Truett: Spiritual Formation Visuals

Visual Model for Truett’s Spiritual Formation Courses

Over the summer months our office revisits our past year of experiences in Truett’s Spiritual Formation courses. We review student feedback and think about our core objectives and overall approach. The courses have different components, and different points of focus within each component. Keeping everything clear is a challenge.

For the coming year, we’ve designated three primary spaces in each course: Teaching, Covenant Group, and Canvas.

The teaching space is led by an instructor, either Professor Angela Reed or myself, and is focused on the application and practice of spiritual formation concepts and ideas in the life of the leader and the life of the community. Not only are we teaching key spiritual disciples and a theology of spiritual formation, we are helping students make connections to their lived experiences as disciples of Jesus as leaders and as part of the body of Christ. The key questions here are: “How does my understanding of spiritual formation and commitment to spiritual practices shape me as a leader?” and “How do these concepts and practices shape the life of the Christian community?”

The covenant group space is led by mentors. Covenant groups are subgroups within each spiritual formation course and consist of five to eight students. These groups focus on the spiritual disciples (or practices) and their experiences with those practices, building relationships in Christian fellowship, and providing accountability for one another.

Canvas is our designated space for written assignments and online community. In the online tool, Canvas, associated with our course, we use discussion prompts and discussion boards to invite student to reflect on their experiences and their reading, and to interact with one another after submitting an initial response. Our mentors and instructors also interact with students in this space.

In an effort to better explain the spiritual formation process, we’ve also created two more visual diagrams that represent differences in approaching the spiritual life from grace-based and guilt-motivated frameworks. First I’ll explain the guilt-motivated framework, and then I’ll say a few words about our grace-based perspective.

The Guilt Cycle

In our conversations with students and in our experiences in ministry, we’ve found that many have adopted a guilt-motivated approach to the spiritual life, one that is rooted in misunderstandings of the Christian gospel and subtle (and sometimes overt) shifts toward a works-righteousness way of sanctification. Students are often clear that they are justified by grace, but struggle to see how grace continues to be the dynamism at play in spiritual growth.

Years ago I heard John Ortberg give a talk wherein he talked about a guilt spiral, an approach to the spiritual life where people hear about various ways of connecting with God and, after being compelled, they give it a try. After trying a while, they get tired and fail, and as a result they quit. But then as time passes and they hear more sermons and exhortations to be “doing” certain things, the guilt accrues and becomes too much to bear, and as a result trying begins again, only to repeat the whole cycle over again, spiraling down and down in defeat.

A guilt-motivation approach to spirituality, given enough time, deadens the soul. We need an alternative, a way of approaching the spiritual life that is undergirded, informed, and animated by grace. It is God working in and through us, even as we commit and decide to follow after Jesus Christ.

Professor Reed speaks about this process as a spiral, and our key words recast our understanding of growth.

First, we commit to act. We do the things that Jesus has called us to do. This draws together many streams within the Christian tradition, including the contemplative and activist streams. Our actions are done in response to the calling of Jesus and in line with our tradition.

After taking action, we reflect on what took place. What did we think? How did we feel? What happened? What went right? What went terribly wrong? What was helpful? What was unhelpful? Where was God? Where were the points of resistance? What adjustments are possible? What did I discover about myself?

Then, we learn. We pay attention to our answers and make note of our new knowledge, which includes knowledge of God, self, and our world.

Finally, we refine. We look ahead to our next action–whether it be prayer, fasting, service, sabbath, or some other action taken with God–and prepare to engage from our new point of growth.

This process also spirals, but in a virtuous way. Experience deepens and knowledge deepens.

Our models are in process. We’re constantly listening and discerning and seeking new and better ways to connect truths about the spiritual life to our students as they find themselves today. But these models are a good start, a good foundation, and reflect concepts that we will explore in the year to come.

Online Theological Education

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.

Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.

Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.

One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.

Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.

Creech: To Those Pastoring

pexels-photo-449015
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Dr. Robert Creech serves as Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There are several things I like about Dr. Creech. He’s always been friendly to me. He encourages his students to read Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard. He and his wife, Melinda, are restoring an eighty-eight acre portion of their family farm in Floresville, Texas to native prairie. He’s a Master Naturalist. He and his wife also serve as Faculty-in-Residence at Baylor in the North Village Residential Community, and I very much like it that my university has people like Dr. Creech living alongside students. I find this to be a really neat aspect of campus life.

