Theological education & curricular design at AMBS

Christian ministry finds its highest purpose in serving the church's calling to proclaim and signify God's reign on earth through the enabling presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ. Central to preparation for Christian ministry in its variety of forms is empathetic understanding of the unique vocation, the failings, and the grace-filled life of the Christian church. Thus the church, its calling, and its reality serve as the orienting point for theological education and curricular development at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Theological education and curricular design start with the church's identity, mission, and reality rather than with an analysis of the nature of theological inquiry or a professional vision of ministry. The document "Ministerial Formation and Theological Education in Mennonite Perspective," adopted by the seminary in 1992, outlines this approach to pastoral and theological education. Identifying the church within God's reign as an orienting point for theological education suggests the following:

  1. The overall task of theological education is to support and renew the church in its mission.
  2. Theological education in a seminary context is a dimension of the broader educational ministry of the church and is at the service of that ministry.
  3. The theology and practice of Christian ministry find their roots in the nature and purpose of the church.
  4. The church, local and international, denominational and interdenominational, serves as a partner in theological education. Congregations and other church-related programs are significant contexts for seminary accredited learning.
  5. The faith and ministry of living and historical Christian communities and organizations are valued "texts" for curricular content and scholarly research.

While the three-year Master of Divinity program most fully reflects a church-focused curricular design, commitment to theological education and scholarly inquiry that takes seriously the identity, calling, and reality of the church permeates the character of all degree programs at AMBS.

Some long-standing commitments in approach to theological education at AMBS as well as some shifts in approach that have been developing at AMBS during the past decade are brought into focus when the church and its calling are taken as an orienting point. The more important of these longer-term commitments and shifts that find expression in the academic programs described in this catalog include:

  1. Commitment to a missional orientation and perspective. Implicit in the calling of the church to "proclaim and signify the reign of God on earth" is a vision of the church as a missionary community. The interdepartmental course "Mission and Peace: The Church's Ministry in the World," the only course required in all degree programs, seeks to elicit personal commitment to proclaim a whole gospel. The course is designed to help students understand how the insepara-ble ministries of evangelization and peace- and justice-making emerge from the gospel of Jesus Christ and to provide basic practical preparation for mission-oriented church leadership.

  2. Renewed emphasis on leadership ministries in relation to the ministry of all believers. AMBS faculty and board members firmly believe that all Christians are called and gifted "to participate in the ministries of the church, sharing the mission to witness to Jesus Christ in the world." At the same time, the 1992 theological education statement records the conviction that "the church is strengthened for its mission when believers are nurtured and guided by faithful pastors and other church leaders."

    The seminary is therefore committed to educating people who have been or may be called "to exercise distinctive leadership ministries" and who at the same time "understand the importance of equipping other believers for their ministries and are prepared to do so."

    To underline the distinctive character of pastoral and other church leadership ministries, seminary faculty have adopted the language of "office." When one is called to hold an office in ministry-whether expressed in the role of pastoral minister, evangelist, pastoral counselor, or a teacher of the church-the church assigns not only particular responsibilities, but appro-priate authority and standards of accountability in relation to other ministries in the church.
    The "Formation in Ministry" course explores understandings of leadership ministries. An interdepartmental course, "Theology of the Church," examines the nature and purpose of the church, Christian traditions, and contemporary cultural influences.

  3. New attention to personal and pastoral formation. Theological education dedicated to preparing persons to guide the church in proclaiming and signifying the reign of God must be concerned with growth in the intellectual and practical abilities essential for such ministry. But it also recognizes the importance of nurturing personal and spiritual qualities critical for such leadership. These include among others: a strong faith commitment nurtured by prayer; con-tinuing study of the Scripture; participation in the life of the community of faith; love for the church and willingness to serve others without an excessive need for personal recognition; the willingness to receive and give counsel; and moral integrity in both personal and public life.

    Overall educational objectives at AMBS thus include growth toward personal and spiritual maturity as well as development of theological depth and wise practice in ministry. Faculty believe spiritual growth and deepened commitment to the mind and way of Christ occur with the nudging of the Holy Spirit through a variety of means-study, sermon preparation, interpre-tation of Scripture, reflection on acts of ministry, corporate worship in chapel services, receiving pastoral counseling, and individual and group prayer, among others. In addition, the seminary offers seminars, retreats, mentoring, and courses that deal specifically with aspects of spiritual formation.

    Intentional concern in a variety of courses to deepen students' understand-ing of the work of the Holy Spirit in biblical and theological interpretation; in congregational decision-making; and in the practice of ministries such as evangelism, pastoral care and counseling, education, and worship leadership also contributes to this dimension of pastoral formation at AMBS.

    The Master of Divinity curriculum provides special structure for monitoring personal and pastoral formation through seminars, faculty advising, and a concluding ministry evaluation and interview.

  4. Reaffirmation of the importance of theological depth and discernment for those who guide the church. Theology and theological education are closely related to the church's teaching and preaching ministries. As a disciplined body of knowl-edge, theology includes the study, reception, and transmission of the church's traditions, weighing criteria for making judgments about faithful beliefs and practices, and finding the language in which the church best shares its message. As a disciplined way of thinking, theology seeks to bring coherence, consistency, and insight to the church's teaching ministry.

    Faculty seek to enable theological depth and discernment in at least three ways:

    1. by passing on traditions that have proven to be carriers of faithful witness to God's reign;
    2. by helping students learn to make good judgments about faithful belief and practice in diverse cultural settings; and
    3. by helping students articulate the church's message in ways that nurture Christian life and faith in the contemporary world.

