Our Formation for Ministry’s supervised ministry placements and summer internship opportunities help students integrate knowledge, faith, and practice.
Discerning God’s call can be challenging, to say the least! Formation for Ministry at Western recognizes that you might appreciate some guidance along the way. Here formation for ministry means. . .
A place to practice ministry
Space for ministerial reflection
Feedback and support from mentors and peers
Opportunities to repeat the process to confirm your learning
Beginning early in your seminary journey, you will engage and explore your call in a supervised ministry setting with a mentor and peers. Western is committed to providing you with just the right place and space to nurture your call to ministry.
Like many of her peers, WTS alumna Katie Alley ‘19 had non-traditional ministry in mind when she started seminary. A recent article from Christianity Today cites a survey of 5,000+ seminary students in which almost 40% intend to serve in contexts outside the local church.
Katie had taken a job with a non-profit right out of college, but soon discovered it was not the right fit. She decided to return to the classroom to explore the deep love she had for God and the church. Western’s emphasis on formation, experiential learning, and internships set it apart from other seminaries. She felt it would be a good place to learn while trying on different hats to see what type of ministry might best fit her gifts.
During her first year, Katie interned with a community development non-profit. Although she learned a lot, she decided to try hospital chaplaincy the next year, hoping it would suit her better. However, her second internship at Holland Hospital didn’t feel quite right either. Although she was gaining confidence in her work, she didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Meanwhile, she had begun taking a preaching class and leading chapel—and she realized that felt most natural, even though the thought of pastoral ministry intimidated her. Not having grown up with female pastors, she hadn’t considered becoming a pastor until now.
Faculty members like Travis West and Kyle Small recognized Katie’s gifts of pastoral leadership and encouraged her to find confidence in herself and push through questions she still had. Pam Bush of the Formation for Ministry office came alongside Katie and helped her explore what intimidated her even as she continued developing her talents. Being an in-residence student gave her access to a group of classmates who were praying and rooting for her.
“At the beginning of seminary it felt like all my classmates knew what they wanted to do and were really confident,” Katie says. “I learned along the way that everyone was equally scared. Yet, it never felt like competition. We all wanted each other to be successful and discover what we were meant to do.”
After her second year of seminary and with the support of the community behind her, Katie felt ready to give pastoral ministry a try. She spent the summer at Second Reformed Church of Pella, IA under the direction of Pastors Steve & Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell. There she got to preach, visit congregants, and see what it would be like to be on a team of pastors.
Youth Director Katie Alley talks to the children during the worship hour at Second Reformed Church of Pella, IA.
While the experience confirmed that she didn’t want to be a solo pastor, she knew she wanted to continue preaching—and when she found out the church’s youth minister took a different call, the opportunity opened to come back full-time after graduation.
As Katie settles into her calling, she realizes that the process of trying different things helped her feel more confident when she finally landed. She appreciates the formation for ministry process at WTS that allowed her to find the best fit for her gifts of ministry and then develop those abilities.
Formation for Ministry Objectives
1. To deepen self-awareness
2. To refine social awareness
3. To engage in theological reflection on ministerial experiences
4. To practice ministerial skills and increase ministerial competence
Components of Formation in Ministry
Supervised ministry settings, mentors, and site teams
A facilitated peer group of WTS students
Complementary coursework and integrative seminars
In-residence students will experience a first year Christian formation retreat and second year intercultural immersion experience
Distance learning students will experience a yearly Christian formation retreat during the May intensive. The intercultural immersion experience occurs during the third, fourth, or fifth year of the program.
Internships are part of the formation for ministry process at Western Theological Seminary and provide a breadth of experience while going deep through the use of learning covenants and case studies of actual ministry experience.
In-residence M.Div. students participate in four 100-hour part-time units and one 400-hour full time unit of a supervised in-ministry experience within an approved ministry setting.
Distance learning students participate in six 130-hour units of a supervised in-ministry experience during the five years of the program.
Ministry settings may include:
Care Facilities and nursing homes
Matching students and ministry sites is an important part of the WTS educational experience. We want to discern the best ministry context for each student’s learning and to connect that student with an internship at a supervised ministry (or “Teaching Church” site). Students can suggest ministry sites that interest them.
