Spiritual Formation In The Academy: A Unifying Model
Gordon T. Smith, Canadian Bible College and Theological Seminary


We need a model of character formation within the Christian college or seminary that shows how formal study and programs of spiritual formation are complementary. The author contends that both are necessary if we are to enable men and women to grow in wisdom, character and maturity--both the disciplined study of truth in the classroom and the library, as well as spiritual formation, including corporate worship and retreats. Wisdom is presented as the goal of character formation. And wisdom is best achieved where there is a complementary relationship between formal education and spiritual formation. The author further emphasizes the transforming power of truth and the significance of a faculty who themselves are people of character, wisdom and maturity.

Spiritual Formation In The Academy:
A Unifying Model

I remember the speaker, the setting, the tone in the air and my feelings as I listened to the presentation. The message that day was a call for character development in the men and women who attend theological schools. The speaker affirmed that we must develop character. But more, he insisted we had a choice to make: would we emphasize content or character?

Would we focus on education and academic excellence or would we commit ourselves to the formation of character? It was a sobering moment for me. It amazed me that formal education and spiritual formation were being placed in an adversarial position. I was also deeply disappointed. The message that day was simple: the classroom emphasized truth, as something comprising content, and this was not something that would be necessarily helpful in the formation of Christian character.

Yet in retrospect, I suspect that this does in some respects represent a common or popular notion. People tend to think that the academy is less than helpful in the formation of Christian character. And it is a popular perspective that often subtly influences the thought and behaviour of educators.

There has been a growing recognition of the need for character formation within and as part of one's formal education. And theological schools have responded. Programs have been developed to encourage the development of character and spiritual maturity.

This has been an appropriate response. But often it has been based on a false premise or assumption: that the academic process itself--formal education with all of its programs, assignments, classes and examinations--is not of itself part of the formation of character. Further, many are suspicious about these programs and activities, and view them as a threat for the limited time available for study. The two are pitted against each other. And polarities develop--with some urging that we give ourselves to character formation and others who are disgruntled because these co-curricular activities seem to be less than substantial contributions to the mission and purpose of the school. These are interruptions, they think.

We urgently need a model for an understanding of the place and role of spiritual development within the academy. How does it happen? What is the role of formal education in this process? How can the curriculum (broadly conceived) include spiritual formation in a way that complements the classroom?

Some Basic Assumptions Regarding Education and Spirituality

First, some fundamental assumptions I bring to this discussion

  1. We can affirm the priority of spiritual maturity as one element of the goal and purpose of theological education. Some may be prepared to speak of it as the defining purpose and objective. But it is probably better to acknowledge that that would be the priority of a local church. The college/seminary has a more limited role. Nevertheless, we are and must be committed to spiritual growth and character development for every member of the academic community. In the end, those people who effectively fulfil their vocations are those who have a deep commitment to God, a clear discipline in their lifestyle and behaviour and a clear sense of apostolic calling and service for their fellow human being.

    But both colleges and seminaries have generally been passive rather than proactive and intentional about character development. Administrators and faculty often assumed that the school would focus on the academic agenda and that the development of character would care for itself.

    Yet if it is imperative that the people who graduate from our schools be men and women of both competence and character, then character formation must be as much a part of the agenda of the academy as competence. It should be something about which our schools are intentional and proactive.
  2. We can and must affirm that education is a means to this end. By education, I mean what we normally think of as formal study-. This would include the classroom and the library and the whole academic experience where students are encouraged to examine truth through the various disciplines. In this regard, we need to affirm the redemptive value of academic study. We cannot divorce formal study from the program of character formation. We cannot pit education and spirituality against each other.

    The mind is renewed by truth. Classrooms and libraries are ideal places in which to respond to the apostolic injunction that we take every thought captive for Christ. Spiritual formation, therefore, includes study. It is not just something that complements or accompanies study. The discipline of study is an essential component of spiritual formation. Rigorous intellectual exercise is good for the soul. Few things are so redemptive as the honest exploration of truth.

    A lecture on justification by faith, for example, is part of spiritual formation. A study of the nature and character of evil can be a vital aspect of one's complete spiritual character development. This principle would apply to the whole range of the liberal arts. My own experience in university included the tremendously valuable study of 19th century Russian literature--a course that was one of the most formative events in my life.

    The classroom is then an essential venue of spiritual formation.
  3. But in affirming the redemptive value of formal study, this cannot and does not constitute a blanket endorsement of all that happens in the classroom.

