The Spiritual Formation of the Minister: A Growing Concern
By Richard D. Dobbins
Throughout Western history the clergy has enjoyed a higher level of public trust than any other professional group. However, the growing number of media reports about clergy abuse of spiritual power, breaches of confidentiality, embezzlement, fraud, involvement in personality cults, and sexual misconduct have provoked marked erosion in that trust. Today’s public mood is seen in the permission given to national comedians to entertain audiences with their own comical versions of these events.
Although Americans are becoming jaded by the frequent media exposure of scandalous living among business executives, politicians, entertainers, and sports figures, they are still shocked to discover the frequency with which members of the clergy appear among this infamous group. People understand the minister is human; however, they expect to see in him an image of Christ they can emulate. What are these sad facts saying to us?
Is There a Character Crisis in the Ministry?
The word character has an interesting etymology that dates back to the 14th century. One of its roots is found in the Greek word charassein, which means “to scratch or engrave.” Among its many definitions, two are particularly relevant to the spiritual formation of the minister: (1) A character is “a conventional graphic device placed on an object as an indication of ownership”; (2) Character is “one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual.”1 These definitions are reflected in Paul’s reminder that authentic ministry results in the ownership and likeness of Christ being etched on the hearts of believers (2 Corinthians 3:3).
A person’s character is defined by his attitudes and behavior over time. As the Holy Spirit gradually reforms the believer’s conscience through the power of the written Word, his internal decisionmaking process produces a growing reflection of the character of Christ in his life.
The erosion of Christlikeness among Galatian believers alarmed Paul (Galatians 4:19). This is what should concern us most about the startling increase of sexual misconduct among today’s clergy. Until there is a consistent display of Christlikeness among the clergy, we cannot rightly expect to see it among the laity. At the root of this moral crisis in the ministry is the spiritual formation of the minister.
What Is Spiritual Formation?
Although it is not a biblical term, spiritual formation is a process that begins with conversion. The speed and intensity with which it proceeds will be determined by the degree to which we expose our hearts to Scripture and submit our wills to the lordship of Jesus, truly becoming His disciples (John 8:32). Paul describes the process this way, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The product of spiritual formation is a growing Christlikeness in us (Galatians 4:19).
Theologically, spiritual formation is part of the believer’s sanctification, a continuing work of grace that transforms us through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Put in more practical terms, sanctification is God’s provision for healing believers from the hurts of their past and delivering them from habits and other aspects of their carnality that hinder the expression of Christ in their attitudes and behavior.
There has been such a marked neglect of preaching and teaching about sanctification that many believers do not realize the need to be sanctified once they are saved. However, just as the lost need to be saved from their sins, the saved need to be healed from the pain and brokenness of their past. The mental template through which they view life has been twisted and distorted by their pain and brokenness. This template needs to be transformed so it gradually conforms more and more to the redemptive view of their history Christ wants them to have (1 Corinthians 13:11). Their conscience needs to be restructured more and more so it imposes a biblical view of morality on their urges, fantasies, and ideas. For example, the relaxing of the guilt-prone believer’s conscience and the constricting of the self-indulgent believer’s conscience should be the healthy outcome of his sanctification.
Since ministers are to serve as examples to the flock, they need to sense an even greater need to be sanctified than the people they pastor (1 Peter 5:3). Because of the expectations people impose on ministers it can be difficult for ministers to humbly acknowledge this need and give it the attention it deserves in their lives.
What Has Produced This Character Crisis?
The factors involved in creating this moral dilemma are numerous, subtle, and complex. We can only briefly address a few of them.
Even though ministers are divinely called, our worldview comes from the society we serve. Our character is being formed by moral training from institutions our society has entrusted with that responsibility: the family, the public school, and the church.
Over the last half-century these three character-building institutions have suffered unconscionable spiritual erosion. As a result, the character of those entering the ministry today will likely reflect the results of this erosion. Even a casual overview of the ways these institutions have been affected by societal changes vividly illustrates their impairment as character-building institutions in the lives of our young.
Breakdown of the Family
The breakdown of the two-parent family is a major factor in society’s moral decay. The institution of marriage in America was drastically affected by the throes and aftermath of World War II. This was the longest war in American history (1941–46). The prolonged separation of husbands and wives, the impulsive decisions of sweethearts to marry before one of them went to war, and the unwise mate choices by our troops stationed in other countries combined to produce unparalleled levels of marital incompatibility and stress.
Once the war was over many of these couples found they had very little in common. When they were faced with the daily stresses of living together and raising children, many of marriages did not survive.
During the war years all of our human and material resources were devoted to the war effort. Consumer products were on short supply. When the war was over, young couples wanted to acquire new homes, new cars, and new appliances.
The government guaranteed a job to all returning veterans and many of their wives and husbands were already employed in the war effort. So, many couples agreed that both of them would continue to work until they acquired the things they needed. Then the wife would return to the home to raise their children during the formative years of their lives.
