Some subjects in seminary can't be mastered in a classroom. Laura de Jong knows that leadership is one of them.
"There's a lot in ministry that you just can’t learn how to do until you're doing it," said de Jong, a Master of Divinity (M. Div) student at Calvin Theological Seminary. "In seminary you gain a framework, you gain the tools for responding as a leader to whatever situation comes up."
"It's impossible to be fully prepared when we go into ministry," agreed M.Div. student James Lee. "Seminary is giving me the tools in my toolbox, and I'm learning how to use the tools, so that when I'm a pastor, I can respond."
This is something that Calvin Seminary president Jul Medenblik also knows from experience. He served as a church planter before becoming president of Calvin Seminary in 2011. He says that while wisdom in leadership comes from lived experience, the seminary classroom can prepare students for those moments.
"I find that students take good notes in class, but it's when a situation arises later in ministry that they dig in and apply that wisdom and insight in a particular situation," Medenblik said.
To help prepare students, Calvin Seminary increasingly emphasizes leadership throughout the curriculum. This starts in students' first year when they take a course in spiritual disciplines for pastors and culminates in their final year when each student presents an in-depth analysis of a case study in ministry to a panel of professors and pastors. Throughout seminary, students also participate in Vocational Formation groups with peers and a mentoring pastor. They also serve in internships where they experience ministry firsthand.
The topic of leadership comes into focus in a capstone course called "Leadership in Ministry." Medenblik co-teaches one section of the course with Paul De Vries, senior pastor at Brookside CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. Another section is taught by Geoff Vandermolen, a longtime church planter who now serves as Director of Vocational Formation at Calvin Seminary.
Medenblik said the aim is to give a holistic view of leadership, where the emphasis isn't on authority and influence but rather on listening and shepherding a congregation.
"I believe in a reciprocal view of leadership, where the pastor isn't the only leader, but where the pastor and congregation are in dialogue and learning together," Medenblik explained.
De Jong said that message has already sunk in.
"We're learning that you need to meet people where they are," she explained. "If you're going to lead a congregation, you need to listen to them make sure you've earned their trust."
At the same time, Medenblik said that the need for leadership that truly transforms congregations is becoming more immediate.
"Churches have increasingly identified that they’re disconnected from their community, and they see that leadership is key to helping to bridge that gap," he said. "A church that’s in status quo, in our changing society, will probably be a church that’s increasingly out of touch, unless it is aware of the context in which they do ministry."
Medenblik points to the 2014 report of the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team (SPACT) of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The report identified leadership as essential to helping churches engage their communities more intentionally.
"Leadership helps a church see beyond itself. Leaders help congregations shape the conversation about how they do ministry now and how they will do ministry in the future," he said.
Vandermolen agrees. He sees leadership as a catalyst for transformation within and beyond congregations.
"Leadership sees the ideal, which is whatever Jesus describes for the world--shalom--and the gap between that and who we really are and what the world is actually like,” he explained. “Leadership is preaching, teaching, and leading toward addressing that gap in a variety of contexts."
Lee said that preparing to guide conversations that build toward transformation starts with knowing himself as a leader and preparing to adapt.
"Seminary has shaped me to learn how to be a follower when I need to be and to be a strong leader when I need to be. I think I'm going to be be a different leader five years from now, 10 years from now, and that's okay."