Living Out the Gospel in Seminary Life

by Grant S. Shockley

Dr. Shockley is president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 2-9, 1977, p. 90. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Piety and learning should unite in a style of life that characterizes the seminary as a whole, as a unique community of scholars and ministerial students. Piety in theological seminaries cannot be preformed. It must grow out of the tasks in which God’s people are involved, the sufferings they endure and the challenges they bring.

At the Interdenominational Theological Center -- a cluster of seven predominantly black seminaries in Atlanta -- we feel that While such a pattern will not be rigid or doctrinaire or even “classic,” it seems to have several aspects which, viewed together, could be called the objectives of the seminary inasmuch as they serve to integrate conceptually the pietistic or spiritual-formation function with all other phases of seminary life --academic and administrative as well as vocational.


The concerns that surface when one considers piety or the quality and depth of the seminarian’s relationship to God and other persons include: (1) Christian community, (2) spiritual formation, (3) vocational study, (4) ecumenical fellowship, (5) corporate worship, (6) personal witness and (7) community service. Let me briefly delineate these ingredients from the perspective of a theological school preparing women and men for pastoral ministry in predominantly black communities of America.

Community. The task of the seminary is the preparation of persons to serve in and with the Christian community of God’s people as exemplars of the gospel. For ITC, this means that to “become” a community, we must “be” a community. We must become acutely aware of our membership in Christ’s community and the black community, and we must relate to the community realistically and authentically.

Spiritual formation. This task requires the cultivation of spiritual life to the point that the lives of seminarians become sensitive to the true and eternal realities of God revealed in Christ, and committed to these realities as the basis of their ministry. For those oriented in the black experience, there is a complementary task; namely, understanding that an indigenous theological formulation of faith -- black theology -- is available to aid in the task.

Vocational study. If the essence of piety is not only prayerful devotion but helpful service, it will involve study that searches the Scriptures for a biblically based ministry, discerns the urgent questions of life, and determines how best to enable persons to resolve them. Vocational teaching and learning in a predominantly black seminary, then, means plumbing the black condition in the light of the gospel so that blacks -- and all people -- can hear and receive the “good news.”

Ecumenical fellowship. Piety in a theological seminary, broadly interpreted, involves learning how the whole household of faith has labored, and can and should labor, in unity to witness to the reality of the gospel. A unique opportunity exists at ITC, where both all-black denominations and the black constituencies of several white denominations prepare their ministers for service in the U.S. and abroad.

Corporate worship. Worship in a seminary community, a more specific kind of piety, can be as varied as the number of worship traditions which inform and form its life. As Ann Patrick Ware reminds us, worship should be truly ecumenical and not merely nondenominational. It should be mindful of the needs of its constituencies and intentional in seeking to build an articulate community. The attainment of this goal is one of the most exciting aspects of an ecumenically oriented black seminary.

Personal witness. If piety -- a personal expression of ultimate loyalty to God revealed in a unique life style -- cannot be divorced from any fact of seminary life within or outside its walls, there is a large place for personal witness in the spiritual formation of ministers. Such a witness goes beyond proclamation to communication -- i.e., telling what the good news did! At ITC and other black seminaries there are peculiar opportunities to witness to the truth “that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity.”

Community service. A concluding dimension of piety that commands a large place in theological learning is service. Emil Brunner’s statement “Mission is to the church as fire is to burning” is apropos. In terms of the seminarian, the best learning is that which engages the learner in determining that which is to be learned. Helping people in black communities to deal “with all the ultimate and violent issues of life and death” in their effort to survive and develop could be one of the most distinctive and definitive words ever spoken.


True piety involves personal salvation as well as social holiness. In the life of the seminary, piety must be formed out of the engagement of the gospel with its own time and its problem-laden history, and lived out in every nook and cranny of seminary life. A similar basic premise underlies the relation between pastoral care and theology. In the words of James D. Smart, we should bring “the whole of theology to a focus upon [the] one point in the church’s life where it attempts to deal with human beings.” In other words, the seminary’s method should underscore both the classic Christian record of revelation and the most contemporary insights from clinical experience.

This basic premise translates helpfully for scholars of the black experience in general and specific ways. Generally, the recent indigenization of the black experience as a faith formation is a distinctive indicator of the theological dimension of the movements of black awareness that are abroad in the black community. Black theology, a product of this development, is the positive, constructive, action-oriented meaning of “blackness” in the religious domain. It provides a totally new perspective from which black people can view themselves, others, Scripture, church, tradition and reason. More specifically, it enables the development of a theory of ministry for pastoral care; namely, “the mutual concern of Christians for each other and for those in the world for which Christ died.”

This definition relates even more specifically to the teaching and learning of pastoral care in a theological seminary preparing persons to serve predominantly black churches -- in four ways, according to W. A. Clebsch and C. R. Jaekle in their book Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective: (1) healing, (2) sustaining, (3) guiding and (4) reconciling.


In many black churches the healing function in pastoral care -- i.e., the function in which a “representative” Christian aids another in restoration to wholeness, including a new level of religious insight -- is greatly aided and abetted by the message of black theology, which motivates black people to claim their personhood despite the massive attempts of a racist society to deny their humanity and set in motion a vicious self-hate syndrome.

A second basic pastoral-care ministry -- that of “sustaining” or helping persons who have suffered traumatic experiences to endure and transcend those experiences, and indeed to grow in and through them, and often because of them -- is likewise closely related through black theology. Here the pastoral care of the black pastor (or the pastor of black persons) becomes the instrument for releasing the power to endure suffering, alienation, rejection and abuse within a context of understanding that goes beyond resignation but stops short of irrational rage.

A third basic pastoral-care function is guidance, or aiding persons. as they make and affirm choices between alternatives. Translated in terms of the black religious experience, the guidance function of the black pastor needs to be evidenced in seminary as a ministry of support and affirmation of the unique and often peculiar choices black people must make -- some merely to survive, many to claim a modicum of personhood, and most to understand the irrationality of racism and racial prejudice.

A final pastoral function is the reconciling one -- i.e., restoring the basis for belief in persons of faith despite their contradictory behavior; “turning the other cheek” in anomalous situations. This perennial need on the part of black Christians is related closely to the theological roots of the Christian faith at every significant level of its development.

Piety in theological seminaries cannot be preformed. It must grow out of the tasks in which God’s people are involved, the sufferings they endure and the challenges they bring.