Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) defines formation as a process to train Christian workers for specific vocations. These workers will not just serve the church in the narrow sense; they will “serve in some capacity in the ministry of the Church, whether in the local church, community or workplace.” Our vision is to produce “outstanding servant leaders” who will carry out the mission to “effect biblical transformation in the Church and societies in Asia and beyond.” Transformation is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God which happens not just in individual hearts but also in the reality in which we dwell.
The vocational goal of ATS, we believe, bridges academia and the clusters of industries or communities in which our graduates live so that they may take part in God’s transformative work to address society’s needs. As Melba Maggay writes, “The saving power of God needs to be made visible,” especially in the Majority World, or else “it is only empty words” (Maggay, 1994, 21). In other words, formation develops students to be outstanding servant leaders (vision) and to effect biblical transformation (mission) in their chosen contexts, which includes their vocation. In essence, ATS seeks formation for transformation.
To explore the topic of formation for transformation at ATS, I reviewed important documents, interviewed faculty, graduates, and current students, and reflected on key questions. I undertook this research as a graduate of and current teaching faculty at Asian Theological Seminary and with the blessing of ATS’s leadership. In this article, I will discuss in more detail how ATS defines formation, how ATS evaluates formation and what we have learned, and how the pandemic impacted formation in online courses.
Aspects of a Holistic, Vocation-Oriented Formation
Categories and Outcomes
ATS understands the process of formation to be holistic and contextual. To be holistic, transformation should touch various domains of human life, especially individuals’ callings, the vocations into which God has sent them. Formation happens in context, and vocation is one important, natural, common context around which societies organize. As a result, ATS has chosen to organize its theological education around vocations because we believe that it is important to pay attention to the concrete contexts (vocations) where formation takes place.
ATS has defined four categories of formation that are especially pertinent for theological education: 1) spiritual formation; 2) Biblical and theological foundations; 3) ministry and skills orientation; and 4) discernment and engagement in social and global transformation. These categories serve as multiple lenses through which ATS considers formation; the outcomes in each category serve as concrete descriptions that shape expectations, guide reflections, and facilitate discussions. Furthermore, these categories are interrelated. We seek to integrate cognitive learning or “the head,” emotive learning or “the heart,” and practical action or “the hands” (Sipos et al, 2008, 74).
So, within these categories, ATS seeks the following outcomes. First, spiritual formation includes Christ-likeness; wholeness in thought, affection, and action; love for God and people expressed through grateful service; following Christ in all areas of life; the practice of spiritual disciplines; dependence on God; engaging in Christian community-building; and exercising accountability toward God and others. Second, Biblical and theological foundations involve understanding and applying the Word of God correctly; inculturating faith in every aspect of life; making the Gospel live in the culture; articulating a theology that is Biblical, historical, and practical; and depending on the Holy Spirit in the study of the Bible. Third, ministry and skills orientation can mean recognizing and developing spiritual gifts in self and others; demonstrating competences in the appropriate ministry skills; empowering others in ministry contexts; engaging in critical reflection; practicing servant leadership; and proclaiming the Gospel effectively. Finally, discernment and engagement in social and global transformation can look like discerning and analyzing emerging social, economic, political, and environmental conditions; engaging with social, economic, political, and environmental issues to effect Biblical transformation; and participating effectively with groups of diverse beliefs and practices.
Specific expressions of these outcomes in individual students’ lives are born of a deep understanding of the Word (head), dependence on the Holy Spirit (heart), and actions that articulate theology (hands). General examples of these outcomes might include grateful service, community-building, and the exercise of accountability that all flow from a cognitive understanding of what Christ is like (head), inner qualities of commitment and love (heart), and practices in private, professional, and community capacities (hands). Or, to take another example in the category of skills orientation, one key outcome could be addressing personal and professional growth issues in a way that demonstrates critical reflection (head), a posture of servant leadership (heart), and the actual employment of competencies (hands).
Obviously, the church is an important part of these four categories and their outcomes. ATS defines “church” as church gathered or church scattered. A “gathered church” refers to Christians coming together to worship, pray, study the Bible, and fellowship with one another. A “scattered church” refers to Christians entering their respective habitats to witness to people who may or may not know Christ. In essence, the church is represented by followers of Christ who embody the kingdom of God as a gathered congregation as well as scattered lives. The role of the seminary, we believe, is to not just to equip those who work in the gathered mode but also those who work in the scattered mode. The ministry of the church is to serve in a variety of vocations existing in the context of society.
