Field training moves seminary students beyond the classroom.
“Being out in the world takes my education from my head to my heart to my feet. I consider this the great value of field education. We cannot simply fill our minds with knowledge; We must also allow the Holy Spirit to make use of our knowledge in this world.”
“I’ve learned the value of a circle of peers. Where else can you share your concerns, get honest feedback designed to encourage and uplift your ministry, and share ideas openly? This experience makes me determined to find a way to continue such a circle of brothers and sisters after I depart seminary.”
“Ministry is listening to people’s stories, and helping them to join their stories to the bigger story of God’s grace given to them. Leadership in ministry is different from leadership as commonly conceived. It requires openness to the workings of the Holy Spirit, skill as a facilitator as people walk and discover their need for Christ, and demonstration of God’s love. I learned in my field placement that I am strongly called to ministry.”
These reflections—from students at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, respectively—illuminate the transformational impact of hands-on practice of ministry. Traditionally called field education, this crucial process is known by various titles, including supervised ministry, mentored ministry, and ministry formation. Regardless of name, these programs share the same goal: the healthy formation of Christian leaders who are equipped and empowered to minister in Jesus’ name in the ways they have been gifted and called to do.
“The ‘Training and Mentoring’ process is embedded in the core curriculum of each degree program and utilizes selfdirected learning contracts,” says Don J. Payne, Associate Dean of Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. In the contract, “A student identifies a specific growth goal and growth plan—in both character and ministry skill—in light of where they are in life and what God is already doing in their lives.” These contracts include study components, reflective and integrative exercises, hands-on practice of ministry, and regular meetings with two mentors. Because seminaries prepare pastors and others for a life of service in ministry, a high level of care and attention is given to the personal and professional formation of students. Seminary faculty and leadership take this responsibility seriously, partnering with churches and other ministries to help students develop into Christian leaders of passion, wisdom, imagination, and integrity.
“Our field education program was renamed Ministry Formation in 2005 [and] finds its home in the context of the overarching Formation for Ministry (FFM) program,” says Don Byker, Director of Ministry Formation at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “The FFM program is designed to facilitate the integration of the student’s entire seminary experience— coursework, life and ministry experiences in the local church and internship settings, mentoring and community life—in the context of facultyor pastor-led small groups.” In addition, CTS professors incorporate case studies, student experiences and “service learning principles” into the coursework and tie class assignments to specific areas of ministry practice. “Both ongoing theological reflection and the use of case studies are proving to be highly integrative ways for students to learn,” Byker says. “Students are intellectually stimulated by these more creative and imaginative approaches to learning.”
The basic structure of the field education requirement—articulation of goals, supervised practice of ministry, mentor relationships and evaluation, and participation in faculty-led peer groups—steers students through a critical period in which they exercise their skills and test their understanding in a real ministry context.
It’s also a time to confirm or discern the shape of the ministry to which they are being called.
“The field education experience is where the student can test his or her classroom learning with the support of the field education department, mentors, supervisors, and ministry peers,” says Greg Meland, Director of Formation, Supervised Ministry and Placement at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Working one-on-one with the Director or Associate Director of Supervised Ministry, students create a comprehensive Development Plan and maintain frequent communication throughout their placements. Students are also encouraged to develop networking relationships that will benefit them after seminary. Meland adds that 90 percent of Bethel’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) students secure permanent placements before graduation.
At Princeton Seminary, the Learning/ Serving Covenant drawn up between a student and an on-site supervisor (e.g., the pastor in a church placement), establishes “goals, objectives, tasks, and resources to frame their work together,” says Deborah K. Davis, Director of Field Education. These are mapped out in detail in each of the five areas of growth: skill acquisition, self-awareness (recognition of strengths and limitations), relationship development, vocational call, and integration. “Competent ministers combine theory and practice, concepts and skills, ideas and relationship, critical reflections and action. As students work with those experienced in ministry, their capacity for wisdom increases as study and reflection lead to competence and clarity of thought,”
Davis says. Prior to placement, Princeton students spend time with a field education advisor. “Each advisor meets individually with each of his or her students, listens to the student’s faith journey and practical ministry background, and helps him or her focus on field education goals and objectives,” Davis says.
