Connecting the Seminary and the Church

By Darrell Yoder on August 17, 2015

I was raised in the Church. I came to faith around 10 years old in a rural Mennonite church in Northern Indiana. Thirteen years later, when I decided to go to seminary, many people around me had no idea what a seminary was (none of our pastors had ever gone), and they wondered about the value of "going to school for so many years."

During seminary, then, I was both inspired and disillusioned. I was inspired by the richness of Scripture, and I saw the profound impact theology has on our lives. Yet, I was disillusioned by how disconnected my studies sometimes seemed from "real life." At first, I wasn't sure what to do with this tension.

I believe my story illustrates a common experience among ministry leaders. It highlights the very real need for a meaningful connection between the seminary and the Church.

At Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, we believe the seminary provides the Church with much needed expertise and precision in the areas of biblical interpretation, theology and current scholarship. Seminary fosters a rigor of thought and discipline of study that provides rich meaning and depth of insight for the health of the Church.

We also believe the Church provides equally valuable experience and training in the realities of ministry on the ground. Church leaders serve individuals and families as they wrestle with daily decisions, not just in theory, but in real-life situations. Pastors, therefore, are in a position to offer practical wisdom and spiritual care.

We need a meaningful connection between the seminary and the Church that functions on at least two levels: theological vision and careful mentoring of the heart.

Theological Vision

Tim Keller writes in "Center Church" about the need for "theological vision," which is the "middle space" between...a "doctrinal foundation" and particular "forms of ministry" (2012, p. 16). It is "a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry and mission in a type of culture at a moment of history" (p. 19).

Keller argues that each church must develop a theological vision for how the gospel impacts their specific culture at their specific time, so that they can develop truly faithful and fruitful ministry practices. This is where the seminary can help, not by prescribing a theological vision, but by helping pastors and Church leaders grasp the gospel at a deep level, and wrestle with how it works in their setting. Likewise, the Church can help the seminary focus its energies on the key issues ministry leaders face every day.

One of the reasons I love GRTS is that the people here "get" the need for this partnership. Professors here are passionate and confident about what they bring to the table, and they recognize their need to hear from and support those who serve in the "trenches" of ministry. (Many of them serve in the trenches themselves.)

Careful Mentoring of the Heart

Another way the seminary and the Church can partner is in the process of raising up new pastors and leaders for the church. Spiritual and pastoral formation is complex and takes time. Neither the seminary nor the Church can provide everything a student needs.

In my role at GRTS, I work directly with students pursuing pastoral ministry. I often talk with them about this need for holistic formation—growth in three areas: head, heart and hand. Students need rigorous theological education (head) to shape their mind around the truth of Scripture; they need practical ministry skills (hand) to put their training to work for the Church; and (perhaps most difficultly) they need to face their own brokenness and put on the cruciform heart of Christ. They need their characters formed in Christlikeness (heart).

This is where a meaningful partnership between the seminary and the Church is critical. I've seen it in action. Students benefit deeply by the careful mentoring of pastors in their ministry residencies. Plus, for the last two years, I have led students through a series of formation enhancements that come alongside their course work and provide space for the heart. Students attend formation retreats and small group meetings under the leadership of experienced pastors or counselors who model biblical authenticity. I am thankful for these friends and colleagues who have pursued students' hearts, confronted their sin and sat with them in the struggles and uncertainties of ministry leadership.

We need more pastors who will take on this challenge. Professors are often most skilled in navigating the world of text, history and research while pastors and counselors are often most skilled in navigating the world of the heart. (Some people can do both. They're the rock stars. Most of us lean one-way or the other.)

Making the Connection

Through Talking Points, we hope to generate conversations about theology, culture and vocation in a way that develops theological vision, and we hope to build relationships with leaders who can carefully mentor the heart of students.

If you are interested in developing theological vision, we invite you to participate in this blog, attend Talking Points events, or enroll in (or audit) classes. If you are interested in putting energy into mentoring students, let me know by emailing darrell.yoder@cornerstone.edu.

Categories: Culture, Vocation