Formation is the main activity of any seminary or theological school. Traditionally, seminaries have been spaces designated by churches for the training – formation – of their leaders, mainly pastors and missionaries. More recently, this audience has expanded to include others involved in the Church’s many ministries.  

Although formation is the foundational task of theological education, a look cast across the spectrum of global theological education reveals little cohesion regarding the scope and practices of formation. Formation is defined in numerous fashions and is practiced in various ways across diverse contexts. In other words, the guild lacks a common language or framework for what formation is.  

This gap has become even more pressing owing to recent global developments that have challenged theological educators to rethink their pedagogies (or more precisely, “andragogies”) and content. To name a few such developments: (a) The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to adopt online education for what had previously been residential programs, leading to sudden changes in delivery modes (before the pandemic, only about half of leading schools had meaningful online presences). This sudden pivot to non-residential education raised questions about approach and effectiveness. (b) Consequently, educators are searching for improvements in how they deliver formation. They are setting aside hypothetical debates about whether students can or should be formed online (and simultaneously shelving the traditional supposition that in-person formation is the gold standard for education). Those debates have given way to more practical “how to?” questions. (c) Moreover, educators are recognizing that important generational shifts in learning have yet to be addressed. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are challenging traditional pedagogies that rely on extended content exposition. These generations tend to process smaller amounts of content, from many sources, with more agility and interaction. They seek stimulation from varied audiovisual resources. These tendencies certainly come with downsides, but the most pressing question is not whether younger generations are better off than older ones but how to form younger generations most effectively. 

In addition to the pandemic’s fallout, scholars in the field of psychopedagogy have come to argue that education should aim at a holistic formation that involves all aspects of human life: cognitive, social, spiritual, etc. By this token, formation should include attention to the range of skills necessary for students to pursue their vocations in contemporary society. 

Given these dynamics, ScholarLeaders undertook an exploratory research project on holistic formation in theological education in the Majority World. In 2022, SL convened a group of leaders with concentrated experience in formation – technologically adept scholars whose thought and practice relating to formation are both profound and original. The participants and their institutions represented different global contexts: 

  • Brazil, South American Theological Seminary (SATS) 
  • Colombia, Biblical Seminary of Colombia (FUSBC) 
  • Ghana, Akrofi-Christaller Institute (ACI) 
  • India, Asia Theological Association (ATA) 
  • Lebanon, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) 
  • Nigeria, Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary (NBTS) 
  • Philippines, Asian Theological Seminary (ATS)
  • Sri Lanka, Colombo Theological Seminary (CTS) 
  • United States, Fuller Theological Seminary 

The main objective of this research was to explore the following question: What framework (concepts, language, tools) might we use to define, pursue, and assess holistic formation (among faculty, students, and alumni) within theological education, especially considering the recent use of technology and the changes brought to schools by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

We broke this question into four components, and we invited each participant to prepare a response that would in turn stimulate group engagement: 

  1. How does your school define formation? Does that definition have a holistic nature? Are there any important contextual components involved in it? 
  1. What practices are considered part of the formation process? How involved is the faculty in the process? Are there any other participants involved in the process? 
  1. Does your school have any kind of assessment or evaluation of the process? 
  1. How was the process impacted by the pandemic or the use of technology? 

Here is the result of this productive interaction addressing the four main themes. 

Definition of Formation 

The definition of formation elicited wide-ranging perspectives. Most of the seminaries represented (almost all of which are heirs of the Western missionary movement) share what might be called a traditional understanding of formation: a focused acquisition of knowledge about biblical-theological subjects, with a strong emphasis on the responsibility for “spiritual formation.” This perspective is still present in the US as well (Porter et al., 2018: 2).  