Seminaries commonly require two field education placements. At least one placement is expected to take place within a congregation because the majority of seminary graduates are called to church ministry. Students are also encouraged to seek out opportunities that will stretch them and take them out of their comfort zones. “I frequently encourage students to pursue ministry categories in which they are weakest. For instance, by far the area in which most M.Div. students struggle is church administration,” says Luke Bobo, Director of Field Education at Covenant Seminary. “Because of this, I recommend that students gain experience in that area.” He adds, “Some students think creatively about how to get ministry experience outside of the traditional contexts, and many find that God meets them there in special ways and reminds them of great Gospel truths.” Along with administration, Covenant students explore preaching, worship, teaching, discipleship, counseling, and outreach in a variety of settings, including churches, prisons, nursing homes, orphanages, Indian reservations, state parks, summer camps, Boys and Girls Clubs, and hospitals. Asbury Seminary offers degree programs in Kentucky, Florida and a Virtual Campus online, opening up any number of possibilities for placement. “Asbury offers a wide variety of field education opportunities through our Mentored Ministry program,” says Tina Pugel, Director of Communications. Students complete one placement in a church setting. In the second placement, they engage in cross-cultural ministry while maintaining connections with the same mentor and congregation with whom they previously worked. “Our students are pushed outside the walls of the local congregation into cross-cultural ministry settings,” Pugel says, where they are encouraged to cross as many lines of difference as possible, including race, ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic status, education and physical/mental ability. Students frequently find these crosscultural opportunities through the outreach, missions, and service relationships of the local churches with whom they already have a Mentored Ministry relationship. Field education also provides a crucial link between seminaries, churches, and other organizations on the front lines of ministry. Not only do students gain supervised experience but ministries gain needed help and fresh perspectives, and seminaries gain windows into the world in which their field education partners minister.
Without this, the work of preparing students for timely, meaningful and transforming ministry would be incomplete. “Bethel Seminary has taken intentional steps to engage with modern culture and current events,” Meland says. “In this we believe we have something vital to offer, rather than lagging behind with outmoded educational systems and theories.” In addition to students engaging in ministry, he says, “Bethel Seminary residential and adjunct faculty hold strongly to the value of continuing ministry practice. Most faculty members are engaged in significant ministry outside the seminary, or their positions interact regularly with churches and ministry organizations served by Bethel.”
One of the hallmarks of seminary education is an intentional emphasis on the personal formation of students, as ministry professionals and as children of God. Recognizing that a lifetime of ministry requires deep spiritual, intellectual, emotional and practical resources, seminary faculties want to ensure that their students acquire and maintain healthy spiritual and interpersonal habits, alongside knowledge and skills in the biblical, theological, and practical arenas. At Denver Seminary, M.Div. students engage in the Training and Mentoring process for five consecutive semesters. “This allows a substantial part of each student’s degree program to be designed in light of the student’s needs in character and ministry skill development,” Payne says. “Additionally, we strongly emphasize developing a mentoring mindset and the skills for self-directed, lifelong learning. Students then know how to identify and seek out the mentors and growth experiences that will be important to them throughout their ministries.” Payne also notes that while the Training and Mentor- ing process “requires a high degree of intentionality and focus, students are encouraged to hold the focus lightly in order to respond well to the ‘surprises’ that God often brings about. This goes a long way toward teaching students how to be lifelong learners.”
Participation in a long-term process of personal formation yields benefits lasting far beyond graduation. In addition to significant engagement with local churches and vocational mentors, students at Calvin Seminary are expected to meet weekly with their Formation for Ministry groups. Led by Calvin professors and local pastors, these groups of seven to ten students “are designed to be communities of trust and reflection in which deep spiritual formation, theological integration, and ministry practice development can take place,” Byker says. “An initial and ongoing aspect of the student’s involvement in their FFM group is the development and practice of a personal Rule of Life for the student’s spiritual formation and sustenance during seminary and in ministry. FFM leaders and group members regularly revisit this Rule to hold each other accountable and encourage spiritual health in each other.” The relationships formed in seminary—in FFM groups, congregational participation, mentoring relationships, and internships— can last for years, providing avenues for encouragement and fellowship and helping students “develop a network of contacts for support, advice and reference as they move toward their more particular call in ministry.”
Finally, field education opportunities allow students to discover and explore the challenges of ministry with a robust network of guidance and support. “Field experience takes away our presuppositions about ministry. Jesus’ command to ‘feed my sheep’ takes on new meaning when dealing with reality. It tells me I have to be ready to roll up my sleeves and get a little messy if Kingdom work is to be done,” says Bill Hogan, an M.Div. student at Asbury. “Each ministry situation is unique and must be handled as such. If we are to effectively serve others, we must adapt to the situation, to the needy, and to our individual styles. No theory can predict all that.”
Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.