    To be redemptive, at least four factors need to shape and influence formal study. It happens best when there is, first, a clear and fundamental commitment--a clear sense of one's basic loyalties--including a commitment to justice, righteousness and truth. The classroom only plays a partial role in the development of this fundamental orientation. Other vehicles of spiritual formation--such as worship--may be most formative in nurturing this basic allegiance. The point is that the classroom is most effective in spiritual formation when this commitment is clear.

    Second, the classroom is most effective when study is informed by prayer and worship, when formal study arises out of communion with God and nurtures, directly or indirectly, a relationship with God. This is why we should look to non-academic programs of spiritual formation to complement formal study.

    And third, the classroom is most effective in the formation of the whole person when it is informed by reflection on personal vocation. The ideal is for study to arise out of a sense of one's apostolic responsibility in the world. Studies come alive when we see their relevance for the call of God on our lives. This does not mean that we see everything or only study that which directly informs our work in the world. Such a perspective would lead to a utilitarian pragmatism and a truncated ecclesiology which in the end serves neither the student nor the kingdom well. But our studies are most formative when we reflect on truth--all of God's truth--from the perspective of our vocation to serve God in the church and in the world.

    In all this, then, I am insisting that we do not need to accept the false notion of academic objectivity or scientific enquiry that suggests that a confessional stance in contrary to true study.

    This does not mean that a Bible class becomes nothing more than a devotional study of the Scriptures. A devotional reading of Scripture is essential and a means of grace. But spiritual formation comes through the rigorous study of Scripture. To suggest that a devotional reading is preferred or that critical study and research are less than helpful is a failure to appreciate the importance of careful study in spiritual formation. What we are calling for is critical scholarship that is informed by spiritual commitment.
  4. Spiritual formation happens when there are activities designed for specific ends in the formation of character that complement the formal academic program.

    Often, we find that we have too many expectations of formal education. Some will complain that students who have been in class do not know how to pray. But this would be like criticizing a driver education program because the students could not drive after they sat in a classroom discussing how an automobile functions.

    Formal study and education can do some things well. The academic process is an excellent vehicle for certain purposes. But it cannot do everything well. Consequently it is best to work with the assumption that some things are learned well in the classroom and other essential things are best learned in other settings.

    Just as the classroom is not the place to learn how to drive a car, it is similarly not the place to learn how to pray. The class may help you learn about a car; but there is no substitute for getting behind the wheel and feeling the clutch engage. And there is no way to learn prayer but in retreat, preferably under personal direction.

    Thus, spiritual formation within the academic setting is most effective when the classroom is both affirmed and complemented, and where vital elements of the spiritual life are nurtured, taught and encouraged in settings other than the classroom.

    The ideal academic institution would have both classrooms and a retreat centre some distance from those classrooms. It would have what we normally associate with a college or seminary but also have a place of retreat where students could go individually or in groups. It is in retreat that we learn some things that are vital to the program of an academic institution. This would apply primarily to prayer. But it is also in retreat that root and heart aspects of our lives come to the surface and can be owned and resolved.

    Further, there is nothing quite like service to test the inner person and potentially inform not only our spiritual growth but also the classroom. There is a strong awareness of the interconnection of field experience with classroom reflection. But we still need to find more ways that would enable students to take internship and student ministry experiences and use these as fodder for spiritual growth.

    But, the main point here is that not all the essential elements or skills for life and ministry are learned in the classroom. The activities that encourage these other elements must intentionally complement rather than compete with the academic enterprise. Further, the experience in the chapel or the retreat centre, the experience in solitude and prayer and the experience in the field all can and must inform the classroom. It is these activities that have the capacity to make the classroom experience most formative.
  5. It is also important to stress the central place of the liturgy. In speaking of the integration of learning with piety and the role of the academy in spiritual formation, insufficient attention has been given to the subject of the liturgy and the role of public worship in both spiritual formation and the academic process. Can we not see the event of worship as the central and defining moment in the life of a learning community? Can the liturgy not enable us to study as worshippers and thus infuse the classroom with a dynamic that enables us to be transformed by truth?

    Though the college or seminary is not a local congregation or church, worship can still be that which provides the integrating centre for learning. Worship can be the catalyst for the integration of classroom content with the heart.

    Further, in speaking above of the context in which effective learning takes place, it is in worship that these are nurtured.