Porter et al further clarify what is commonly understood as spiritual formation, differentiating it from character and moral formation: 

[There is…] conceptual distinction between spiritual, characterological, and moral formation. For our purposes, “spiritual” formation has to do with features of an individual or group’s relatedness with God and/or what is held as sacred (e.g., God-image, the presence of God, love of God, word of God, filling of the Spirit, Scripture, etc.). “Characterological” formation refers to the development of habituated, virtuous dispositions (e.g., kindness, generosity, compassion, love, etc.). And “moral” formation is meant to emphasize the outward behavioral manifestations of virtue in a person or group’s life (e.g., forgiveness, service, enemy love, etc.). Each of these three interrelated terms qualifies “formation,” which is meant to pick up on the notion of positive change/growth. (Porter et al., 2018: 4-5) 

We observed that these distinctions ended up being blurred in practice. Although spiritual formation can be understood as more restricted to the person’s relationship with God, schools also expected that relationship to accrue beneficial developments of Christian character and moral behavior. ATS, CTS, and NBTS clearly express this concern in their internal documents referring to spiritual formation as related to a “character of Christ-likeness,” “experiencing God and be[ing] transformed in their attitudes and actions,” “enabling and forming a Christian believer to grow, develop and mature in the heart.” Thus, although the concern with spiritual formation is unquestionably and explicitly present, the general understanding is that schools are responsible for a broader or more holistic formation.  

Ways of expressing the components of formation differ from school to school, but as the participants in our study interacted, a robust alignment emerged regarding the primary dimensions of formation. These dimensions included: 

  1. Academic knowledge (including but not limited to biblical and theological understanding) 
  1. Ministerial skills and competencies 
  1. Social aptitude and commitment 
  1. Personal spirituality, the individual relationship with God 
  1. Emotional growth and character development 

Although one could justifiably combine or reorganize these dimensions (for example, combining dimensions D and E, or separating E into two distinct categories), participants agreed that the elimination of any of the stated dimensions would result in a deficit in the formation process.  

The emerging consensus about the components of holistic formation in turn raised the question of how schools pursue such formation. In most cases, the aforementioned construal of formation applies in programs classically designed for training pastors, missionaries, and leaders. It does not apply to all programs offered by the participating theological schools. For instance, two of the schools that only offer postgraduate programs focus their formation on their students’ specific vocations. At ATS, students are expected to live the gospel in the context of the workplace; they are not restricted to pastoral or church staff ministry, but they are encouraged to take on or create an identity that is part of the structure of society. In a similar way, Fuller understands that students do not come to seminary as a blank slate; rather, they have already been formed through and are currently embedded in the enactment of various practices in their communal contexts. Vocational formation, then, must help students reflect on their own history of formation and engage in new learning for the purpose of creating new actions and experiences that align a student with the telos of their God-given vocation. 

Whether formation is framed by a specific program or vocation, schools pursue it with content, activities, and resources mediated mainly by the faculty. This led us to inquire about the practices that constitute the formation process and those who contribute to it. 

Practices and actors involved 

Rather than confine our discussion of formation to the theoretical, we explored how it can be carried out, who is involved, and how we can assess its effectiveness. 

Although any activity carried out by a school contributes de facto to a student’s formation, we sought to identify the practices that are intentionally designed to achieve the formative goals defined above. In addition to classroom activities that foster the acquisition of knowledge and skills, schools developed activities to contribute to the other dimensions of formation.  

Most schools offer activities specifically aimed at students’ “spiritual development,” such as worship events, chapel services, small groups, devotionals, prayer times, retreats, etc. Mentoring or discipleship is also common, usually as faculty build relationships with the students who are assigned to them, who they accompany for the duration of their studies. For example, CTS (a seminary whose programs function at a distance) composed a student guidebook that leads students to read a particular book each year, answer questionnaires, and interview professors during scheduled face-to-face meetings. NBTS detailed a similar practice in their own handbook. 

A second driver of student formation is life in the seminary community. Seminaries intend their communities to function as healthy environments in which students can cultivate Christian character, enjoying the benefits of peer support, institutional assistance with specific needs, and teachers’ influence as role models. Schools with residential programs tend to excel in these practices (ACI and FUSBC are good examples). ATS and SATS consider these activities to be part of their “informal curriculum,” without that nomenclature bespeaking a diminished perception of its value in the eyes of faculty and students.  