The process begins by completing the “Application for Internship” online form. This form serves in the discernment process for matching students with sites. If you have questions regarding the form or ministry site, please contact Beth Smith at email@example.com or 616.392.8555, x131, and she will be happy to help you.
Peer groups meet for personal support, reflection on ministry practice, and prayer. Care is given to maintain the same groups when possible through the first two years.
In-residence peer groups of about 6 students meet weekly and are guided by a mentor with ministry experience. Senior Master of Divinity students serve as facilitators for junior peer groups. Ministry professionals from the area are utilized for middler peer groups.
Distance learning peer groups are also guided by a mentor in ministry and meet during the on-campus intensives and on-line during the semester.
Christian Formation Retreat
During J-term in the first year, students continue delving into their own self-disciplines and identity by attending a financial literacy workshop where attitudes and habits are discussed and practical tools are given. Then they go off campus for a Retreat for Christian Formation. This spiritual retreat uses autobiography, the spiritual disciplines, and engagement with peers to assist students in clarifying and embracing God’s call upon their lives.
Intercultural Immersion Experience
In groups of 10-15 students with at least one professor as a guide, Western’s M.Div. students travel to other cultural contexts to experience the diverse character of the church’s witness and mission.
These 11-day trips present students with problems and opportunities posed by cultural differences, secularism, social fragmentation, religious pluralism, and ecumenism. The trips are taken during the J-term for both distance-learning and residential students.
Our students have been immersed in cultures such as:
There is an unfortunate misconception that CPE is only for those considering chaplaincy as a vocation; on the contrary, I wish the program were mandatory for all seminary students considering any vocation but especially those anticipating a pastorate. Every pastor must learn by doing, and every pastor needs to learn how to listen. It’s imperative for our future congregations that we be patient, empathic listeners. This summer gave me the opportunity to do just that.
The clinical method of learning lets students learn, put the learnings into practice, then debrief and reflect…then repeat. The experience was also invaluable for my formation as I continue to learn about myself and who I am as a minister. In addition to all of this, it allowed me to experience working with a particular demographic — those dealing with mental illness and addiction — which is marginalized in society but will be extremely prevalent in any church community.
I would recommend the experience not only for anyone but for everyone considering entering the ministry.
Ryan Donahoe, M.Div. graduate ’15
I entered into seminary firm in my belief that I wouldn’t want to work in a parish setting. Yet I found myself two years later seeking a call to a church in the PCUSA, and I can point clearly to my summer of CPE for making this 180-degree turn in my ministry. I had no idea that spending eleven weeks with Karl Van Harn and my fellow students at Pine Rest would so dramatically impact my life and call. I was fortunate to be a part of a new program Rev. Van Harn developed in which students complete their CPE work through a partnership with a local church. Through my work with Westminster Presbyterian Church, coordinated by Pine Rest, I was able to minister to parishioners at four different hospitals, Pine Rest’s facility and local retirement homes.
I vividly remember my first solo visit to a parishioner in a local hospital. I entered her room with great trepidation but was welcomed in as if I was a life-long friend. I don’t remember the words that I said, but will never forget the way that this woman that I was going to minister to instead ministered to me. As I walked to my car I felt tears streaming down my face as I wondered why I was so blessed to have this encounter with one of God’s saints.
Through the weekly meetings with my colleagues at Pine Rest and in-depth discussions about my ministry with Karl Van Harn I discovered my passion for pastoral care and now wonder why I would have considered anything else.
Though rewarding, CPE was also one of the most difficult summers of my life as I dove even deeper into my family history and sought to discover my own “metaphor for ministry” while also tending to parishioners in their time of need. There were days that I wondered how much more emotional turmoil I could handle, but then another saintly parishioner would welcome me into their lives as I sat and prayed with them at their bedside.
The amazing structure of CPE created space in which I could discuss my interactions with the parishioners so that I could examine ways to improve my pastoral care and hear stories from my colleagues who had been in similar situations. This level of introspection and support allowed my to extend outside of my comfort zone and develop in ways that I never thought possible.
There is not doubt that without CPE I would still be declaring that I would never work in a church. But with CPE, I have found where the deepest desires of my heart line up with God’s greatest needs.
(Ryan Donahoe became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Petoskey, MI in June of 2015)