    But the worship of the academy must be an event of substance. Further, the form needs to engage heart, mind and body. So much worship is superficial or merely cerebral. Rarely do we find worship that engages the whole person. Also the content of the worship needs to be congruent with the content of the classroom. There needs to be sufficient continuity such that students in a Christology class, for example, can move from intellectual reflection to conscious worship in response to that reflection.
  6. In providing spiritual direction, there is no substitute for teaching and enabling people to learn the disciplines of the spiritual life. The disciplines enable people to establish patterns and habits that will foster a lifelong journey of knowing the grace of God.

    But spiritual formation involves much more than instruction in the disciplines of the spiritual life. Many seem to view spiritual formation as little more than teaching certain techniques on the assumption that these techniques, usually approaches to the disciplines of the spiritual life, are themselves spiritual formation.

    Many have mastered techniques but not necessarily experienced spiritual transformation. Techniques are helpful, if not essential. But they are not ends in themselves, only means to an end--the experience of divine grace. The focus in spiritual formation needs to be the grace sought rather than the technique. The disciplines of the spiritual life only have value as far as they foster communion with God and an appropriation of divine grace.
  7. The context most favourable to spiritual formation, within the academy, is one in which there is a clear sense of a spiritual heritage or tradition. In these situations, formation is an identification with that heritage. The institutions or schools that are most able to integrate spiritual formation and education are those with a clear sense of their history, their heritage and their spiritual tradition.

    Many schools are frustrated in their efforts to develop a plan of spiritual formation within their programs because there is a lack of consensus on the goal and means of this formation. There is not a common answer to two questions: What are we trying to accomplish and how will we do it?

    Therefore, if a school has a clearly defined heritage that tradition should be owned and embraced. While we need to respond critically to the forms and perspectives of the past, a spiritual heritage can be an invaluable source of strength, vitality and direction to a new generation.
  8. Finally, we must not overstate the role of the academy in spiritual formation. The theological school is not responsible for the whole of a student's formation. The local church has a vital part in this process, for example. But more, the student her/himself is ultimately responsible. The college/seminary can only provide the opportunities for spiritual growth; it is the responsibility of the student to respond to divine grace.

Character Formation And The Goal Of Theological Education

The goal of theological education is to enable students to know God so they can help others to know and respond to the grace of God. In defining the objective of the college/seminary, we need a defining principle, a point of integration between the classroom itself and the co-curricular activities. If we do not have a clear sense of our objective, then we will inevitably see the different components of the academy as competing against one another.

Wisdom could serve us well as a unifying principle. The objective of the academy, then, would be to enable men and women to become wise. Wisdom is a helpful point of reference because it incorporates the development of knowledge and understanding as well as the formation of character. Wise people are mature in both their understanding and their behaviour. Further wisdom assumes the integration and appropriation of truth--we both understand and live the truth.

But we need to be more specific. Character formation will be a many-sided commitment; we are seeking to form whole people. But there are three critical dimensions of character formation that we cannot neglect in the pursuit of wisdom.

The first is vocational development. Few things are so central as a growing clarity about one's vocation--one's strengths, passions, potential and opportunities--in response to the enabling of God. Life-long effective service for Christ, whatever one's vocation, is dependent on clarity regarding one's vocation. And this arises out of a maturing self-knowledge.

The second is emotional development and growth. Nothing is so critical to long-term vocational effectivity as clarity, depth and balance in our emotions. Many careers are sabotaged because of unresolved emotional baggage that come to the surface in mid-life or mid-career. In this, it is essential that one learn learn how to deal with disappointment and failure. Further when we long for our graduates to develop interpersonal skills we are in many respects expressing a longing for mature emotional development.

Third, we surely need to give special attention to the matter of gender, sexuality and marriage. Few things are so essential in spiritual formation as a clear understanding concerning gender and sexuality and the development of the essential disciplines that enable one to live in truth and freedom as male or female.

Therefore, the college/seminary provides a major and invaluable contribution to a student when they provide a setting or context in which to reflect on vocation, work through one's emotional response to God, to others and to the world, and come to terms with critical aspects of sexuality and gender.

This identification of three critical areas of spiritual development is not comprehensive. But it can give a school focus. Sometimes we do little or nothing because we are attempting to do everything. Further, affirmation and development in these three areas would provide the solid foundation for the growth of the whole person.