The ministry of the church includes not only the religious sector, but also business, government, the non-profit sector, and the rest of the workplace. For the good news to be credible, the church needs to witness in vocations or clusters around which society has already organized. While we cannot address all vocations, we cover sectors that we believe are important and in which we have something to offer. They include: a) pastors, elders and church workers; b) theologians ; c) missionaries; d) educators for both Christian and secular schools; e) researchers & academic leaders; f) mental health practitioners; g) NGO leaders & community development workers; and h) Christians in business & non-profit organizations. (In this list, A, B, and C tend to represent the gathered church; D, E, F, G, and H, the scattered church.)
Questions for Future Reflection: The Graduate Profile & Hidden Values
Given this emphasis on vocation in formation, how does ATS define its graduate profile? As it turns out, such a definition is not a one-off process. Outcomes look different in different contexts, so the ATS community needs to define outcomes at the level of each department’s context because each department focuses on a different vocation. This granular, specific work has yet to be done.
Furthermore, I have noticed that, more broadly, ATS’s graduate profile is rooted in some inherited values that may or may not be well-articulated. From my own research, I believe that, for ATS, one of these core values is social justice. As a Majority World institution, ATS is situated in a society characterized by extreme wealth gaps, chronic natural disasters, and systemic oppression. The Filipino church cannot be unmoved by the socio-political realities that cause such systemic injustices to large segments of society. Yet ATS does not directly list social justice in the seven values – Word of God, Community, Spiritual Formation, Excellence, Contextualization, Cooperation, and Stewardship – that we usually emphasize to students. Therefore, if social justice is a primary concern for us and for our graduates, ATS needs to consider more carefully how to articulate this value in the formation process. We have acted upon this value, so students have learned it implicitly – but we have not defined and intentionally assessed students’ behaviour over time, especially post-graduation.
As I reviewed old documents for this project, I noticed that other values implied in ATS’s mission statement are not explicitly articulated. Might ATS’s faculty, students, and alumni engage in more reflection on the components of our institution’s DNA that are inherited and/or unarticulated? Might we also consider which components of this DNA to prioritize?
Practices for & Participants in Formation
ATS pursues student formation through its formal and informal curricula as taught and lived by the institution’s community.
In the formal curriculum, we have 1) programs that cater to specific, prioritized vocations; 2) courses that require specific outcomes in spiritual formation, biblical/theological foundations, ministry skills, and social/global transformation; 3) a curriculum design that integrates soul care/spiritual formation, hermeneutics, core subjects in the corresponding department, and a transformation theology and internship at all levels; and 4) a thesis / internship that invites students to research and act to address systematic oppression.
ATS offers degree (GradDip, MA, MDiv, PhD) and non-degree programs in:
- Biblical studies (for researchers & academic leaders);
- Christian education (for educators in both Christian & secular schools);
- Counselling (for mental health practitioners);
- Intercultural and Urban Studies (for missionaries);
- Pastoral Studies (for pastors, elders, church workers);
- Theology (for theologians);
- Transformational Urban Leadership (for NGO leaders and community development workers);
- and an MBA in Biblical Stewardship and Christian Management / Master of Ministries / Certificate course (for Christians in business and non-profit organizations).
Within these programs, most students are studying part-time. These part-time students (60% of the student body) have less exposure to the informal curriculum than full-time students. Therefore, formation outcomes for each group may need to be differentiated so that expectations and resources are appropriately apportioned.
ATS defines its outcomes in detail in each program. To take one example, in Transformation Theology, outcomes include:
- Spiritual formation: develop a world-transforming rather than a world-denying form of spirituality;
- Biblical/Theological foundation: examine and evaluate various theological models regarding the church’s role in society;
- Ministry skills: examine and evaluate appropriate programs and strategies operating at the levels of individual initiative, local church, parachurch Organizations, and the wider church;
- and Transformation: identify contemporary challenges and opportunities facing the church in its evangelistic and community-building task.