Our survey of school practices produced a final component that contributed to student formation: ministerial activities in local churches and the community outside the seminary. These activities tend to take the forms of internships or practicums. Students apply what they have learned in their course work to express Christian character in both confessional and non-Christian environments. 

SATS has developed a slightly different understanding of how students are formed and who are the actors involved. SATS recognizes that the formation of a person (in all her dimensions) begins in childhood, and that family, communities, schools, churches, etc. contribute to that process. SATS also recognizes and embraces the fact that, while students are enrolled in theological programs, all these other actors continue to influence their holistic formation. This attitude does not deny that theological schools play a fundamental role in formation but foregrounds the contributions that can be made by the knowledge, skills, and community experiences of those who are not on the seminary faculty. 


The cognitive dimension of formation is normally measured by academic activities such as tests, monographs, dissertations, etc., and grades are the determining factor in confirming the effectiveness of the process. Acquisition or development of ministerial competencies are verified by reports that evaluate internships and student service in ecclesial and social contexts. 

The dimensions of formation that include spirituality, emotions, and character tend to be verified mostly by self-evaluation. Students record these self-evaluations in periodic reports or interviews with mentors. Mentors may also be responsible for conducting their own parallel evaluations. In some schools, faculty make a collective assessment of students based on mentors’ evaluations and peer perceptions of what happens during classes and other activities. When behavior problems or character flaws arise, faculty are responsible to refer students for follow-ups with deans, chaplains, or other professionals. Many schools conduct interviews at the beginning and end of each program to contribute to their assessment of students’ overall formation. Although some schools have forms that students complete in this process, it is not always clear how the results of these evaluations provoke changes in curricular activities and complementary practices. 

Fuller’s experience of responding to disheartening alumni evaluations provides a useful example. Although this anecdote derives from a North American context that might differ significantly from MW countries, it bears repeating as an example of how an institution might alter its programs to pursue formation more effectively. Fuller’s participant in our dialogue shared the following information: 

Earlier this past decade, in an effort to understand the experience of its graduates in light of declining enrollments and a supercomplex world, Fuller surveyed 294 recent alumni who graduated from all MA level programs in the School of Theology, Intercultural studies, and Psychology. Among other findings, graduates reported that their education had little to no impact on their engagement with spiritual practices or understanding of their vocational call. Fuller students also described their seminary experience in terms of disciplinary fragmentation; they were trained well in systematics, church history, pastoral ministry, and biblical studies but were not given the tools to integrate these disciplines into their everyday practice of Christian faith and ministry. 

In response to these trends and reports, Fuller’s faculty restructured the curriculum in the Master’s programs in the Schools of Theology and Intercultural Studies. At the center of the curriculum restructure was the development of four new Integrative Studies (IS) courses, which are now required for all master’s level degree students. Each of the Integrative Studies courses encourages integration of the classic theological disciplines into a faithful life of practice. 

Although Fuller illustrates the potential impact of alumni evaluations, most schools do not have a structured alumni evaluation to verify the effect of formation in the short, medium, and long term after graduation. NBTS is an exception. They have an institutional self-evaluation plan that takes place every five years, in which they send an open-ended questionnaire with seven questions to alumni. Those questions cover the impact of formation in alumni lives and ministries, so that NBTS can evaluate the efficacy of their formation. 

Impact of technology 

While the COVID-19 pandemic affected all seminaries, it had an especially great impact on schools that needed to adapt their face-to-face programs quickly for an online modality. They had difficulty in translating the formation processes into activities that could be technologically mediated.  

The effect of the pandemic on classes was the easiest to overcome, thanks to the goodwill of teachers and students who understood the world’s new reality. Many schools opted to deliver live classes via video conferencing software and facilitated the exchange of documents (texts, exercises, reports, etc.) via a learning platform or email.  

The biggest challenges emerged in relation to mentoring activities. In addition to faculty seeming colder and more distant, students and staff alike struggled to schedule meetings in times other than those blocked out for classes. Participants in the consultation also perceived discouragement on the part of students and mentors, who felt frustrated to have to discuss personal issues on a video call, a medium which they perceived to be impersonal. At ABTS, this effect was even deeper, as students struggled with the realities of Muslim-majority contexts and cultures that portray showing any sign of “weakness” as negative. Schools in which on-campus community life is intended to reinforce formation perceived the impact of isolation during the pandemic most negatively. 