    Those who guide the church need to be able to discern the church's faith-fulness and need for renewal. They must be able to propose ways to shape the church's practices and beliefs that are faithful to its calling. Because the church is called to be light and salt in the world, its mission includes critiquing the systems of thought and conduct that undermine or oppose faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time, its mission includes using those elements of human wisdom that can witness to the reign of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

    AMBS faculty offer strong resources in biblical theology. They teach system-atic theology from a Believers Church perspective, emphasize links between theology and ethics, and are interested in exploring further ways for pastors and others to assist theological discernment in congregational settings.

  5. Acknowledgment of Scripture as the primary standard in theological discernment and education. Maintaining a strong seminary tradition, AMBS faculty are deeply committed to the disciplined study of biblical texts while holding that Scripture remains the one foundational and trustworthy resource for measuring the faithfulness of the church to God's Word. Interpretation of Scripture is essen-tial for understanding the work of God in Christ and the church's identity and mission. Scripture also serves as the standard for faithful Christian life and practice. Therefore a major curricular goal for all degree programs is to cultivate respect for and thoughtful and faithful interaction with the Bible.

    The faculty also are committed to relating Scripture-as the primary standard for faithful life and thought-to the various fields that comprise the curriculum. They envision a theological education in which the categories of these disciplinary fields-understandings of the history, ministries, and mission of the church, and interpretation of the contemporary world-are measured and formed by Scripture.

    As teachers of the church and servants of the Word, faculty have also agreed to maintain regular personal and corporate disciplines of Scripture study and to cultivate familiarity with Scripture.

  6. Valuing of the seminary's Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage. The church's calling to proclaim and signify the kingdom of God has included several characteristic emphases in Mennonite perspective. While none of these convictions taken alone is unique to the historical Mennonite traditions, the constellation they represent helps to define the seminary's heritage and identity. These emphases include: the creative and transforming as well as the forgiving quality of God's grace; the significance of Jesus' life and teaching as well as of his death and resurrection for our salvation; the church as a community of voluntarily covenanted believers symbolized by believers baptism, congregational discipline and mutual care; Christian faith expressed by living as disciples of Jesus Christ in all of life; nonparticipation in violence and war and commit-ment to the way of peace even as a way of confronting evil; the dismantling of racism; the serving of others by seeking what makes for genuine peace and by inviting unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ; and simplicity in worship and lifestyle.

    Special attention in the curriculum is given to the theology, history, and experience of Anabaptist-Mennonite Christians-both in the offering of specialized courses, such as Anabaptist History and Theology, and in making references to Mennonite church life and practice in a variety of courses across the curriculum. In their teaching, faculty encourage thoughtful appropriation of both Mennonite and broader Christian traditions.

  7. Recognition of the church as both content and context for learning. In building under-standing and appreciation for the church and its calling, seminary programs encourage students to interact with both the biblical witness to God's reign and the ensuing life and practice of the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

    The church that gave rise to, inspires, and informs theological education is first of all a historical community. In teaching and research, faculty value the witness of the historical church and attempt to remember and learn from its persistent faithfulness and frequent failures.

    Particular aspects of the identity, mission, and reality of the church are explored from various angles throughout the curriculum. For example, the Pastoral Ministry and Leadership course required for most MDiv students attempts realistic and loving appraisal of congregational life in relation to pastoral leadership issues and church polities. The Anabaptist History and Theology course highlights understandings of the church emerging from the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation. The Luke-Acts: Mission Perspectives course explores the vision and struggles of the New Testament church.

    The Institute of Mennonite Studies, an organization devoted to scholarly inquiry and sponsored by AMBS, has given increased attention in the past several years to the development of projects in ministry studies, such as Christian initiation of new believers in Mennonite churches, congregational studies, and mutual aid. Faculty and students draw on such material to enrich their understandings of the calling and reality of the contemporary church.

    The living church serves not only as a subject but also as a context for teaching and learning. Congregational and community-based internships
    and practica connect students to realities the church faces in contemporary North American settings. Congregationally based internships in the Master
    of Divinity program increase fruitful interaction between campus-based and congregationally based education.

    Apart from supervised work in churches, faculty and students are expected to be involved in local congregations and to draw on this experience in their teaching and learning.

    The seminary campus ethos and curricular offerings also promote deepen-ing awareness of the global character of the church. Many students, faculty, and campus guests have lived and worked outside North America. Given the local and national loyalties of many Christians and congregations, increased understanding of and connection to the worldwide church is a significant component of theological and pastoral education.

  8. Awareness that the calling of the church shapes the character of the educational community in which teaching and learning occur. AMBS is a community of theological educa-tion. Faculty hope that the seminary's entire ethos-its distinguishing characteristics, habits and practices-will be shaped by and inspire commit-ment to the church's calling. The document on theological education reiterates a statement from a former guiding document that "not only the content but also the context of the curriculum must be shaped by our theological convictions." A seminary shaped by the church's calling:

    1. is committed to growth as a worshiping community.
    2. is committed to remain an international community that reflects the changing transnational character and multicultural dimensions of the Christian church.
    3. is a ministering community committed to value a diversity of ministries.
    4. is committed to foster community discernment and decision-making.
    5. is committed to be a community of mutual care and accountability.

    Given the high calling of the church and the related high expectations for Christian ministers and seminaries who desire to follow this calling, theologi-cal education and pastoral formation must begin and end with repentance, commitment, and confidence: repentance for accepting lesser purposes for ministry, education, and community life; commitment to serving the church's primary calling of being the community of God's reign in the world; and confidence in the sustaining and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.