It was the whisper that made me leave my church.
It was the one line that I heard over and over again in the five years that I traveled across the country, first in leading a commission for my denomination and then as a consultant in organizational change.
“Why didn’t seminary prepare me for this?”
I would hear that line echoed in my mind long after each conversation was over. I had a sense that it was going to be shaping my future call. I even wrote a blog post about it in December 2012.
And then a year after I wrote the blog post, I was invited to do something about it. I had already discerned that my next step in ministry was to invest in leadership development for the mission of Christ. I had already announced to my congregation that I would be leaving in the near future to respond to this voice. I had used my sabbatical to work on a book on leadership in “uncharted territory.” I didn’t know where this would lead, but this much was clear:
The world is changing. Rapidly.
Businesses, universities and organizations are being forced to adapt as the old rules and expectations are being cast aside. And now the Church realizes the same. For generations, would-be pastors and Christian leaders were all prepared for ministry in the same way, with the same set of expectations. Seminaries gave you the "tools," and you would quickly find a "calling" in which to use them. And for decades there were more positions to fill than qualified people to fill them.
Not today. Today churches are closing, ministries are down-sizing, Christian organizations and denominations are looking to the seminary to produce leaders that can integrate their academic learning with wisdom, resilience and deep spiritual maturity. The Christian leaders of today and tomorrow must be more than theologically educated, but personally, spiritually, academically and globally formed with the leadership creativity and missional savvy to develop ministry in arenas that are increasingly resistant to the Gospel.
Often bi-vocational, increasingly working in churches that are in need of a "turn around," the pastor of today is more like a missionary than a chaplain, more like an entrepreneur than a shopkeeper. And the mission of God needs equipped leaders who go far beyond pulpits and pastor’s studies into a myriad of places and settings.
Unfortunately, most seminaries are still equipping students for the church of a generation ago.
But while sitting in the Newark Airport last fall, newly appointed Fuller Theological Seminary President Mark Labberton told me of a significant change taking place at his school. It’s the kind of change that most people say never happens.
The Fuller Faculty changed the curriculum.
Mark told me how the faculty commissioned a team to do an in-depth study, including listening to their students and alumni. And they heard them loud and clear. The students told them that they loved the Seminary but feared the future. The Alumni told the study team that for the church to be relevant in the world, the seminaries must be willing to change the way they prepare Christian leaders for that world.
This team listened and got to work. And when their report came back. the faculty—that tenured group of highly regarded experts who have everything to lose and little to gain—set aside their well-earned privilege and security to re-tool the entire project of theological education.
In the fall of 2014, Fuller Seminary will inaugurate a new day in theological education. After listening deeply, doing extensive research and conducting their own experiments in the integration of theological education and Christian spiritual formation, they concluded that, for the unchanging grace and love of God to be made manifest in this rapidly changing world, the Church needs leaders capable of serving with wisdom, deep spirituality and creative, agile leadership.
To do that the study team revised the entire curriculum to be—from start to finish—as formational as educational; as committed to the vocational development and spiritual formation of their students as they are to their academic and theological education. And today, Fuller Seminary is in the midst of a wholescale reorganization that puts the formation of Kingdom vocations at the center of the entire institutional life.
And this is where my life got interrupted. This is where the whisper of my pastor friends and clients became the call of God on my life.
To support the new curriculum to accomplish all that they envision, President Labberton and the Board of Trustees established a new division within Fuller Theological Seminary, led by a Vice-President for Vocation and Formation. This division will have the charge for creating one seamlessly integrated organizational culture that forms Kingdom vocations in a changing world. They are declaring to everyone who is looking to be equipped for this world: “From the moment you visit our website to the moment you go to glory, you will always be part of a learning community forming you to live out your calling for God’s mission in the world. “
In January, I was appointed to this new position. Since March I have been working part-time at Fuller while I finish up at my beloved congregation. In the days ahead I will be learning and writing and collaborating with a team of people to reshape the entire process of theological formation.
Our goal is nothing less than turning that plaintive whisper into a grateful word of confidence. Someday soon, we want to hear Christian leaders in a changing world declare:
"Yes, the world is changing. But by God’s grace, I was prepared for such a time as this.”