How is it with your soul?

This week marked the beginning of a new academic year.  As in years past, I have spent a few days describing the nature of our spiritual formation program to new students.

Over a decade ago the program looked very different from the one we have today.  We relied on outside facilitators.  The student experience varied greatly.  And oversight for the program was assigned to someone whose primary responsibilities lay elsewhere.  The program was also required for certain degree programs, but no one received credit.  Predictably, it was difficult for students to take the task of spiritual formation seriously and the program felt a bit like an addendum to the other work that they did.  Students often observed that the program was “Like the Book of Judges — everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.”

The situation is very different today.  The program is still required, but the students receive credit for their efforts.  Members of the full-time and adjunct faculty facilitate the formation groups.  The work of the formation groups serves as a structured introduction to spiritual disciplines, organized around a common syllabus and texts.  And we have supplemented our core program with elective course work in the field of spirituality, a track devoted to issues in spirituality in the Doctor of Ministry program, and a certificate program in spiritual direction for both clergy and the laity.

All of this, of course, restores an emphasis lost or omitted long ago in much of what counts for theological education — an emphasis that once lay at the heart of a seminary’s work: the formation not just of the mind, but the soul.  There are a number of reasons that this endeavor slipped to the margins of theological education, but one of the important factors has been the triumph of the university model of education.

The university model stresses atomization and specialization as the best means of subject mastery.  Faculty members are socialized into the model by their graduate programs and then, in turn, they socialize their students.  The model has its strengths: Faculty are able to deeply familiarize themselves with a distinguishable body of literature and issues; and students benefit from their intimacy with that subject matter.

The problem, of course, is that (for the most part) seminaries don’t prepare academics.  They prepare clergy.  And the task of the clergy is (or should be) soul formation.  In other words, their task is integrative and its basic impulse is the very opposite of the university model.  That is why theological education as a bit like the experience of sitting on the floor of your den at 1am on Christmas morning with hundreds of parts to a child’s toy with instructions for assembling it in a language you don’t understand.

There will be those who argue that the failure of the seminaries to grapple directly with that issue is license for jettisoning theological education completely.  I can’t share their blithe confidence in the virtues of self-imposed ignorance.  But until the theological academy finds the courage to revisit the basic assumptions that lie behind the enterprise, future generations of seminarians will need to do the integrative task themselves, asking not just what they have been taught, but how it contributes (or doesn’t) to the formation of their souls and their relationship with God.

There is no substitute for sitting prayerfully with the varied, unassembled pieces of an experience like a seminary education — and a question we don’t ask often enough: “How is it with your soul?”  That is and always has been the question.  And if clergy give the question attention, they will be better equipped to help others ask the question as well.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.