Several weeks ago Dr. Creech published an open letter on his blog addressing those who are pastoring. His exhortations and encouragements are apt, grounded in the witness of Scripture. To summarize, he urges pastors to preach, connect, adjust, practice self-care, share the work, face reality, and to serve in hope (which is distinct from optimism or despair).

He closes with these words:

Pastors, what you men and women are doing has never been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership, and your faithful ministry. The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely, world? You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.

Indeed. Be encouraged.

Truett’s 2020 Lenten Devotional Guide

church-3186966_640
Image by elizabethalliburton from Pixabay

Truett Seminary has compiled a devotional guide for the upcoming Lenten season. I contributed a couple of entries and assisted in the editorial process. The guide outlines daily readings from Matthew and offers reflections from students, staff, and faculty that are inspired by the prescribed Scripture text for that day. Entries variously include exposition, poetry, imaginative prose depictions, guided prayer, recommended practices, and questions for reflection.

Download your copy and follow along.

Is He Worthy?

Truett Seminary held a convocation service yesterday at the First Baptist Church of Waco, marking the beginning of our twenty-fifth year of ministry.

Supporters of Truett, faculty and staff, leaders at Baylor, members of the community, many students, and members of the inaugural class gathered to dedicate the year ahead to God. This silver anniversary, as it is, presents the opportunity to look back and give thanks, to look around and take stock, and to look ahead and dream of what might be. The service and the luncheon that followed were wonderful from gathering to goodbye.

One particular moment of our time together, however, left a great impression upon me. Prior to hearing from Dr. William D. Shiell, President of Northern Seminary, who would offer our convocation address, we listened to the Truett Chapel Worship Ensemble present “Is He Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson.

I revisited the song today, paying particular attention to the lyrics, thinking carefully about the words themselves. My cheeks became damp with tears. The music is beautiful. The visuals are quite good. But the song’s power comes from the words. They are powerful because they are the truth about the deepest realities of existence, expressing not only the promises of God as they are found in Scripture that inspire hope in the deepest recesses of the human heart, but also by pointing us to the person who has fulfilled them all.

Jesus, indeed, is worthy.

New Job!

Dreams come true, and God answers prayer.

Last week I began work as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. I’m thrilled beyond measure, unfathomably grateful,  excited, and deeply gladdened to enter service in the Office of Spiritual Formation, working under the direction and guidance of Dr. Angela Reed, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation. I’m also very thankful for the leadership of Dean Todd Still, whom I have become further acquainted with during the interview process and during my first few days in office.

I’ll follow in the footsteps of Bill Walker, who has been in the role for the past two years. Bill has been a tremendous friend and colleague. He has done excellent work in the classroom and behind the scenes in the Spiritual Formation office. I pray God’s blessing on him as he returns to his roots in Austin, Texas, where he will serve as Director of Vocation at Christ Church of Austin.

It’s an incredible opportunity for me that involves the sweet coalescence of personal history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Stated differently, this is very, very cool.

So what’s the job?

All kinds of people are part of the Truett community. Some have discerned a vocation to the pastorate, others seek a deeper faith through theological education, and still others  have yet to discover why God has brought them to seminary. Many are from the Baptist tradition, though not all. There are multiple degree programs and certificate programs. The seminary exists “to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s a big mission that serves a broad diversity of people.

The Spiritual Formation office supports this mission. We do so by praying for the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the seminary community. We also coordinate and offer instruction in one distinct and vital aspect of the seminary’s curriculum: Covenant Group.

Covenant Groups are like small groups, and every seminarian takes part in these groups as part of their course of study. A major part of my new job responsibility is to coordinate these groups, recruit mentors, and shepherd students in meeting this requirement. The model is evolving, changes and refinements are being made. But the basic concept remains steady. When students begin study at Truett Seminary, they are placed in a small group of ideally six to eight colleagues, assigned one group mentor, and then participate together for four semesters in a course of study.

