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Monday, January 26, 2009

Spiritual Formation Hiring

A popular new term in Christian churches is spiritual formation. It describes the process through which Christ's character is formed in our spiritual being. Popular author Dallas Willard, however, points out that it is a process that all humans go through, Christian or not. He narrows the definition to how our spirits or hearts are formed, and says it happens to everyone from the saints to terrorists.

I was on staff at a big city church for a couple of years. My title was "Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Ministry Development." It was a mouthful of a title. Of course the elders and senior pastor had defined the title for me when they hired me. But I am still learning to understand what it means. It seems to go deeper than just scheduling educational opportunities for church goers. It seems that the Apostle Paul was a pastor of spiritual formation. There have been many through the centuries. The term has come into vogue only in the last century though.

If you browse the ministry and church job boards, you'll find job postings for associate pastor, senior pastor, executive pastor, pastor of education and all sorts of terms. Sometimes, you'll find a job posting specifically for a pastor of spiritual formation. Usually the credentials they're looking for include things like a master's degree in theology, several years of ministry experience, biblical piety. One has to consider how those credentials translate spiritually. It is certain that many who have such credentials do not seem to impart spiritual formation to others. On the flip side, we must ask ourselves if these are the differentiating credentials that really position someone for success in such a role.

Christian author John Ortberg (who is also pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California) has some thoughts about hiring for spiritual formation in your church. Let's look at what he says about that. "What kind of person should we hire to do spiritual formation? the most important criterion is this: hire someone whose character and humility and attitude you would like to see reproduced in your church and yourself. .... if someone is going to champion the cause of spiritual life, they have to be at least on their way toward living the kind of life I'd like to live."

Did you catch that? According to Ortberg, it's not the degree. It's not the experience. It's not the age or the references. In fact, it is the kind of credentials that only God Himself could bestow upon someone! Ortberg continues, "... spiritual formation is not mostly about expertise in techniques ... it is having wisdom about how our spirits - our wills; our inner selves and characters - actually do get formed. It's being formed yourself in such a way that other people want to grow in your direction."

It seems to me that churches go about the process of spiritual formation in a variety of ways. Formal study (i.e., college-level courses or degree programs), informal study, community or church involvement, the practice of spiritual disciplines (like prayer, fasting, confession, etc.), and of course ordinary experiences of everyday life lived out with the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Not long ago, Willow Creek Church in Illinois did a study of its congregation and found an alarming truth, that their people were not maturing. They concluded that Christ's character was not being formed in their congregation --- and of course they determined to change course and address that. Many other churches have come to similar conclusions and are taking similar actions. They put maturity high on the list of priorities and all sorts of maturity programs are being rolled out to address the problem as they understand it (mostly through surveys and informal observations).

As I look at these programs, it seems that more and more, people are concluding that leadership development is an important dimension of spiritual formation. So leadership training is rolled out, with the expectation that it will multiply leaders who can act as pastors of spiritual formation in the church. I wonder if that works. My sense is that it may not, and that the jury is probably still out as to why. You see, I find no shortage of books, programs, teaching tools, tapes, events and even music around spiritual formation. It seems that everyone has an opinion and many have an answer (that they'd like you to purchase).

But I think there is another aspect of spiritual formation that we may be overlooking. If I really want Christ's character to be formed in me --- I am going to have to get a laser sharp focus on Christ. I will need to be taught spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, confession, tithing, submission, obedience and even listening to God. But even then, Christ's character won't be formed in me unless God Himself does the transforming work in me. I've read a lot about this and I think Ortberg hit the nail on the head. "Spiritual formation is about having wisdom ... it is about being formed yourself ..."

I think the conclusion to make here is that there are no earthly credentials for someone you'd want to hire to lead spiritual formation in your church. Quite frankly, no one is qualified ... unless God Himself provides the credentials. Now, imagine the challenge that will pose for your church's search committee to word that job posting and filter those resumes!

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