Random musings on theological education # 3: Do theological schools form or deform their students' spiritual formation?
This is continuing my series of reflections on theological education. My earlier musings were on learning biblical languages, and curriculum content. My intention is to limit my reflections to students studying to be pastors, hence the focus on M.Div in theological schools in Malaysia and Singapore.
Imagine a group of bright young people who are designated future leaders of communities. How will you train or equip them to perform their calling as leaders effectively? Do you locked them away in a community, far away from their own, for four years. In these 4 years, you teach them many subjects, the content of which they will find irrelevant when they get back to their own communities after they graduate? Or in other words, are students spiritually formed or deformed by their study for the degree of M.Div in local theological schools?
There are some lecturers and professors of theological schools who claim the spiritual formation of their students in preparation for pastoring must be done full time on campus for four years. Hence the resistance of M.Div being offered as part-time, off campus course. The rationale is that the students needed to be living in a theological school community to be spiritually formed correctly. While there is no proof that this is indeed the case, it must be pointed out that most theological schools do put some emphasis on spiritual formation on campus; however as pointed out in an earlier post, there is little emphasis on spiritual formation in their formal curriculum. Spiritual formation on campus are assumed to occur informally.
Most informal spiritual formation activities planned involves students washing toilets and cleaning up after meals, campus community activities, small group meetings maybe once a week, prayer meetings, chapel service, and a lecturer/professor assigned to a single or a small group of students. Unfortunately students often end up as cheap labor, campus activities are social events, small groups become counseling or complaining groups , prayer meetings are not held regularly, chapel services are boring, and lecturers/professors are too busy to guide them spiritually. The students are often too burdened by their academic studies that they resent time spent in these activities. To be fair to lecturers and professors, they have a heavy teaching load. Also they are specialists in their areas of expertise (very few are specialist in spiritual formation). Hence they feel they are being asked to do more than they are required to.
The point I am making is that a campus community is an artificial environment. The students are taken away from their natural environments or communities. Four years is a long time and most returning students find themselves strangers to their own communities. An artificial communities produce a form of artificial spiritual formation. This form of spiritual formation is often disconnected from the real world outside the theological schools. Too much theological content cause students to be distanced from their own beliefs. Too much skills training make them good managers but not good shepherds. The question is whether after their time in theological schools, are they closer to God than before they began.
There is a big difference between knowing about God, and knowing God.
Spiritual formation is the process of knowing God.