Forging a mutually satisfying and long-term “fit” between congregation and pastor is a matter of considerable art, science, and prayer for both pastors and churches alike. At Calvin Theological Seminary, faculty and administrators have recently shifted their focus to address this need through a new emphasis on vocational formation. 

“This is vocational formation for head and heart and hands,” explained seminary president Jul Medenblik, adding that combining classroom learning with experiences in local churches will help prepare students not only to fulfil their call to ministry but to better discern their unique needs, gifts, and passions at the dawn of their education so that they can figure out their own pathway to serving local churches.

One part of this sharpened focus lies with Geoff Vandermolen, the newly installed director of vocational formation at the seminary. Vandermolen came to the position after serving for 20 years in ministry, primarily as a church planter. He is hopeful that a fresh approach to vocational and leadership formation will help Calvin Seminary graduates serve even more effectively in today’s North American culture.

“There is a well-documented, perceived lack of leadership (in the church today),” Vandermolen said. “We want to place students at the intersection of academic learning and real-time ministry as a crucible for their formation as leaders.”

To do this, seminary students will spend time in the classroom while concurrently serving in real-life ministry settings. The hope is that this will help them benefit not only from academic learning but also from practical, intensive experiences in congregational life and other hands-on ministry venues.

In addition, throughout their years at Calvin Seminary, all M.Div. and M.A. students will be matched with gifted and experienced mentors from partner churches and ministries for a two-year term—not merely in short-term summer internships.

“We want our emerging leaders to live  at this crossroads with a seasoned, engaged leader to help them so that when they are on their own they are better equipped to be well prepared and successful,” Vandermolen said.

 Academic dean Ronald Feenstra noted that Calvin Seminary has been taking steps in this direction for several decades.

“We’re continually trying to integrate what students learn in actual ministry experiences with what they learn in the classroom,” he said. “If you can connect classroom with real ministry, it enhances both. We’re working to deepen the connection between seminary and local churches, and bring together a real connection between ministry experience and academic reflection.”

Existing Tools

A key tool in the vocational and leadership formation initiative at the seminary is a 65-year-old,  strengths-based assessment called the Birkman assessment. This tool combines personality, social perception, and occupational interest assessments to help users learn more about themselves and understand what ministry options might fit them best. It also helps them understand potential stressors and how they might personally react to different situations.

Both Calvin Seminary and the CRCNA’s PastorChurch Resources office are using it with promising early results.

Joan Beelen, Calvin Seminary’s registrar and academic program advisor, is a trained facilitator for the Birkman assessment. She believes that the tool will enrich the student experience.

“[The Birkman assessment] is part of an overall growing in self-awareness and helping us see how we can function at our best,” she said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a good tool because it’s strengths-focused. Unlike psychological evaluations that are designed to catch issues, the Birkman is more about how we’re made and what we’re meant to be and do.”

“We’re seeking to help pastors thrive and find joy in their work,” added Rev. Samantha DeJong McCarron, a ministry assessment consultant who works with Pastor Church Resources. “A big part of that comes from having people in positions that fit.”

She noted that the scope of ministry is changing, with a lot more job possibilities in ministry than there have been traditionally. 

“When it comes to vocation and finding a good place for pastors to work, there are a wide variety of possibilities for pastors to engage in ministry today,” she said.

Discerning an individual’s needs and talents as early in ministry training as possible, she added, “can help people use their gifts in a God-glorifying way, and help them live into their call sooner, and with greater potential. If we are doing our job well, the gospel will advance and the kingdom will expand and God will get the glory.”

Common Pitfalls

DeJong McCarron pointed out that the new vocational formation initiative at Calvin Seminary is also a response to synod. In 2016, synod, the decision-making body of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, noted an alarming uptick in reported cases of unresolvable conflict between pastors and congregation. In response to this situation, it called for measures to help reverse this trend, including a request for a fresh emphasis on mentoring for prospective and fledging pastors.

“More and more students are coming to seminary with a clear sense of call to ministry but a vague sense of what that looks like and where that will lead them,” said Aaron Einfeld, the director of admissions and enrollment management at Calvin Seminary.

This uncertainty can lead to people taking ministry positions that do not match their gifts and passions. Einfeld said that in addition to the Birkman assessments, the new emphasis on career and leadership development during seminary can help students avoid wrong ministry placements.

“Instead of having summer internship assignments, when some church ministries might not be that active, students are going to be placed in one setting for two full years,” he said. “They will be going to class and jumping into ministry that same day. Each semester there will be an anchor course—pastoral care, for example, or preaching—and the hope is they will get good and meaningful contextual experience along the way.

Church Partnerships

Chris Wright, who coordinates the work of the Vocational Formation Office, is one of six training coaches or facilitators available to Calvin Seminary students and to the pastors who are assigned as mentors. She explained that the Birkman assessments will be used to find the right placements for each seminary student.

“We’ll use all of that assessment info for students and mentors to get our seminarians at the right ministry sites and with the right mentors—along with prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit,” she said.

“I think this change to a two-year contextual learning internship, where students goes through the cycles of church life during the church year, is really important. I can see real value in this for our students and for the church.”

During the inaugural academic year for the new vocational formation initiative, Vandermolen has engaged about 40 congregations and mentors for the first group of seminary students. His goal for the future is to have incoming first-year students meet their local church pastor-mentor before they crack open a book in any classroom on the seminary campus.

“This is all about partnering in education for the seminary,” said Vandermolen. “I hope that churches understand the deep need and desire that we have for partnership. In fact, we need the local church to help shape emerging leaders with us.  We simply cannot do it alone.”

Building Leaders

With the inaugural year of this vocational formation behind them, seminary staff are enthusiastic about this shift in approach.

“The most obvious improvement is that students will be doing and learning at the same time,” Beelen said. “Ultimately, we hope that students will graduate feeling they are better prepared, so 10 years down the road, when they are asked about their seminary experience, they won’t say that they were only given a lot of head knowledge, but that they could take what they were learning and apply it immediately.”

Vandermolen agreed.

“We have great academic learning happening already, but academics won’t always win the day by themselves,” he said. “Ministry today is too hard to simply lead or preach out of your head alone—you need a well-formed mind, heart, and character. With the plurality of religious life right now, it’s not  enough to only say we have the right answers. We have to lead out of more than knowledge and theological acumen, beautiful and important though they are.”

That is exactly what the new emphasis is all about.

“At Calvin Theological Seminary,” Einfeld concluded, “we are serving a student body that is more diverse, representing far more different denominations than in the past. We know there is a wider vocational path for our students. We need to provide an integrated approach to formation for ministry.”

He added, “With the new approach for our students now, they can know that when they are finished with seminary, they will have had intentional vocational discernment and mentoring so they are much further along in where God is calling them next.”

About the Author

Bruce Buursma, Calvin College