The informal curriculum includes:
- Relationships built through onsite community activities such as “extension of class” conversations between students and faculty over coffee breaks in the canteen; discussions in the faculty lounge that students frequent; and student events;
- Modelling in and outside class as faculty live with consistency between their speech and their actions; openness to perspectives; humility in listening; advocacy for the marginalized; continuous learning; and spiritual direction;
- Mentoring as individuals counsel one another through personal struggles;
- Opportunities to engage the community in the annual theological forum; bimonthly KapeTheo (theological discussions over coffee); and overseas church visitations that open students’ eyes to how others deal with sexuality, suffering, lies, injustice, and faith in a non-Christian world;
- and Responses to critical incidents, such as special prayers with Myanmar students during the military crackdown; creating and maintaining a community kitchen during COVID-19 lockdowns; and dispatching debriefing teams to counsel typhoon survivors in other regions after national emergencies.
As the list above demonstrates, faculty are deeply involved in the design and implementation of both the formal and the informal curriculum. Yet the execution of the informal has been, for ATS’s community, rather unintentional. We have never thought of running programs that “do” formation. The activities listed above are simply “who we are” as ATS: We respond not because we intend to demonstrate anything; we just act out of our knowledge of and love for God and others.
For example, mentoring is not systematic. Students come to talk to faculty; we welcome this, and we continue to guide them over time. Faculty are not formally expected to create these relationships; instead, they are an organic part of our communal life at ATS. Faculty embody the values that we hold as core to our faith. Catching onto these values, students work with faculty to create additional opportunities to learn. Although some readers may wonder whether this atmosphere is uniquely Filipino, the answer to that question is both “yes” and “no.” Filipino culture is both hierarchical and relational. So, in a public university (unlike ATS), many professors are “untouchable”; they do not relate so personally to their students. But in smaller institutions like ours, people tend to know each other very well. The most distinctive feature of ATS, as students have pointed out, is that professors are reachable and spend time to listen.
Other participants in formation include motivated full-time students who interact with each other; local speakers and participants in forums who act as conversation partners; and overseas churches and communities who share their experiences with us. In particular, ATS often invites speakers who can talk about a particular need or trend in our context. They may or may not be from a church, but they are those involved in society who can guide us to continue to engage the world in our various capacities.
Overall, modelling through community is a key aspect of formation at ATS. It connects the formal and informal curricula. Yet even modelling is contextual. For instance, if a particular class group lacks students who are willing to engage diverse views, or if a faculty member who was deeply engaged in social advocacy leaves ATS, then those gaps will result in a gap of modelling. We must be realistic about how values like these are lived out as our community shifts over time.
Evaluation of Formation at ATS
How does ATS know to what extent formation is happening? What processes for evaluation or assessment do we use? How might ATS grow in its evaluation processes so that it can more clearly gauge student formation and make changes in response?
Because ATS is an institution with no residential facilities, the core of our formation process is executed through the formal curriculum. Within classes, individual outcomes can be clarified, examined, and coordinated in order to align with our goal of formation for transformation through vocations. We hope that students will internalize how they have grown as they are measured against expected, explicit outcomes in their classes.
ATS employs a few kinds of assessment to evaluate the formal formation process. First, formal assessments provided in each course seek to measure students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills. Faculty invite students to demonstrate their growth by writing papers, discussing or role-playing scenarios, taking quizzes, and providing reflections in integrative final papers. Second, in addition to writing, some classes (specifically community counseling and internship) require students to run projects in local communities. Assessment for these projects comes from verbal or written reports by students or their site supervisors. These reports account for how students have engaged their community of focus. Third, experiential classes such as “Soul Care” provide ongoing peer assessment among students of the ability to listen. Feedback from each participant on their counterparts is a key aspect of the informal assessment that happens in this class.
For instance, within a “Soul Care” class, students might role-play in pairs. One student might be a “pilgrim,” the one seeking spiritual direction. The other student might be the “guide,” or the spiritual director. At the end of the role-playing exercise, an observer might ask the two students, “What is it like to be a pilgrim?” The pilgrim would share what the process was like. Then the observer would turn to the guide and ask, “What was it like to be a guide?” The formator, as a supervisor, would also offer their feedback. This way, students get to hear what others think about how they behaved during the role-playing exercise. This feedback would help them self-evaluate how they acted during the session.
Generic evaluations after each course also offer an opportunity to become more meaningful self-assessments – though they have not yet reached this full potential. Conventional course evaluations ask general questions that do not invite students to evaluate their own growth. ATS has tried to offer more targeted assessments by asking students to justify how far they have achieved each of the class’s objectives. Students do these self-assessments anonymously, and the results are collated and discussed during a final group debriefing. Students have shared that such debriefings help them consolidate personal growth that they had not previously noticed or articulated.
