Exploring Theological Education as Discipleship: Transformation & Growth

Recently, I walked along an oceanfront beach and studied the shells. At first, I picked up the more perfect shapes but gradually, my eye was drawn to a particular shell that had been well tumbled by the waves. The original form was still present. A curving spiral still recognizable but with its sharp protective points ground down, its long tapering body polished to a sheen, in places almost translucent.

As I considered it, I recognized that this shell had been through an extended transformation. In much the same way, the Seminary experience brings about changes of similar profundity. Early in their seminary journey, students often believe that the primary change they will encounter will be the acquisition of specialized knowledge. They come seeking knowledge, practical skills, and expertise to equip them for service.

Much like the shell from the beach, students begin to be polished and smoothed by their engagement with new ideas and new expectations, and living patterns. Students in formational courses practice disciplines that encourage them to grow deeper in their relationship with God. Conversations, sometimes pointed, with caring advisors and instructors, identify rough spots and sharp points that will need to be smoothed away to better equip them for life in the Kingdom. These engagements provide support and challenge that work much like the grains of sand encountered by shells moving through the ocean, scouring and polishing, continuing the discipleship process.

In our Foundations for Seminary Study course, students reflect on the changes they need to make to succeed. For some, this is about time management or improved writing or study skills, but for many, this is about a shift in identity. As they seek to respond to God’s call on their lives, they will need to set aside the habits and patterns of behavior that no longer serve them well. Moreover, these changes will impact their current vocational setting, family, and friendships. They enter into a process of seminary as discipleship. Seminary is discipleship because it provides a supportive crucible in which personal growth and transformation occur.

The English word discipleship has two Old English roots—Discipul from the Latin discipulus and skep from the Prot-Indo-European (PIE) language. Discipulus is a familiar word meaning ‘pupil, follower, student,’ but skep is less commonly known. In Middle English, it becomes ‘a state or condition of being’ or in the Proto-Germanic ‘to create, ordain, appoint’ but in its oldest meaning, taken from the PIE root, it means ‘to cut, scrape, or hack.”

While no seminary instructor sets out to ‘hack’ at a student, the process of growth can be painful and difficult. However, when encouraged and supported, students move through the necessary changes to fulfill God’s call on their lives. They experience seminary as discipleship (discipulus+skep) in which the old is gradually polished away so that the new can emerge. The shell tumbled by the waves retains its unique shape and identity. It does not become less as it is polished but rather an object of more extraordinary beauty.

– Dr. Kathryn Helleman, Doctor of Ministry Director (interim) & Assistant Professor of Church Ministries

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