Spirituality and the Seminary of the Twenty-First Century

Spirituality and the Seminary of the Twenty-First Century May 9, 2022

I’ve been looking back over the work I’ve done in spirituality and spiritual formation. The programs I inherited. The reforms I’ve tried to put in place and the changing fortunes of formation programs that I have followed over the years.

The Lily Foundation gave significant funding for those programs in the early 21st Century.  The motives for such programs undoubtedly varied.  Some seminaries had a spiritual formation program, but they yielded uneven results.  Others had noted that the interest in spirituality had been growing, but they were doing little to equip their graduates for that kind of ministry.

That was certainly the testimony of people who looked to their pastors, priests, and ministers in the closing decades of the previous century.  A handful of clergy claimed to discover spiritual practice via an exposure to Buddhism, but seemed completely ignorant of the Christian tradition.  But the vast majority of clergy had been focused elsewhere and hardly knew where to start.

A variety of programs emerged thanks to Lily’s largesse.  Some attempted to introduce spirituality as a concern across the curriculum.  Some introduced formation programs that were a part of every student’s experience as a stand-alone course of study.  Still others relied on small group experiences and worship in the seminary’s chapel.  In some cases, seminaries resisted building a disciplinary emphasis and restricted their efforts to certificate programs.  Others developed curricula around the discipline but relied on adjunct faculty to do most of the instruction.

That was then.  As with so many trends in theological education, those efforts have gone “off the boil” as other issues have eclipsed spiritual formation as a priority in theological education.  And Covid-19 created a watershed experience that placed new strains on seminary enrollment and drove seminaries to look for new strategies for recruiting students.  Looking back, one can only hope that we did more than simply respond to the moment in developing the programs we created in spiritual formation.  But as that effort is relegated to small group programming and elective courses of one kind or another, it isn’t yet clear what the long-term viability of such work will be.

Certainly, there is a very good reason to argue that seminaries should continue to emphasize spiritual formation.  Prior to the 13th century such concerns were handled seamlessly with the larger theological task, in part because formation was still lodged firmly in the church and in part because the theological curriculum had not undergone the vivisection that it suffered as fragmentation and specialization took hold in the university.  Such approaches have their value, but an awareness of the larger theological curriculum was lost, and particularly in Protestant seminaries the study of spirituality disappeared completely.  It is no surprise, then, that theological education, which should be a holistic and integrative experience, is often fragmented and disjointed instead.

This much I have found to be true:

  • A seminary education without an emphasis on spiritual formation leaves students without a means of integrating and appropriating their education.
  • An approach to spiritual formation that is not grounded in the Christian tradition has no claim on the attention of students or those they serve.
  • You cannot form people spiritually by simply telling them, “Be a community.” Spiritual formation needs to be thoughtful, ordered, and thorough.
  • Telling people, “You can go to chapel”, doesn’t work:
    • Because commuters are not a part of a community on a consistent basis and they don’t have time to attend;
    • Because chapels are often experimental centers for the practice of liturgy and lack the kind of grounding that contributes to formation; and
    • Because seminarians don’t know enough about the Christian tradition to know how to “connect the dots” between worship and spiritual formation.
  • Students never take a subject seriously that is not part of the curriculum, that is not thread through the whole of the curriculum, and that is not required for graduation.

So, no matter how much a seminary uses the word, “spiritual”, if the curriculum doesn’t reflect a commitment to formation, it is just advertising.


Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash


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