The Formation of a Pastor
By Dr. David W. Johnson
Director of Ministerial Formation
Seminary and Pastoral Formation
Ministry is not a subject area. It is a calling. To prepare for the call is to answer it, and any answer requires preparation.
There are three components to preparation for the pastoral ministry. One is the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Second is the experience of engaging in ministry. Third is spiritual formation—cultivating a relationship with God. Like the sides of a triangle, these components are distinguishable but inseparable. Each depends on the others, and each sustains the others. Knowledge and skills provide the basis for pastoral experience, while every pastoral experience causes one to reevaluate one’s knowledge and reassess one’s skills. Academic theology is indispensable for spiritual formation, for theology informs us about the God with whom we seek a relationship and who seeks a relationship with us. Spiritual formation prevents academic theology from dwelling in the abstract, for God must not only be studied, but be experienced to be known. Pastoral experience and spiritual formation are constantly intertwined, as we seek to see God in others as well as know God in our hearts.
Thus, there is not a linear progression from knowledge and skills to experience to formation. The relationship is more of a circle, or possibly an ascending spiral. Furthermore, pastors are never done with any of the three components of preparation. There is always more to learn. There are always more skills to acquire, and more experience to assimilate. Our relationship with God can always be deeper, broader, higher. All seminary can do is give students a good start.
Thinking, Feeling, Knowing, Being
There is no doubt that becoming a skilled pastor is a matter of experience. This experience is gained by doing the things that pastors do: preaching, administering a congregation (or other entity), counseling, teaching, evangelizing—the list is almost inexhaustible.
It is a mistake, however, to equate pastoral experience with the experience of God. There is such a thing as the experience of God, but it is not necessarily tied to one’s experience as a pastor. In fact, one of the distressing aspects of pastoral ministry for many people is that church experience and the experience of God seem to have such a tenuous and problematic relationship to each other.
Two things are true of the experience of God (at least in this life). The first is that it is not limited to any time, place, set of circumstances, or state of mind. Jacob’s rueful thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” is a part of every religious experience. It is not that the Lord comes and goes—rather our attention comes and goes. God is always present; God is often unnoticed.
Secondly, the experience of God never comes all by itself. Our experience of God occurs in and through the experience of this world. The Infinite surrounds and interpenetrates all things finite. The Bible indicates that this is for our own good, for the naked experience of God would annihilate us. “You cannot see my face,” God told Moses, “for no one shall see me and live.”
Consequently, anyone who desires to know God must cultivate a special kind of awareness, that God is simultaneously everywhere and everywhere hidden. That is the reason for spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are nothing more than (but nothing less than) the cultivation of that awareness. It is a simple thought, but it is a lifetime’s work. Who has gone for an entire day without forgetting that there is a God? Or even an hour? Martin Luther once said that he had never managed to get all the way through saying the Lord’s Prayer without his mind wandering. Not many of us can do better.
Pastors must cultivate this awareness if they are to sustain a career in ministry. It is vital for their own spiritual well-being, and it is vital for the well-being of those to whom they minister. It is the special task (and even the special pain) of pastors that they wear their insides on the outside. One cannot be a spiritual guide without sharing one’s spiritual journey, even if that journey has been a long and painful one. People today desperately need spiritual guides, even if they often aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Pastors must both blaze a trail and lead people along it. Their spirituality is not just for themselves. It is for those they serve.
So the spiritual disciplines—prayer, Scripture reading, worship, self-examination, renunciation of excess—are necessary for ministry. Without them, ministry is a malignant sham. It is never too late to begin a life of spiritual discipline, but it is never too early, either. It ought to be a part of every student’s seminary career.
Austin Seminary provides many opportunities for students to engage in spiritual formation or explore spiritual disciplines. Chief among these is regular public worship. Communion is served every Tuesday, with members of the faculty preaching and presiding at the Lord’s Table. Each Thursday the president, or a guest invited by the president, preaches to the community. On Monday and Friday there are prayer services in various formats. Students participate in all worship services, and are encouraged to volunteer to be a member of the student worship teams. Regular attendance at worship is the cornerstone of spiritual development and the center of the life of Austin Seminary as a religious community.
Within the academic curriculum, I offer a course every year titled, “Spirituality for Pastoral Leaders.” Many other courses have components which address individual and corporate spirituality.
Students who would like to participate in small prayer and devotion groups should consult with me, Academic Dean Michael Jinkins, or Vice President for Student Affairs Ann Fields. Individual or group spiritual direction can be arranged through Ann Fields’s office. In addition, every year Austin Seminary students form prayer or Bible study groups.
None of these opportunities are mandatory. Your spiritual quest must be an exercise in freedom, not in satisfying some external requirement. There is no doubt that a seminary education is a demanding and arduous affair. But seminary also offers a freedom to experiment and grow that is unique in the formation of pastors. This is the time for students to find their own frontiers and take increasing responsibility for their pastoral development. Austin Seminary intends to provide both a context of free exploration and a network of support for the development of the church’s future pastors and leaders. Through learning, experience, and spiritual growth, your call will become your life and a source of blessing to the church and the world.