I can offer an example from my own experience as ATS faculty. As I concluded my class, “Study of Human Problems,” I asked students:
- To what extent have you achieved objective 1 (spiritual formation)? Have you grown in integration of thought, feeling, and action in facing your own personal issues? Rank this in levels 1 to 5.
- What made you choose this level? Please share examples to explain your choice.
During the class debriefing, I highlighted interesting results, such as extreme highs, lows, and averages. I also shared narrative answers. I did all of this anonymously; I myself did not know the authors. At each point, I highlighted my own understanding of the assigned goals and shared possible reasons why people would understand them as they did. I asked the students for feedback on the group and on my performance. In the end, this debriefing motivated students because they came to see the design – the purpose – of doing all the assignments (forum discussions, papers, etc.). They became excited about what they had done and about what remained to be done. Normally, I did this debriefing in the last class so that students could use this reflection as they wrote their final paper. (Final papers were due two weeks after the last class period.)
Apart from these specific assessments, we have opportunities to evaluate students’ lives over longer periods. Such opportunities include the exit interview that asks how students benefited from their ATS education; and awards given during graduation that honour outstanding students for their academic performance, research strengths, and community participation.
Questions for Future Reflection: Formation Assessment, Data Collection, and Informal Formation
Most of the measures adopted to evaluate formation are conventional and not targeted to measure growth against ATS’s specific graduate profile. Understandably, it is easier to assess head knowledge, and it takes more creativity to account for holistic, personal formation.
Because a big part of formation is growth in character, ATS should develop self-assessments that nudge students to do the reflection they need to measure themselves against course and departmental goals that represent outcomes in the graduate profile. This type of assessment should be done periodically; after completing an assessment, students should be debriefed by faculty or alumni. For example, such debriefing could be conducted after every one or two semesters. Students in each department could be arranged in small groups and asked to share 2-3 learnings that were transformational for them, how these learnings are impacting their sense of vocation, and what they would do to grow this vocation in their own contexts. Right now, ATS does not have institutional, formal assessments of formation – though, as my examples above demonstrate, individual faculty do seek to assess individual formation at the class level. ATS as an institution could learn from its faculty in this area.
In addition, ATS’s means of evaluation collect a great deal of data. Data are collected from classes, from advisors, from debriefing groups, and from exit interviews. What if we were to store this data systematically and analyze it to inform institutional decision-making? ATS could adapt procedures used by other institutions who have built data collection and analysis traditions. Data collectors would need to reflect on what they observe and to compare notes to ensure that they are collecting data consistently. Though it might require some new infrastructure, this practice offers opportunities for ATS to learn from itself over time.
Finally, the informal curriculum has never been named, even though many graduates would first recall those activities in this hidden curriculum when they think of their own formation in the institution. Perhaps the ATS community should consider how we might name the informal curriculum and shape it more intentionally. A danger with this approach, though, could be that ATS might then “fake” spiritual activities for the sake of enhancing performance. We must remember that living an authentic life, witnessed through daily interactions, is key for genuine formation. This tension remains for ATS’s prayerful consideration.
Formation in Online Education
The pandemic has affected the process of formation in various ways. During lockdowns, in-person teaching was interrupted. Course content and methods had to be adjusted to new learning modes that were mediated by technology. Students struggled to deal with the challenges posed by studying from home: unstable internet connections, the “oddity” of showing up on the screen, and the temptations of multitasking. Because students felt heavier burdens from expectations that they should work, care for family, and study all at the same time, they lost attention or interest quickly.
The pandemic interrupted community life at all levels. Instantaneous interactions with faculty and one another were hampered by slow connections. As students were cut off from the natural interactions they used to have in class, they could not take in the same amount of content, follow up on complex issues, or engage in here-and-now exchanges with one another as effectively as they used to. Spiritual modelling by teachers had to happen only via Zoom. Students had opportunities to interact online during class, but they admitted that it is very important in Filipino culture to have onsite interactions. A few students suddenly decided to discontinue, and it was believed that such cases would have been prevented should they have people to talk to during interactions onsite.
Distance learning created extra burdens for teachers as well. They had to offer extra time to care for students using personal chat platforms. Some faculty expressed that they had to chase students – who had experienced much difficulty due to the pandemic and isolation – to submit course work. Some also extended mental health support to students in turmoil.
