“We need pastors who know how to lead a congregation!”
At Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS), we hear this cry for help regularly—from churches and from students. We’re keenly aware that many congregations today struggle to find a clear ministry focus and direction, and often need more help than they get from their pastors. We also know that many other ministries are looking for leaders too.
The seminary regularly helps pastors to develop as leaders through its continuing education program, but today’s curriculum is also designed to prepare students for leadership roles by emphasizing person, perspective, and practice.
Training leaders is ultimately less about teaching skills and techniques and more about forming people of character.
There is little debate that trust is the most important requirement and evidence of being a leader of character. The seminary doesn’t have a course called “Trust 101” but it does help students grapple with questions such as these: Am I a person of my word? Do I keep promises? Do I truly love God? Do I love my congregation? What drives me? What are my own inner needs and fears? Am I in ministry for me or for something bigger?”
Formation of the whole person is the goal of the entire seminary curriculum and the focus of Formation for Ministry (FFM) small groups. These groups of seven to 10 students meet together each week for the students’ entire three-year seminary career, led by a seminary faculty member or local pastor.
FFM groups are designed to be communities of trust and reflection in which spiritual formation can take place. That has certainly been the case for the group I meet with, which includes Brian Bork, Dan Hoard, Rita Klein-Geltink, Kristy Manion, Ryan Schreiber, Mike Vander Laan, and Anne Zaki. We have times of deep vulnerability as we challenge and nurture each other’s formation. And even though I’ve been a pastor for almost 30 years, I am being formed as a leader by this group.
I’ve learned from Rita about leading in a church that is conflicted about closing, from Mike and Dan about the complications of leading in today’s big American and Canadian cities, from Anne about leading in a global context in a country that is not your home, from Kristy about the passions of today’s college students, from Ryan and Brian about the leadership challenges of mission in a country halfway around the world. Sorting through all these issues together takes time and patience, but the results are worth it.
Knowing the relational difficulties pastors often face, especially in the crossfire of leadership, the seminary regularly requires students to get help in developing “emotional intelligence”—the capacity to manage emotions, motivate yourself, understand how you are perceived by others, recognize emotions in others and respond appropriately, handle relationships, control impulses, demonstrate empathy, listen actively, deal constructively and creatively with conflict, and respect differences among people.
The FFM group is the first context for developing pastoral emotional intelligence, but students are also connected to an individual mentor throughout their seminary studies who walks with them in discovering who they are and will be as people in ministry. Mentors are also important sounding boards for students as they experience so many firsts: sermons, hospital calls, deaths and funerals, criticism, conflicts.
With years of ministry experience and pastoral voices that are “slow to speak and quick to listen,” mentors impart feedback and wisdom—sometimes practical and often deeply theological—that students will remember all of their lives.
In addition to developing their personal strengths, seminarians learn basic principles of leadership that draw upon the best leadership theories in North America.
Students are encouraged to develop skills in listening and encouraging, communication, understanding dynamics and processes of change, understanding conflict and how to lead through conflict, motivating people to perform at their full potential, and using win/win problem-solving techniques.
Students must also gain mature biblical and theological perspectives to answer critical leadership questions such as What is the church? How does the church accomplish its mission? What does Jesus teach about the nature of leadership? What are the lines of authority in the church? How does the church discern its particular calling at a given place and time?
Most pastors who are truly effective leaders have deep biblically and theologically shaped convictions about what the church is and what it is called to be. Questions of church organization and direction are never merely organizational or strategic. They go to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today.
When churches cry out for leadership, they are not asking for a CEO or a manager. They are asking for a pastor to help the church understand its identity and its calling.
Rita faced that challenge in her summer internship at a church that had decided to close, but reconsidered that decision. Dan was challenged by an internship setting that expected a seminarian to be too “churchy”—a surprise to Dan, who is a fairly recent convert to Christianity.
From an organizational perspective, leadership is helping a group reduce the gap between what it aspires to be and what it actually is. When pastors lead, they function as a congregation’s spiritual compass. They help a congregation to understand its “true north”—what it aspires to be, where it is now, and how to take steps to get closer.
The resources pastors bring to this leadership task are ultimately the biblical and spiritual resources gained in their seminary years.
Personal formation and theological perspective are foundational to preparing future pastors to be effective leaders, but students must also have the opportunity to put these leadership principles into practice in the life of a congregation.
Students are expected to be involved in the life and ministry of a local church throughout their seminary training and are introduced to service organizations through the seminary’s annual Service-Learning Day.
They also have at least one summer internship experience that immerses them in a cross-cultural experience, and one in which they gain significant leadership experience, usually in a local congregation.
Ryan and Brian were immersed in Russian culture through internships organized by Christian Reformed World Missions, Dan and Mike experienced urban church planting in Home Missions settings in Calgary and Chicago, Rita pastored a small congregation in Ontario, and Kristy and Anne worked with students at Calvin College and ministries at Church of the Servant.
For students to develop as leaders, the ideal seminary internship and ministry experience includes working with a team of people in the planning and execution of a ministry program, encountering some interpersonal conflict along the way, reflecting with a mentor or supervising pastor on how to manage personal anxiety around that conflict, receiving enough affirmation to encourage ongoing growth, and receiving enough constructive criticism to confront matters of personal development.
The relationship of seminary and church is vital in the development of pastors. From congregations near the seminary that become church homes for students, to mentors in those congregations and across the continent, to congregations that receive students for a summer or year-long internship, the formation of pastors is a strategic partnership of seminary and church.
The seminary would love to hear from you. Write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org if your congregation would like more information on how to be involved in this important partnership. Future church leaders need you!