We need to talk……
Faculty or staff meetings spend a lot of time talking, but rarely do they talk about what sort of spiritual life they aim for in the students.
In 1988, Kenneth Prior wrote an assessment instrument for colleges and seminaries to help them evaluate their engagement with the spiritual formation of their students. At one point he asks “Is there a written or otherwise formally acknowledged definition of spiritual formation in your institution, is it functional and contemporaneous or does it need evaluation or revision?”
Since then, we have become less confident about our ability to produce such a definition. Some have expressed worries about too tight a definition which would lead students to be “moulded” into spiritual clones of their lecturers (or even of their lecturers when they were young a generation ago!). We are more aware now that each student has an individual journey closer to God. And we are rightly wary of a simplistic “graduate profile” of a mature Christian, designed to apply to all students.
However, the need for faculty to talk together about what they mean by spiritual formation is surely as vital as ever. This is especially so in these days of eclectic spirituality, where evangelicals especially are re-discovering the spirituality of past generations and of other traditions and using these to enrich their own pilgrimages.
The truth is, when we meet together as a faculty or staff we tend to talk about anything but what we aim for in this area, possibly out of personal anxiety that we are not all that spiritually formed ourselves. But to avoid good, deep discussion about one of our key objectives as theological educators must surely be damaging to our task together.
Can I therefore suggest that we do meet as faculty or staff with this clearly on the agenda – and here are a few guidelines for approaching it in a non-threatening way;
- We can explore the three tensions in this area of theological education which were set out in the Iona discussions; spirituality and academics; internal piety and external discipleship; individual and corporate spirituality.
- Or we can explore Henri Nouwen’s idea that spirituality really consists of relationships. In the great commandments “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” he sees the three fundamental relationships- with God, with others and with ourselves. Do we add to these the relationship with the church and with creation?
- Or we can explore spirituality as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. We can maybe start with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and go on to see what else Paul says such as in the great passages in Romans eight.
These are just three ways of creating an agenda, starting the discussion about what we mean when we tell the students that we want them to be formed spiritually. And is it worth the talking?
- It creates a clarity of purpose as a college or seminary in a key area of its work.
- It helps a greater unity among the staff in this task, avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings of each other.
- It enables us to feed off each other, in ideas, knowledge and experience to help us fulfil our callings.
- It provides an opportunity and incentive for us all to think about our own personal spiritual development and so grow in grace.
I hope by now you agree that we need to talk. So why not send this to your dean, principal or rector?
 Amirtham and Prior n.d.(1988) Resources for Spiritual Formation in Theological Education (Geneva: WCC ) 91-97.