These challenges were so extreme that one faculty member from the Counseling Department insisted on holding onsite classes because of the importance of intention, focus, and here-and-now interactions. The fear was that the online model could only pass on some basic skills but not the full experience due to the embodied nature of presence. This is not to say that it is impossible to create quality interactions that facilitate formation online. However, some spiritual disciplines may demand more embodied presence than the online space can afford.
Despite these challenges, many faculty members who did not endorse online teaching began to get used to using the new platform. Supported by the online learning department, many are exploring how to redesign syllabi so that formation can happen online. In my experience, there are different adjustments to make. First, in synchronous meetings, lectures need to be condensed or even pre-recorded and pre-watched to allow ample time for small group discussions. In these real-time interactions, faculty model critical thinking, compassion, and humility as they facilitate discussion of multiple perspectives, highlight strengths of students, and articulate tensions. Second, in asynchronous meetings, meaningful tasks need to be given so that students are challenged to integrate knowledge from readings with what they face in their contexts. For example, after reading about “just” sex, my students were asked to create a sex education curriculum for their youth groups, church members, or colleagues. Following their submissions, I would give additional feedback to appreciate their creativity and to suggest areas of improvement or additional resources. Third, online forums are set up so that students can discuss important topics after official hours at their own convenience. Questions posed on these forums are deliberately open, to encourage students to talk about their experiences, bring in their own expertise, and engage diverse viewpoints. Faculty need to model discussion ethics and highlight important insights as they moderate such discussions.
These adjustments require faculty to rethink their syllabi so that teaching is competency-based rather than content-based. One may also need to brush up some listening and facilitation skills, to set proper expectations and boundaries for synchronous and asynchronous discussions. Furthermore, this teaching model demands a lot of time and effort as faculty customises feedback to students. This leaves us questions on how to find resources to meet such needs.
I believe that formation is achievable through online education. In general, online education should be treated as one modality within the whole educational package of teaching, community life, and in-context learning. Online education offers tremendous potential because it cuts travel time (which normally takes hours in metro Manila), allows students from other provinces or countries to join the learning community, and manages information in a central platform for easy and continuous access. While it offers many advantages, learners like me in the Philippines do not prefer doing everything online. We prefer to have some face-to-face meetings just to feel the “presence” of other. Moreover, important spiritual disciplines, such as heart listening, cannot do away with embodied presence.
The question for ATS, now, is to differentiate to what extent the online modality is suitable for each subject/department and to revise our teaching methods so that we can realize the full potentials offered by it. If we are to be realistic, we also have to differentiate types of learners – the full-time, the part-time, and the remote/fully online. I believe each type of learner will have different commitment to our curriculum, and there should be attempts to discuss narrowing the formation focus for those who have less time to be involved in the community.
Defining formation often requires a focal point that can bridge the vision and the mission. At ATS, vocation is the focal point, and we describe outcomes of formation in four interrelated categories to reflect the holistic nature of formation. These outcomes should be conceptualized based on very specific contexts – specifically, on students’ individual professions.
Our definition of formation is the basis of our curriculum design, which involves both formal and informal learning activities. These activities, over time, may or may not serve the original goal, so we need to assess students’ growth periodically to learn from them how they have grown, as well as what is helpful and what is not. The most helpful assessments tend to be qualitative and self-administered. Areas of growth will be internalized when they are vocalized and highlighted in intentional, meaningful interactions.
I have attempted to sketch ATS’s institutional culture of formation here, but technology in the wake of the COVID pandemic may change how we do formation. The extreme disruption created by the pandemic should motivate us to review our graduate profile, our student body composition (the percentages of full-time, part-time, and remote learners, for instance), and our corresponding pedagogies. We need to reflect together on our formation outcomes and on what is both necessary and achievable.
Author Bio: Kevin Yau is teaching faculty in the ATS Counseling Department. After working in the commercial sector for years, he pursued his MDiv in Counseling at ATS. He subsequently practised as a mental health counselor among the urban poor and refugees from the Middle East before re-joining ATS in 2020 as faculty. With interest in post-traumatic growth, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Counseling Psychology at De La Salle University, Manila.
Maggay, Melba. Transforming Society (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1994).
Sipos, Yona, et al. “Achieving transformative sustainability learning: Engaging head, hands and heart.” Int. J. Sustain. High. Edu. No. 9 (2008).