place in a few days’ worth of classes hidden away in some obliging course. At least one entire course (preferably more) in spiritual formation should be mandatory for all students, with several electives regularly made available.

Just as not all the theology learned by seminarians is learned in theology classes, so not all their spiritual formation will come through the spiritual formation professor(s). All class content should affect the student spiritually. We should recognize, for example, that a lecture on the solas is spiritual formation, as is an exegetical study of the Sermon on the Mount. Truth transforms. A Canadian seminary dean, posing his suggestions on the means of spiritual formation in the seminary, writes: “First, character formation is ultimately the fruit of the truth. It is truth that transforms; it is by the truth that minds are renewed and it is by the truth that we know wisdom. Central in this is the role of scripture.…The question really becomes: Do we believe in the transforming power of scripture? Do we really believe that the Spirit changes lives through the medium of the truth?”[9] Warfield concurs: “If such contact as we in the seminary have the privilege of enjoying with divine truth does not sanctify our souls, should we not infer either that it is a mistake to pray in Christ’s own words, ‘sanctify us in the truth; thy word is truth,’ or else that our hearts are so indurated as no longer to be capable of reaction even to so powerful a reagent as the very truth of God?”[10]

Therefore seminaries must do more than hire a professor of spiritual formation and add to the curriculum. They must insure that the Bible and Bible-based content saturates all courses, not just the ones on spirituality. Furthermore, . . .

4. Seminaries should put a premium on godliness when hiring any faculty member.

Since spiritual formation should occur to some degree in every seminary class, no one should teach those who are supposed to be godly (i.e., ministers) unless they themselves manifest a close walk with the Lord. Jesus said, “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). If seminaries do not want to produce graduates who are mere academics, they should not train them under professors who are.

5. Seminaries will most naturally turn to spiritually-seasoned pastors and missionaries to fill positions in spiritual formation.

One of the issues in the seminary hiring process is how much ministry experience is necessary for those who will be teaching future ministers. Proponents of experience argue that you can’t train someone to do what you haven’t done, regardless of your academic credentials. This is unquestioned by all regarding some professorships, such as pastoral ministry. Others will contend that certain positions–teaching the languages, for example–can be filled by those fresh out of their Ph.D. programs and with little or no pastoral background. Indeed, schools that have strong Ph.D. programs of their own are often reluctant to hire faculty from the front lines of ministry out of concern that they will be hopelessly out of date with scholarly developments within their field and thus be unable to produce “cutting edge” scholars.

While I cannot address this dilemma here, I use it as background to say that spiritual formation is one of those areas where all would acknowledge experience as essential. No degree can confer what years of walking with Jesus can do. Oaks of spirituality are not fully grown in the seminary seedbed (the word “seminary” means “seedbed.”) When seminaries need professors of spiritual formation, the most likely place to look for them will be the pastorate and the mission field.

In the real world of academia, though, there are unyielding standards. Accreditation requirements mean that any candidates for spiritual formation professorships must meet certain academic qualifications. Most faculty positions require a Ph.D. or Th.D. If you have an interest in teaching spiritual formation in a seminary, and can manage timewise and financially to acquire such a degree, by all means go for it. Some institutions will accept nothing less. However, in many schools a Doctor of Ministry is sufficient for teaching in the “practical” fields, such as pastoral ministry or spiritual formation. Administrators also look for publications written by the candidate, or other marks of proficiency.

In conclusion, it’s one thing to learn patterns of spiritual formation in the seminary, it’s another to maintain them for a lifetime. Unlike some things learned in seminary, if the disciplines of spirituality are not maintained, there will be tragic consequences. But it’s possible that some of those who have lost their ministries might not have fallen if, in their ministerial training, they had been better trained in the ways of godliness.