Covenant Groups receive instruction in biblical, historical, practical, and theological approaches to the Christian spiritual life. Each student is required to read assigned texts, to participate in their groups, and to practice spiritual disciplines individually and together. The groups allow space for testimony and ministry to one another, as well as for discernment and mutual counsel as each student listens for God’s will for their life. At the conclusion of four semesters together, our goal is for students to have a firm grasp on their story, to identify ways God has formed their identity in Jesus Christ, and to gain clarity in how God is calling them forward into a deeper, fuller faith as disciples, heralds, servants, and ministers of the gospel.

We also hope these groups nurture friendships, create community, and allow for collegiality to develop among our students. We hope our mentors are seen not only as guides or teachers, but as encouragers and helpful counselors. Community is indispensable for our students as they carefully study and practice the Christian life. Covenant Groups provide a space for a body within the Body of Christ, a place where the ideals we speak of concerning the church can be lived out among a small fellowship of disciples.

I’ll help recruit, train, coordinate, and support the mentors who lead these groups. I’ll also have the opportunity, in concert with Dr. Reed, to teach courses and offer lectures that are part of the Covenant Group curriculum.

While Covenant Groups are my most significant responsibility, I’ll also work with Truett’s Spiritual Direction Training program. As a certified spiritual director, I’m excited to continue that ministry within the context of this program.

I mentioned that the opportunity to join the Truett family was a “sweet coalescence” of my history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Twenty years ago, while I was an undergraduate at Baylor University, I dreamed of one day serving in higher education. I wanted to be a Christian scholar, serving the academy and the church. I had models to follow in Dr. John Wood, Professor Robert Reid, and Dr. Larry Lehr, people who embodied ideas that I wanted to adopt for myself. There are other examples I could name. My highest hope and my biggest dream was to one day serve in this capacity at Baylor University–as a learned teacher, mentor, and friend.

Furthermore, one of the important figures in the history of Truett Seminary was a man named Paul W. Powell, who served as Dean from 2001 to 2007. Before he served as Dean, Paul was an evangelist, pastor, and Texas Baptist statesman. When I was a boy he was my pastor at the Green Acres Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas. His life and ministry had an effect on multiple generations of my family. Paul baptized me. Later, he preached the charge at my ordination at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, which is pastored now as it was then by Pastor Chad Selph.

The chapel at Truett Seminary is named in Paul’s honor. I’m thankful to be serving in a place that has been marked by his legacy. By witnessing Paul’s life, reading his little books, and hearing stories about him, I’ve been deeply inspired to work diligently for the Lord while it is still day, while we still can, to do all to the glory of God, for “night cometh,” therefore “Go into all the world.”

Lastly, serving in the area of Spiritual Formation aligns with my research interests. I’ve been reading stuff in this area for years. I’m a nerd when it comes to Christian discipleship and formation. Plus, I’m a Christian educator. I want to teach what I’ve learned. I believe in the importance of an intellectually informed faith, rigorous and challenging theological instruction, the formation of character, love for God, and service to the world.

I look forward to serving the seminary community as we create an environment where students can be formed in the way and likeness of Christ. A couple of my friends know that means I will be quoting a lot of Dallas Willard, and they are right. Guilty as charged.

But that won’t be all. Hopefully, the person I quote most will be Jesus. He’s the Master. And I hope to serve him well in this new capacity of service with Truett Seminary. If you are ever in Waco, make an appointment to see me. I’d love to show you my desk, give you a tour, hear what you’re up to, and talk about all the good and great things taking place in this vibrant, thoughtful, and committed community of faith.

Pray for me.

I’ll pray for you.

Let’s keep our eyes open, see what God will do.

My New Jobs

2018 is no longer new, but a great deal has happened since the calendar rolled over January 1, bringing a flurry of opportunity. It is time to write about it.

If you’ve seen me at First Methodist or have spoken with me, the following will not be new. But for my own sake and for friends who have wondered, this is the press release, coming your way via the World Wide Web.

First Methodist Waco: Interim Director of College Ministries

First and most significantly, since February I have served as the Interim Director of College Ministries at First Methodist Waco. It has been wonderful to be with students and to be preaching, teaching, and equipping others for life in Christ.