On the other hand, participants shared a unanimous perception that the increased use of technological resources and new methodologies has expanded the range of programs offered by their institutions. They also noted that the application of technology can contribute to a better financial balance for schools, with cost savings that exceed those of fully face-to-face programs. Many schools began to consider the possibility of offering courses that were hybridized or even completely online. However, the challenge they currently face is to develop new mechanisms (curriculum, methodology, activities, etc.) for carrying out what they consider to be their responsibilities in the formation process. 

Synthesis and Conclusions 

Following the discussions of the four components of the guiding question, the consultation participants synthesized observations and guidance for MW schools seeking to improve their formation processes.  

To begin with, the participants observed that their consensus on the dimensions involved in the formation process bespeaks a shared conviction that formation should be approached holistically. The group agreed that schools’ future sustainability (both in the missional and financial senses) will depend upon getting holistic formation right. They also affirmed that leaders’ holistic formation is of vital importance for the future of the Church. 

The contexts of different schools shape their engagement with the dimensions of formation. Some contexts may prioritize intellectual knowledge, while others may prioritize community development and societal transformation. Likewise, context will shape what successful formation in each dimension entails. For instance, in non-MW institutions, a well-formed student is especially expected to demonstrate self-sufficiency and an ongoing intellectual focus; secure ministry resources (e.g. staff, infrastructure, equipment, etc.); maintain boundaries in relationships with faculty; and appropriately wield authority in leadership. In MW institutions, other indicators of formational success may include the ability to build community; becoming a reflective practitioner; developing intimate relationships with faculty; having a capacity to work with limited resources; expressing submission to those in authority. Each school should generate a list of implicit and explicit indicators of successful formation that they consider to be especially salient to the context in and for which they are training their students. 

Schools will also need to attend to the distinction between their own objectives for their graduates and those graduates’ goals for themselves. Institutions should bear in mind that each student enters the seminary with a personal expectation of what he/she intends to achieve in his/her formation (what we might call a student’s personal objectives). An ideal formative outcome would be one in which the institutional and personal objectives coincide. This will require listening to students’ needs and trying to meet them with available resources. It would be wise for this approach to be shaped in accordance with student vocations, which often go far beyond the classic profile of the pastorate.  

Graduation is only the beginning of the process of applying the formation received at school, a process that will unfold in the years following graduation, in the diverse ministerial contexts assumed by each student. It will be in the real world that the student will prove the efficacy of his/her formation. This underscores the importance of the institution developing a structure of assessment capable of observing the results of its objectives. By maintaining relations with alumni after they have graduated, the school will be able to evaluate its formation process and make corrections to it. The school will be able to offer alumni continuing education—other programs and courses to make up for deficiencies in their previous formation or to offer them new tools and knowledge to support their work on the ground.  

Any number of possibilities for future study might be enumerated, but the consultation participants highlighted two in particular. The first of these was the ongoing equipping of faculty members to contribute more effectively to the formation process. For this reason, institutions should consider taking steps to develop greater awareness among faculty of the multiple dimensions of formation to which they are expected to contribute and “to form teachers to form students.” Another great challenge that is ripe for investigation is how systematically to achieve and assess formation in a technologically supported educational modality. 


Porter, Steven L., Steven J. Sandage, David C. Wang, and Peter C. Hill. “Measuring the Spiritual, Character, and Moral Formation of Seminarians: In Search of a Meta-Theory of Spiritual Change.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 12.1 (2018): 1-20. 

Marcos Orison de Almeida

Marcos has served with the ScholarLeaders Vital SustainAbility Initiative since 2016. Since 1998, he has worked at South American Theological Seminary in Londrina, Brazil as a full-time teacher and in many administrative positions, including as President from 2006 to 2010. Marcos is also an Evaluator of Theological Institutions and Courses for the Brazilian Department of Education. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He received a LeaderStudies scholarship for his PhD at Fuller. He and his wife Patricia have two children.