Unfortunately, this never happened. Over the years, Americans fell in love with a standard of living that required two incomes. The dual-worker family became the American way of life. As banks began to accept the wife’s income as surety for home mortgages, her working was no longer a choice.
The necessity of two incomes placed added financial stress on the family. The wife’s contribution to the family income rightly earned her a greater role in the business of the family. Predictably, gender roles began to change radically.
The dual-worker family also created the growing problem with latchkey children. Today, most children in America do not have the luxury of a full-time parent in the home.
These structural changes in marriage and family life caused levels of marital stress that eventually spawned a dramatic rise in the divorce rate. For the first time in American history, divorce was so common that it became socially acceptable to break up families when parents could not tolerate the stress their choices had created for each other.
This radical social change toward divorce was accommodated by new no-fault divorce laws spreading across our nation. Subsequently, broken, blended, and single-parent families became increasingly common in America.
Today, a majority of our children spend their formative years in broken homes or single-parent families. This includes those who will be called into the ministry later in their lives. Consequently, many future ministers are growing up in broken, divorced, and single-parent families. This is not an ideal environment for producing the strong, healthy character needed to handle the stresses of modern ministry.
Most of us inherit a physically healthy brain from our parents. However, the family environment created by our parents’ choices, attitudes, and behavior heavily impacts the formation of our conscience and character. These mental structures that control our view of life and our behavior are formed early in life. This is why parents are admonished to “train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6).
A person’s conscience and character are predictors of their behavior. Our conscience is formed before we start school. Our character is formed by the time we graduate from high school. A healthy conscience forms the foundation for the development of a strong and healthy character (1 Timothy 1:19; 2 Timothy 1:3).
Children raised in a healthy, godly home benefit from this process. When they choose to accept Christ, they bring a healthier conscience and stronger character into the Kingdom with them. On the other hand, children whose family environment did not provide them with these advantages are highly likely to enter the Kingdom with a less reliable conscience and weaker character structure. The battle for spiritual formation is a challenge for us all, but those raised in a healthy, godly family have a decided advantage in waging it (2 Timothy 1:5).
The moral erosion of public schools
Historically, American public schools have played a major role in the character formation of our children. Principals and teachers have been assigned the responsibility to serve in loco parentis during the time our children are under their supervision. In the past, our public school administrators and teachers could be counted on to affirm and reinforce the values of the home.
For example, some of us were taught The Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, Psalm 100, and Psalm 23 by our first-grade teachers. We began our school day by reciting one of these along with the Pledge of Allegiance.
All of this changed in the early 1960s when the Bible and any formal religious references were legally banned from the classrooms. As a result, the school’s role in the formation of our children’s character has been greatly weakened. Regrettably, then, our children bring their weakened character structure into their adult lives. Future ministers rise from this population.
Weakened Role of the Church in Spiritual Formation
In previous generations, the church often served as the conscience of our society and played a central role in the social life of its members. Today, this role has substantially changed. The mobility of American families, the loss of confidence in public institutions (the church included), and the heightened self-interests of Americans have pushed the church to the periphery of its members’ lives and decreased its influence in the formation of their character and the character of their children.
Even more critical is the weakened control the church has over the spiritual formation of its ministry. The unique nature of the ministry requires the minister to be aware of personal and conversational boundaries at all times. He must guard the confidentiality of those who trust intimate details of their lives to him. He often finds himself in places that require unusual discretion, prudence, and wisdom.
In the past our seminaries and ministerial training institutions were better prepared to provide a disciplined approach to spiritual formation that was more likely to work these virtues into the character of future ministers. For example, administrators had physical control over students for at least the first year of their training. Daily chapel attendance was required. Dormitory life with enforced morning and evening devotional times were part of the ministers’ daily training. Today, more and more ministerial students work their way through Bible college or seminary and are subject to little if any imposed spiritual discipline. In addition, more and more of our ministers are gaining their credentials through distance education where their conscience and character are subject to even less impact from mentors or peer groups.
With less focus on conscience and character development in the home and school one would hope the church would have greater control over those preparing for ministry so they could impose the spiritual influence necessary to compensate for the lack of character training in the family and public school. However, today this expectation seems to be unrealistic or even unfair. Nevertheless, the diminished role of Bible colleges and seminaries in shaping the character and spiritual formation of the student minister has become another important factor in the current character crisis in the ministry.
As a result, academic requirements, doctrinal exams, interviews, and references are largely the basis of our credentialing process. Although these sources provide us with important information about the applicant for credentials, they furnish us little or no insight into his spiritual formation. Consequently, an increasing number of people whose character structure and spiritual formation ill equips them for exercising the power of the pastoral office and dealing with the stresses of public ministry are given ministerial credentials.
The Impact of Society’s Moral Decline
Our postmodern society is awash with moral relativism, historical revisionism, and theological pragmatism, none of which encourages the development of sound personal character. These influences are especially treacherous for those who are called into the ministry.
