Capstone, Milestone, and Concrete Ministry—The Culmination of a Master of Divinity Degree
Am I ready with my response to the parents of a terminally ill baby who are asking for me to conduct a baptism if my theological position does not support infant baptism?
What guidelines will I have for determining whether or not I will conduct a marriage ceremony—if counseling with the couple is prohibitive, if only one of them is a professing Christian, if neither of them are?
How do I show the hospitality of Christ to people of distinctly different faith traditions who are regularly involved in my ministry? I know there are common perspectives but I also want to hold the line on syncretism.
While the person entering seminary may not be expected to have accomplished responses to these situations, the person who is at the culmination of their educational experience is expected to competently articulate and take action in ways that reflect their theology.
The integrated curriculum at Northeastern, by virtue of its design and the fact that most students serve in ministry while enrolled, facilitates the connections between concept and practice. Yet, in an intense and rigorous program that has been described by some as “drinking from a firehose,” it is refreshing and necessary to have a class that is exclusively dedicated to bringing together the three focal aspects of the Northeastern experience—theological understanding, spiritual formation, and ministry skills—as one transitions into the reality of life after seminary.
In the final semesters of the Master of Divinity program students are provided with such a space: the M.Div. Integration Seminar. This course is not only a milestone as students prepare themselves for the next chapter in ministry, it is the capstone course where they consolidate and synthesize important learning gleaned from their coursework, experiences, and assignments, and where they demonstrate their proficiency in applying this knowledge. Reflection, self-assessment, sharing of ideas, and critical analysis are all vital components designed to fulfill academic and professional formation.
The concrete expression of this synthesis is a professional portfolio and public presentation that captures the journey and anticipates next steps—each one as unique as the student. One person arrived as a newly appointed youth leader, experienced periods of upheaval, then developed his voice in a pivotal class, and ultimately concluded that now “I not only dream dreams, but have learned how to fulfill them.” Another admits that she came in with limited knowledge and experience and that initially “it was just about getting it done and turning it in.” The writing was challenging yet formative and she notes, “God is using the writing to grow me in other parts of my life. The difficulty was formational.” For her the next step includes opening a ministry to immigrants and refugees. And then there is the elementary school teacher who, upon entering, hoped there would not be a call to pastoral ministry but felt a gentle draw toward theological education. He wanted to address the gaps he saw in others who did not have a formal education. He is now seeking ordination and pastoral call.
Whether seminary was a time to refine a calling, to “pursue a more excellent way” of training before ordination, to step out of a culture of drugs and violence, to find a haven from the spiritual desert left by a bout of cancer, or to prepare to assist veterans, students want their education to translate to real-world service and meaning.
Some students became better communicators and thinkers as stereotypes were challenged and a more holistic view took them to a new place. For others, spiritual formation meant taking off their masks, approaching God in a genuine way, and experiencing major shifts in, as one student put it, “my walk with Christ and my view of Christ and the Church.” Discoveries include allowing “my heart and mind to work together so I can see through a God-honoring lens” and learning that “God works with imperfect people and this helps me work with those who feel imperfect.”
One student described his entrance into ministry as “a jigsaw puzzle that was dumped out and the lid with the picture was taken away.” But reading scripture in a new way, assuming less, and finding messages from God in the simplest passages brought clarity. He particularly valued “the mix of theology and ministry, spirituality and practice, books and hands-on [experiences] that provided the direct and immediate application of my learning.”
In balance with the reflective approach to processing the seminary experience, the course includes developing very tangible tools like a ministry plan, a personal financial plan, and a conflict management methodology. It also involves the opportunity for students to make recommendations to the faculty and administration about curriculum, pedagogy, process and services. This year students have recommended incorporating a greater discipleship component in the curriculum, increasing community building opportunities, expanding biblical languages, and providing additional financial aid counseling. Feedback like this helps direct decisions and guide refinements that enhance the student experience. Once again their reflection fosters real-world application—this time to improve the Northeastern experience for future students.
With a mission of preparing men and women of faith to serve the church and world we stand in a position of spiritual humility as our graduates go out to serve at prisons and treatment centers, in spiritual direction/spiritual health assessment and campus ministry, as a chaplain for a senior residence or as a husband and wife pastoral team. When they are motivated to care for the marginalized, address the needs of the burned out, care for those who are struggling, and be touchable in the midst of the dirty work, we have been privileged to see the incarnation of Christ.
To learn more about the Master of Divinity program at any of Northeastern Seminary’s four locations across New York, register for an information meeting at a location convenient for you.