The only way in which this agenda of formation in wisdom can happen is if there is a complementary relationship between the classroom and its formal agenda and the program of spiritual formation that complements the classroom. Growth in wisdom, and in each dimension of character formation, comes through the development of knowledge and understandingin the classroom and the library. But it also comes through the integration that one experiences in prayer, worship, spiritual direction, personal accountability and service. It is not a matter of the one or the other. It is not a matter of character development in our spiritual formation programs and the development of the mind in the classroom. We must reject this kind of dichotomy. The objective is a complementary, intentional partnership, between the two.

As a passing note, I wonder if we do not need to be more explicit with our students about our agenda in character formation. Do our students have a clear sense of what our objectives are beyond just completing the courses for a degree program? Do they know what we mean by maturity? Perhaps we need to have this outlined clearly for our incoming students, reviewed (at least annually) and evaluated at the end of their program. We probably need to do this if we are going to be intentional and proactive and not just passive when it comes to character development.

The Means By Which The Objective Is Reached

There is an extensive body of literature delineating ways in which a school could achieve the objective of character formation. Some schools have chosen to require a course in spirituality--so that there is a theological and theoretical basis for the practice of the Christian life. Other schools choose to grant formal, academic credit for spiritual formation. The rationale is that students will take seriously only that for which the school grants credit. Other schools insist on community experience, insisting that we grow in wisdom as active members of a community, as we learn and grow together, in small groups, for example.

These are each noteworthy and commendable responses to the concern for spiritual formation. But I wish to emphasize two factors that are the most definitive and crucial means to realize character formation in an academic institution.

First, character formation is ultimately the fruit of the truth. It is truth that transforms; it is by the truth that minds are renewed and it is by the truth that we know wisdom. Central in this is the role of Scripture. I have a growing disease with the development of all kinds of approaches to spiritual formation--small groups, psychological tests and counselling methods, instruction in the spiritual disciplines, and so on--when we view these as achieving an end that can only be accomplished by the Word. These are valuable and essential in a program of spiritual formation. But they are only valuable to the degree that they are informed by truth--a conscious and deliberate effort to know, understand and obey the truth.

The question really becomes: Do we believe in the transforming power of Scripture? Do we really believe that the Spirit changes lives through the medium of the truth? We urgently need a coherent vision for theological education that grants Scripture a central and defining place. When this occurs, the Scriptures are studied, the Scriptures inform studies, but more, the Scriptures are also central to the worship and devotion of the community.

Do we believe this? We don't when we fail to see that a classroom lecture and discussion on the Sermon on the Mount may be the most significant factor in the development of mature and wise interpersonal skills. When people note that individuals lack character or maturity, we tend to look to the course or technique. While the course or technique may help, it is ultimately the Scriptures that Spirit uses to accomplish the end of spiritual maturity and wisdom.

Further, we don't really believe in the transforming power of Scripture when the worship of the academy--chapel gatherings--is a time of song and celebration but not an event in which to preach the Word. I am not suggesting that every chapel event should include a sermon. But it does mean that the preaching of the Scriptures is central in some form to the chapel events of the community. The reason: because of the transforming power of Scripture.

Can truth, as embodied in the Scriptures, become the central defining principle of our schools? If so, the truth itself will bring the integration between education and spirituality for which we long.

Finally, in speaking of the objective of character formation, I must stress a second element. The second definitive element in the formation of the student is the faculty member him/herself--not the curriculum, not the academic program, not the co-curricular activities, and not even the chapel services. It is the faculty members who embody the ideals of the academy.

In faculty recruitment, we must evaluate and expect professional and instructional competence. But with similar rigor, we must also look for characterdepth of piety, mature emotional well-being and a vital commitment to Christ and his kingdom. We can evaluate professional credentials; but it is much more difficult to determine whether an individual has the emotional, spiritual and relational integrity essential to be an adequate model within the college/seminary.

One good focus in recruitment is to decide whether the candidate shows evidence of gratitude and humility on the one hand, and resolved grievances on the other. Does the candidate have a pattern of resolving wrongs and forgiving? Further, does the candidate display an ability to seek and experience the means of grace to respond to the stress points of life? Finally, confirm one way or the other when a candidate has a sense of humour!

The point is that if we are going to speak of the integration of faith and learning, of intellectual and spiritual development, it must be modeled in our faculty.


Theological education is an essential part of spiritual formation; spiritual formation is an essential part of theological education. They are each most effective when they complement one another in a way that is mutually reinforcing. Further, they are effective when our objective is clear--the pursuit of wisdom--and when our means our clear--through truth and through the example of our faculty.