At Western Seminary we are invested in training Christians to be catalysts for whole-life discipleship and fruitful engagement in culture and communities in a variety of ways. At the core of our mission is our graduate-level seminary curriculum. We have been working for several months now on a process of evaluating and enhancing the degree to which our courses involved substantial theological reflection on work and economics. While the fruit of this process has yet to be fully gleaned, we have already made some encouraging discoveries.
In our systematic theology sequence, professors unpack the theology of work as it relates to creation, eschatology and ecclesiology, and what it means to be made in the image of God. Bible professors also look for opportunities to help students connect exegetical truths to their concrete implications in real life, equipping future pastors and leaders to help their congregations and communities to appreciate the implications of the gospel for all aspects of life. Our ministry and spiritual formation courses also include modules on topics like calling and vocation, ethics and work, and ministering for the common good.
As a sample of the impact the Oikonomia Network has had and is having in our seminary curriculum, I asked professor and M.Div. program director Ron Marrs to express some of what he has done in the classroom over the years. His reply appears below.
For over twenty years, Western Seminary has been teaching a course entitled Discovering and Developing Your Ministry Potential. Recently, this course has been revised, and is now titled Introduction to Theological Studies and Ministry Leadership Formation.
One of the primary course objectives has been to help students determine their divine design for ministry. Subjects have included the obvious discussion of vocation and call as well as temperament, gifting, passion and talents. This has been a required course for students in all master’s degree programs except counseling.
As would be expected, students enter this class with varying degrees of certainty about their vocational aspirations. Many are already located in a ministry vocation and plan to continue in it. Others know that God wants them in seminary, but have no idea what the future holds. One such student was a middle-aged woman who had worked in fresh water fisheries for over 20 years. She retired from that work and entered seminary with no real idea of what her vocation would be in the future. When I described my son’s work with an unreached people group and how they were starting a sea-cucumber business, the wheels started turning for this student. Subsequently, she dropped out of seminary after one year and joined my son in the work. This was more clearly God’s plan for her, rather than going to seminary. She has been a valuable part of the team as she moved from fresh-water animals to ocean animals.
When our seminary became involved with the Oikonomia Network, I was honored to become part of the effort to integrate work and economics more fully into education at Western. As I began to read and learn from others in this network, I was convinced that this course needed to include substantial engagement with theology of work. Since other theology courses are committed to covering a theology of work more broadly, I simply provide a primer. These are some of the principles I cover in the course:
- God works.
- Humans were instructed to work prior to the Fall.
- When sin entered the world, work became difficult.
- Work was required for food.
- Specialization in work started early in humankind’s history.
- Jesus worked.
- Work should be done as unto the Lord.
- Do all to the glory of God.
- Be salt and light in your work.
- Seek peace, justice and righteousness in your work.
- Love your neighbor in your work.
- Work for the common good.
- Work for the flourishing of the city.
Building on this foundation, I emphasize the process of vocational discernment for every Christian. Using the following five-part definition of vocation I help students grasp the concept in a way that they can then pass along in their own churches and ministry settings.
A vocation that is characteristic of a Christ-follower is an approach to a particular life role in the realm of work. It is discovered through prayerful examination of one’s passions, gifts, natural talents, and personality through personal reflection and input from the Christian community. It is oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness, based on the pursuit of God’s glory and the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment (announcing and acting out the gospel of the kingdom of God). It is motivated primarily by other-oriented values and goals in obedience to God’s command to love others by meeting their needs.
Such a vocation involves a settled alignment between God’s purposes, your design (based on a healthy and realistic view of yourself) and the needs of people. This is what Amy Sherman calls your “sweet spot” in her book Kingdom Calling. In order to avoid a self-centered approach to vocational discovery I tell them that a Christ-follower would be wise to hold to these biblical presuppositions:
- The passions of God are more important than my passions.
- The purposes of God are superior to mine.
- The plans of God are not subservient to my plans.
- The mission of God is the most important mission.
- The commands of God are the focus of my obedience.
These presuppositions are held with the confidence that God desires every Christian to use their gifts, abilities, and talents to love and glorify him and to love people, and he will guide every Christian to a place of kingdom responsibility. My hope is that every Christian will have a robust understanding of their vocation and establish more fully their identity in Christ. That they would study the passions, purposes, plans, mission and commands of God, and have these in mind during the whole process of considering their vocation. That they examine their gifts, abilities, passions and temperament; consider the needs of people; and weigh the variety of life’s obligations, including work, marriage, family, church, etc. That they discuss all of this with trusted friends and family. And finally, that they pray through the whole process.
My hope is that students will not only have a clearer sense of their own vocation, but be prepared to help others do the same. Students continually affirm the value of this part of the course for their own ministry and vocational discovery.