By Josh Mathews, reprinted from the Oikonomia Network.
One among many reasons for seminaries to take vocation seriously is the change we are seeing in students’ motivation for seeking theological education. Students here at Western Seminary are pursuing their education with a variety of different end goals. Our efforts to cultivate greater appreciation for vocation and ministry outside the church walls are connecting with that change.
Of course, we have many who are preparing for church staff roles in pastoral ministry. Indeed, building up the church is at the core of our mission as a seminary. Other students plan to go overseas and plant churches and serve in other capacities internationally. Still others, in increasing numbers it seems, are investing in biblical and theological training with no intention of gaining employment either in a local church or in a para-church missions or ministry organizations. They see the value of seminary education for purposes other than preparation for full-time pastoral ministry.
There are undoubtedly several factors influencing this phenomenon of a growing diversity in motivations for seminary education. However, we like to think one of the reasons for this development is that we have been successfully fostering a robust institutional conception of ministry that includes – that is founded on – the church, but that also extends outside the walls of the church building and beyond the Sunday worship service. More and more students are seeking to serve the Lord, expand his kingdom, make disciples and love their neighbors through all sorts of vocational callings.
From the beginning of the Bible sequence here at Western, in lectures and course modules on the first chapters of Genesis, our professors instill in their students a biblical understanding of God’s original design for humans, created in God’s image, to work and exercise creativity as we engage the world around us. As students move through the canon in these initial Bible courses, we urge them to consider the wide range of manifestations of what it means to love one’s neighbor.
Themes of work and the economy are covered in Western’s theology courses as well, during segments on theological anthropology, ecclesiology and creation, to name a few examples. In one assignment for a pastoral theology course, students consider how followers of Christ can engage with culture for the common good, while resisting the pull of culture’s sometimes-negative elements. In this example, the emphasis is on how one lives as well as how one works, both within and outside of the church. We train students for whole-life discipleship, and train pastors to lead their congregations towards whole-life discipleship.
One of our core ministry courses is Ministerial Ethics. This course introduces students to moral philosophy, ethical systems, and approaches to moral dilemmas. They also engage with ethical issues and applications particular to church ministry. The goals for the course go beyond simply equipping and forming students to be ethically upright pastors and church leaders. The aim is to prepare them to live and lead ethically whether they are going to serve in local churches or in the public sphere in other professions. This perspective is woven throughout the course and is fostered directly in a module on work and ethics.
One of our foundational ministry courses is Introduction to Theological Study and Ministry Formation. In this course, students enter fulsome discussion of vocation and calling, and are given another opportunity to grasp a biblically rooted and ecclesiologically sound theology of work. Students find this process rewarding and their feedback is consistently positive.
These are a few examples of the ways in which Western is seeking to achieve the ON student outcome goals. A few student comments also provide anecdotal evidence of the kind of headway we are making to instill a robust vision of calling and vocation at throughout our institution. The comments summarized below were responses to a particular assignment in which students explored vocational aspirations.
One student recognizes some ways he had not been functioning in his professional context to his full potential, and that the process of thinking more carefully about vocation as it relates to personality and gifting has helped him identify this problem and make some progress in clarifying his vocational aims. He says: “I believe that it is important for me to utilize the strengths of my divine design and to continue pursuing roles that are slightly out of my comfort zone until I am in my sweet spot where I can give my true self in Christ to my family, community and career. I expect that a process like this will take decades, but I know that the process is in many ways the most important part because God is more interested in making me more like Christ than applauding my accomplishments.”
A female student has a particular vocational aspiration to minister to college students and other young adults who are facing issues with gender identity. She has seen how her time in seminary has helped her better understand her personality, spiritual gifts and variety of occupational options in which to carry out this particular calling.
Another student is on the path to become an educator, pursuing a professorship within a university’s religion department. “As I consider a professorship,” she remarks, “I recognize it can bring God glory in light of how he formed me and how the Spirit has gifted me.” She too has gained a better understanding of how her unique makeup suits her for this vocation and how a career in academia can very well be a life of ministry.