Denver Journal

Denver Journal

What to Expect in Seminary: Theological Education as Spiritual Formation

03.01.99 | Denver Journal, Pastoral Ministry, Don Payne | by Virginia Samuel Cetuk

    A review of Virginia Samuel Cetuk's, "What to Expect in Seminary: Theological Education as Spiritual Formation," by Don Payne.

    Cetuk, Virginia Samuel. What to Expect in Seminary: Theological Education as Spiritual Formation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998. $20.00 Pap. 200 pp. ISBN # 0-687-01728-9.

    Virginia Samuel Cetuk is Associate Dean for Contextual Learning at The Theological School of Drew University. The book's impetus derives from the author's personal journey through the decisions and transitions involved in the seminary experience, as well as her extensive dealings with students facing those struggles. While she offers guidance on a variety of practical concerns and obstacles confronting seminarians, Cetuk is even more interested in softening the pervasive resistance to the deep levels of growth and change forced upon seminary students.

    First, Cetuk offers an overview of the fundamental tasks of ministry as a backdrop against which prospective seminarians can picture and assess themselves. Next she portrays the particular stresses of seminary life as exercises in discipleship through forced "reframing" of a student's relationship to God. Along the way Cetuk offers sound counsel on a wide range of issues such as discernment of God's call, how to learn from the diversity of a seminary community, how to maximize supervised internships and the management of time and finances. In a seemless manner Cetuk integrates the life-lessons of seminary with the demands of ministry. This book is a healthy, but nonetheless encouraging dose of realism!

    It is not insignificant that Cetuk writes out of a context (mainline Protestantism) in which considerable theological diversity is valued. Even in such a "practical" book the assumptions of biblical higher criticism, for example, figure into the advice. She understands the "reframing" act of discipleship as the forging of a more mature, informed faith through understanding (accepting) the results of higher critical scholarship. The problem Cetuk seeks to address is the rigid, immature faith of those who only want seminary to bolster their current conclusions. She observes, "Given the nature of true discipleship it has been interesting and somewhat disconcerting to me to find that by and large seminary students do not come to seminary expecting to change or be changed through the experience. While most expect to leave seminary with more knowledge than they had when they arrived, many students resist the kind of soul searching and wrestling with issues that is part of theological education." (p. 49). Whatever her theological stances, Cetuk is unfortunately right on target in this sentiment. Even the faculties of more conservative seminaries are frustrated with this mindset.

    Cetuk's claim is curious, however. She seems to assume that a theological system, which thrives on deconstructive approaches to the Scripture, can, at the same time, engender mature, deep faith. Cetuk appears to be well intentioned in her desire for flexible strength in faith. Her assumptions do not give evidence of being equally well examined. Seminary is indeed a unique and powerful type of spiritual formation. The pivotal question is, What kind of spiritual formation results in a theological culture that not only thrives on dismantling prior notions, but also offers little in the way of reconstruction? When assertion is considered to be inherently premature, uninformed and condescending, the faith that results may be thought "mature", but holds scant substance for the facing the storms of life and ministry.

    This book poses an unfortunate dilemma between the development of ministry skills and critical thinking skills. Though Cetuk values both, she did not present them as developmentally interdependent. She is, however, commendably integrative when speaking of ways to bring previous life and ministry experience into the realm of vocational ministry. Likewise, she offers the student helpful questions for self-reflection and theological reflection for use during supervised field experience.

    Students (and prospective students) with theologies more conservative than Cetuk's will find themselves in disagreement with her openness at several points. Nevertheless, her agenda, goals and counsel are, for the most part, quite appropriate. In fact, reading this book will be a good exercise, in miniature, of the seminary experience, demanding discrimination, honesty and growth. Each chapter ends with a prayer which beautifully and worshipfully lifts to God the specific needs surfacing in the discussion.

    For those considering seminary, those disillusioned by the experience or those who want to get the most out of it, Cetuk is well worth reading.

    Don Payne
    Suburban Training Center Director
    Denver Seminary
    March 1999