In addition, the competitive nature of capitalistic materialism largely ignores the spiritual and moral nature of a person’s character and focuses almost entirely on a person’s ability. Performance is the basis of their reward. When today’s society evaluates a leader, the bottom line takes precedence over moral character.
The impact of these social forces on the church tends to produce a results-driven ministry. Numbers and the time it takes to produce them define success. Ministers who can give rise to a rapidly growing church are admired, recognized, and held up by the church as models to be emulated by their peers. Paul warns us of the folly of this kind of evaluation in the Lord’s work (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Rewarding ministers who possess such skills leaves those without them feeling obscure, unappreciated, and of little value to the church. In this climate, it is easy for effective performance to take precedence over a godly life in the minister’s priorities. More of the minister’s time and energy is likely to be spent learning how to build a big church quickly than is invested in his pursuit of a godly life. Thus, the ministry becomes more of a profession than a calling. In this context, identifying someone as a minister tends to refer more to what the person does rather than who the person is.
Caught in this kind of context many ministers become confused about who they are. Are they skilled leaders in the business of religion? Or, are they called to be servants of God and His people.
A Minister’s Doing Should Reflect His Being
Being able to preach well may make a minister popular and even earn him the admiration … or envy of his peers. However, it is his ability to live well that endears him to the hearts of his congregation. Many people retain very little of what their pastor says, but they will remember the way he lived among them long after he has left their parish.
The wise pastor reminds himself frequently that the way he livesbefore God and among the people communicates a far more important message to them than anything he says to them from the pulpit. Living a godly life among the people should be the minister’s first priority. This will keep him humble when his congregation is large and encourage him when his congregation is small.
In the long run, it is the minister’s life that brings credibility or disrepute to his ministry … not his performance in the pulpit or his expertise in leadership and church growth. Who he is inevitably becomes more important than what he says or does.
How Can We Deal With This Dilemma?
The minister himself must assume the primary responsibility for his spiritual formation. However, the national church also has a threefold responsibility in attending to the minister’s character. First, the church is responsible to focus on spiritual formation, the sanctification of its future ministers, in educating and training them for the ministry. Second, in the credentialing process the church is responsible for providing local churches with pastors of sound godly character. Third, the church is responsible to the general public in blessing communities with ministers of godly character while protecting them from those who lack it.
The challenge of transforming ministerial students into candidates for ministry is greater than ever. For reasons we have already stated and more, the character structures of incoming freshmen as well as those preparing for the ministry through distance education programs are likely to be more damaged than those of previous generations. Therefore, their need for spiritual formation is understandably greater than that of preceding generations. Yet, because of weakened administrative control, encouraging student ministers in the spiritual disciplines of Bible study, prayer, reflection, meditation, and waiting on God is bound to be more difficult than in decades past.
For the benefit and protection of local churches and the general public, character examination and spiritual formation needs to be given more attention in the credentialing process. Those who will experience personal tragedy in the ministry need to be identified so they can receive the help they need to further prepare them for the ministry before they are credentialed. Denying credentials to those whose character is likely to damage people and disgrace the church needs to be seen as redemptive rather than punitive.
Training older experienced ministers to mentor ministerial candidates in the spiritual disciplines would be a welcome focus on the spiritual formation of future ministers. Candidates could have a choice in determining who would be their mentor. At first, this may be done in a voluntary system, but eventually it needs to be a requirement for licensing. The church has an obligation to God and the public to take a more careful look at the character of those being given the power to become pastors of people.
There is an additional step that can be taken to address candidates’ needs for spiritual formation before they are ordained. The credentialing body could define goals and objectives related to spiritual formation that candidates must achieve through a 1-year preordination internship program. Experienced pastors can be taught to train ministerial interns. Eventually, if such an internship program is going to have the desired impact on the ordination candidate, serving this internship needs to be a requirement for ordination.
Personal Steps the Minister Can Take
Since no one is looking directly over the shoulder of the minister, it is important that he or she be a self-motivated, self-directed person driven by a desire for honesty, self-knowledge, and intimacy with God (See sidebar, “Spiritual Formation.”) Possessed with these attributes the minister will find an abundance of material on spiritual formation available in print and on the Internet. The writings of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard are particularly helpful. Both of them have websites that can prove resourceful for the serious seeker.
Ultimately, the minister must assume total responsibility for his own spiritual formation regardless of the strengths or deficits he may have inherited from his family. Waging the personal spiritual warfare necessary for offsetting the moral erosions of our culture and the trauma rooted in our personal history is essential to the Holy Spirit’s producing a growing likeness of Christ in us. (See sidebar, “Eight Steps to Waging Spiritual Warfare in Your Life.”) This warfare must take priority over all the public functions of our ministry if we are to avoid becoming “castaways” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary & Thesaurus, Deluxe Audio Edition, 2000.
2. Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2001). Also, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.html.