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Incarnational Ministry

Formation for ordained ministry is a formation of our whole being in practical wisdom.

We often think of pastoral robes as garments that signify ministerial leadership. For Ben, it was a shirt. Not just any shirt: it was the one he borrowed during the summer from the custodial staff of the church where he did his field education several years ago. Ben was the recipient of one of our most distinguished scholarships—the Divinity Fellowship—designated for people with strong academic backgrounds and gifts for pastoral leadership. He was placed at a “partner church” for his first summer of Divinity School, a large and wonderfully vital congregation with a strong clergy and lay staff who mentored him throughout the summer.

Ben learned a lot over those 10 weeks. He began his ministry there by shadowing a different pastoral staff member each week, learning from them the various skills and practices of ministry. Several weeks into the internship, though, he realized he was missing something. So he went to the lead custodian and asked if there was an extra uniform he could wear so that he could shadow the custodial staff the following week. Surprised by this request, the custodian found an extra uniform for him. Every day for a week Ben put on the uniform and worked with the custodial staff: cleaning classrooms and bathrooms, mopping floors, emptying trash, and eating lunch with them each day. At the end of the summer, the lead custodian said to those gathered: “No one has ever worn our uniform before. You not only got to know us, you became one of us. You cleaned with us; you ate with us. You are our brother in Christ.” For Ben, the shirt was a reminder of the holistic approach to pastoral leadership. That shirt represented incarnational ministry.

In Philippians 2:5, Paul calls Christians to have the same “mind” that “was in Christ Jesus.” The word translated “have the [same] mind” is phronein in Greek, and it has a much richer connotation than the way we normally think of the word “mind.” It connotes practical wisdom, a shaping of our whole life that includes our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and actions. Stephen Fowl, in his commentary on Philippians, suggests that a more accurate (but cumbersome) translation of Philippians 2:5 would be, “Let this be your pattern of thinking, acting, and feeling, which was also displayed in Christ Jesus.”

Formation for ordained ministry is a formation of our whole being: our thinking and intellect as well as our emotions and actions. Ordained ministers need to be practically wise, people who embody excellent judgment both in their own lives and also in the leadership they exercise as pastors. In exercising leadership, pastors regularly have to make difficult choices, such as how to confront risk, when to stand up for oneself or for others, how to be fair in adjudications, or when and how to be angry. Only through the cultivation of wisdom that is lived out in practical, daily application can pastors shepherd their people faithfully and effectively.

Yet more often than not, we think of formation for ministry as being primarily about shaping people academically for ministry. It is an easy assumption to make, especially at a place like Duke, because academics are important and students are studying for a master of divinity degree at one of the world’s leading universities. And we do take academic study seriously. We share the view expressed in Chaim Potok’s novel In the Garden that “a shallow mind is a sin against God.”

We are privileged to have many of the world’s leading theological scholars on our faculty, and their teaching and research is an exceptional resource for the church’s faithful understanding and witness. Ministerial students like Ben are able to discover the intellectual riches of Scripture, Christian tradition, systematic theology and ethics, and practical theology. It is a demanding curriculum because pastoral leaders need to be able to think deeply, faithfully, and truly about God and the mission of the church in the world. We hope students find their education to be as rigorous as students in medicine or law, because the work pastors do is at least as important.

Protestant theological education in the mainline traditions, especially in the United States, has emphasized academic study. But such schools have tended not to focus on spiritual formation as much, believing that arena was more Catholic. Nor have they emphasized learning the practical skills of ministry beyond preaching, which more evangelical seminaries tend to include.

Duke Divinity School is noted for our integrated approach to theological education, emphasizing