A quick review of taglines for seminaries across North America will reveal a smattering of phrases that use terms like equipping, training, teaching, educating, or transforming. For instance, we see taglines that look something like this, “ABC Seminary: Equipping leaders for service in the Church.” Sioux Falls Seminary is no different. Our current “mission statement” states that we “equip servant leaders who engage the mission of Jesus Christ.” For many years, the purpose of theological education has been viewed through the lens of traditional higher education with a little flavor of the church. We create professional degree programs that reflect teaching, training, or equipping.
I would like us to consider the reality that theological education is about a lot more than equipping, training, teaching, or educating. It is about developing people for their unique calling. Let me first focus on the word developing and then look at the phrase unique callings.
The well-known adage about fishing goes as follows: Give a person a fish; feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish; feed them for a lifetime. I would like us to add a third statement, which goes as follows: Develop a fisherman in partnership; feed a village for generations. You see, the process of personal development goes beyond teaching. It is about more than acquiring knowledge or a specific set of skills. Developing someone is a formational process that includes teaching, equipping, training, educating, action, and reflection as parts of a holistic journey.
I grew up on the Mississippi River. While fishing has never been something I enjoy (I know, that sounds blasphemous), it is something I know how to do. I can pick a spot to fish, bait a hook, cast a line, and catch a fish, but that doesn’t make me a fisherman. Sammy Hoag, a friend of mine, is a fisherman. He has the ability to walk alongside others and teach them how to fish. He knows how to create within people a passion for fishing. Sammy knows how to distill multiple sources of information regarding fishing into succinct, useful, and actionable data. Sammy can read a river much like someone else might read a book. He can see where fish might be, what time fish might be there, and how best to practice the art of fishing in that specific river. Sammy is a fisherman who can develop others in that manner. I have simply been taught how to fish.
For over 100 years, theological education has focused on teaching people for ministry. It may be time for us to devote an immense amount of time to creating systems of theological education that develop people for their unique callings. The paradigm of equipping leaders or training leaders narrows our focus to the acquisition of skill and knowledge. Neither skill nor knowledge is helpful unless a person integrates that skill and knowledge into his or her rhythm of life and ministry. In order to create that rhythm, students must walk through an intentional development process with multiple mentors facilitating that process.
It is in that process of personal and holistic development that an individual comes to understand his or her unique call. God has gifted each of us in unique ways in order that we might participate in his redemptive mission. Theological education should help students understand, articulate, and grow in their unique calling without being removed from their context.
The uniqueness of a student’s calling can be diminished in a model of theological education based on completing a specific set of courses. The student planning to do social work is required to do the same assignments as the student planning to be a pastor. We often hear the reason for this is that students benefit from getting outside their typical area of work. Unfortunately, that reason is often given to students seeking to do ministry outside the traditional role of pastor. Because traditional theological education has been designed with congregational ministry in mind, the student planning to do congregational ministry is rarely asked to do assignments that would normally be completed by someone planning to do social work.
Developing People for Their Unique Callings
Please hear me when I say that developing pastoral leaders for service in local churches is one of the primary roles of theological education and something I believe we find in Scripture. However, it is important to recognize that many students do not plan to serve through congregational ministry when they graduate. That’s why we believe our system of theological education should develop people for their unique callings. Doing so enables us to develop people who see and understand their unique role in God’s mission. That process will enable us to “feed” the church for generations to come.