How did this happen? First Methodist has seen significant changes in the past twelve months. Reverend Steve Ramsdell, who was absolutely wonderful and has blessed our family, retired this past summer. Other wonderful members of the church staff stepped away from leadership or found new roles. Reverend Ryan Barnett was appointed as Lead Pastor. Change is challenging, but the church has done well, welcomed new visitors, faced new challenges, and made several wise decisions.

Last fall Reverend Brandon Frenzel shifted from his position as Associate Pastor of Student Ministries, where he worked directly with youth and college students, to a position of greater responsibility. He now oversees all of First’s ministry to families and works with an excellent team of people who coordinate ministry to children, middle school, high school, college students, and their families. Pastor Hayley House, who now works with high school students, previously helped Pastor Brandon in college ministry. These moves happened in succession.

Pastor Brandon and Pastor Hayley continued to work with college students, but because of their changing responsibilities there was a need for an interim person to come and share the load. Brandon spoke to me about the position in early January, and I was glad to help the church.

I’ve been on duty since the beginning of February and it has been a joy to get to know the students and serve them as they grow in faith.

Truett Seminary: Covenant Group Mentor // Spiritual Director

Truett Seminary launched a program for training in spiritual direction last fall, and I have had the privilege of meeting with those students one on one for discipleship, listening, and conversation concerning the spiritual life. Dr. Angela Reed directs the program, and she is absolutely wonderful. I met her students during one of their class sessions last fall. That work has continued this spring.

At the the invitation of Professor Bill Walker I was given a second opportunity to serve the seminary community in January. I now serve as a Covenant Group Mentor. The Covenant Group is an important facet of the seminary’s approach to spiritual formation, or how Christian character is developed.

These groups consist of a small number of seminarians who meet together weekly for prayer, directed conversation, discipleship, the practice of spiritual disciplines, accountability, and for guidance in growing more like Jesus. It is my responsibility to care pastorally for the students, offer wisdom and guidance, keep our sessions on track, and encourage the students as they pursue their education.

The work has been delightful. It is truly one of my favorite things I do each week. It is a privilege to serve in higher education and to serve Baylor.

Central District – Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church: Speaker

Another surprise came my way when Reverend Leah Hidde-Gregory, the District Superintendent of the Central District of our Annual Conference, invited me to speak to the United Methodist clergy in our area on the topic of spiritual formation on several occasions this year. As you can imagine, pastoral ministry can be challenging and taxing on the soul. It is my hope that my time with clergy will help them experience renewal for the task of ministry, to be encouraged in their work, and to discover new avenues for growth in their spiritual life so that they might remain strong and steadfast as they do their work “unto the Lord.”

I met with the clergy in January and again in March. In our first meeting we discussed the Wesleyan Class Meeting with help from a resource by Kevin Watson. In our second we prayed the Scriptures and then discussed the Triumphal Entry in preparation for Good Friday. I also presented a few truths I wish someone would have shared with me prior to beginning pastoral ministry on how to abide in Christ, grow in faith, and serve others.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. As part of this commitment I have resolved to remember all sixty-six area United Methodist Churches and their pastors in prayer each day. I pray God would bless our region through them.

Coaching Youth Sports

Of all the new gigs I’ve had this spring this one pays the best. They keep doubling my pay, too! This spring I’ve coached youth basketball, soccer, and t-ball. It’s been a blast and a great way to be part of the community.

Wait, Weren’t You Planning to Go Back to School?

That’s right. I was. And up until last fall was still considering it. But after a few conversations and plenty of prayer, I discerned that an advanced degree was not my calling at this time. So I turned the matter over to God in prayer and have experienced peace ever since.

Are You Still Writing?

I am still writing. I continue to contribute to Burlap. I received some kind feedback from congregants at First Mansfield following my work with their congregation on Mark.

I have a couple of other projects that are in the works. There are plenty of possibilities, and among them is a book, an extended treatise on the spiritual life. An idea has been with me for some time. We will see where that leads.

So, What’s Next?

Reading, family, teaching, serving, and playing basketball about once a week.