The most exciting part of being at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) is seeing and hearing “God stories”—the stories of students who have come to seminary because God has been working in their lives and has prompted them to take this step of obedience.
It’s exciting to see students progress from being tentative, uncertain, even afraid of what they’re getting into, to growing in spiritual maturity and pastoral identity.
Consider the story that seminarian Erin Marshalek told after her summer experience as a hospital chaplain:
“One afternoon, I took the elevator up to one of my floors to make rounds—to listen to and pray with the people on my floor. As soon as the elevator door opened, I heard screaming coming from a room down the hall. Loud screaming. Impolite and incredibly persistent. Pained . . . and scary.
“I had no idea what I’d encounter if I walked into that room, so I visited quite a few other people before I worked up the guts to walk in. When I did, a nurse was walking out, and she rolled her eyes at me as if to say, ‘Don’t waste your time; this one’s impossible.’
“In the room I found a small elderly woman in bed. She was hooked up to IVs and crying, ‘It hurts!’ As soon as I laid eyes on this woman, I was no longer afraid; my heart went out to her. I didn’t give her my usual chaplain spiel; I went straight for the head of the bed, and I knelt down beside her.
“She told me her name and she told me about the pain in her body. I held one of her hands . . . and with my other hand I began to smooth back her hair. And softly, I just repeated, ‘Oh Millie. Oh, sweet Millie.’ That was all. At one point, she opened her eyes and looked straight at me. And she said, ‘You must be an angel in disguise.’ Not long after that, Millie fell asleep.”
Four Rhythms of Ministry
On one level, Marshalek’s story is a story about a pastor and a hospital patient in need. On another level it reveals the deep rhythms of ministry.
When Marshalek tells the story to her Formation for Ministry (FFM) group at Calvin Seminary (a professor- or pastor-led group of six or seven students who pray together and reflect on ministry), she will be challenged to wrestle with the four dimensions of every ministry situation:
- the message of the gospel
- the person of the pastor
- the context of ministry
- the goal of ministry
Marshalek and the other students in her group will note how the context of ministry in this situation—namely, the bedside of a totally distraught and pain-racked person—is quite different than the context of a Sunday morning worship service.
Yet the questions remain: What was the gospel message? How did that message come through you as the pastor? What was your ministry goal with this suffering person?
Every Sunday school teacher struggles with these four questions: What is the message of the gospel that I am trying to impart to my students today? How will God use me to model and convey that message? Who are the students I’m conveying this message to: 3-year-olds or 13-year-olds, kids from Christian or non-Christian homes? What is my goal in this class today?
Calvin Theological Seminary recently adopted a new curriculum that is built upon these four rhythms of ministry. Under the direction of President Neal Plantinga, the committee working on the new curriculum asked itself, What would a well-formed graduate of CTS look like? What would he or she be able to do well?
The four-part answer to that question provided the structure for the new curriculum. A well-formed Master of Divinity graduate of CTS will
- preach and teach the Bible engagingly;
- be mature in pastoral identity;
- discern and engage ministry contexts;
- help form communities of disciples.
New M.Div. Curriculum
In CTS’s new Master of Divinity curriculum, learning about the message includes gaining a thorough grounding in Scripture, including its original languages, as well as learning how to interpret Scripture from a Reformed perspective and design sermons that mine Scripture’s rich treasures.
Developing the person means engaging in the ongoing spiritual and personal formation of the student to mold godly, authentic, and mature pastors. Formation for Ministry (FFM) groups, mentors, and congregational internships are some of the components that support this formation.
Understanding the audience means developing a capacity for discerning what is contextually fitting in ministry. Courses in missions, world religions, and church history, as well as crosscultural internships, help students discern and engage various ministry contexts in order to function effectively in an increasingly crosscultural world.
Finally, under the new curriculum, M.Div. students will learn that the goal of all ministry is to form communities of disciples—communities formed by the life-changing work of Jesus Christ. Students develop competence in many ministry practice areas, such as discipleship, evangelism, apologetics, leadership, worship preparation, preaching, pastoral care, and ethics. As students develop these professional competencies, they join other pastors, leaders, and the church community as a whole in building Christ’s kingdom.
All four of these emphases have been part of CTS’s ministry training in the past. The new curriculum enables students and faculty to see how these things work together, not only across the various disciplines of the curriculum, like Bible, theology, and ministry, but also between what is taught at the seminary and what students experience in specific ministry situations.
The seminary is keenly aware that ever-changing ministry contexts require students to think creatively about how these four rhythms of ministry apply. Ministry in Sarasota, Seattle, Seoul, and Sully engages the same gospel, but the form and texture and culture of each of these contexts vary greatly.
Seminarian Bryan Dick recently completed an internship at New City Church in Jersey City, N.J., a unique church especially geared toward urban youths.
“I went to Jersey City not knowing what to expect,” he said. “Having spent my life in more rural CRC settings, I found working at an inner-city church exciting and intimidating at the same time.”
He had to grapple with what it means to be the church in a ministry that has no adult congregation and no Sunday worship and is missing several other common characteristics of a traditional church. “My New City experience stretched me to integrate my theological training with this unique ministry experience; it also stretched me to ask anew where God wants me to serve.”
New and Old
As the seminary puts the finishing touches on its new curriculum, which will debut in the fall of 2009, key architects of the curriculum are struck by how it is both new and old.
Church history professor David Rylaarsdam observes, “Leaders in the early church knew that whether one is preaching, seeking justice, evangelizing, or providing pastoral care, every ministry situation has a person communicating a gospel message to an audience for a particular purpose or goal.
“Augustine, for example, in his classic work On Christian Teaching, gives preachers guidance on developing their character, interpreting and communicating the Bible, discerning the needs of an audience—all with the goal of persuading people to live lives worthy of the Gospel. Calvin Seminary is implementing an ancient-future curriculum. Its four areas are profoundly classical and so, not surprisingly, still relevant to ministry today.”
CTS was heartened by a recent graduate’s evaluation of his seminary experience. John Lee, the student representative on the committee responsible for the new curriculum, wrote, “My seminary education literally took me from the cornfields of Iowa to the olive trees of Israel, from preaching behind a pulpit to praying beside hospital beds.
“A CTS education is so much bigger than its coursework. Our classroom is God’s world—every square inch of it. That is the heartbeat of a truly Reformed theological education. CTS has done that well. I’m convinced its new curriculum will help it do so even better!”
The Same Rhythm in Congregations
Calvin Seminary is excited to be serving with ministry leaders like the Sunday school teacher mentioned above and other leaders in local congregations who intimately know these four rhythms of ministry—whether they explicitly name them or not.
The seminary’s goal is that its graduates, because they already know these rhythms of ministry, will be able to effectively lead congregations at each vital point of this circle of ministry. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when local congregations truly build up the body of Christ—not for their own sake, but for the sake of the world and for the glory of God.