Can VTS learn about formation from GTS?

Date: November 27, 2023

A key word at Virginia Theological Seminary is residential. By residential, we do not just mean “in person” classes; we mean a shared life as a community; we mean “class, chapel, lunch” – we study together, we worship together, and we take table fellowship together. This phrase is a key part of “formation” – we are aspiring to create the space for God to form a life of authenticity and faithfulness to be used for congregational leadership. 

One joy of the Affiliation Agreement with The General Theological Seminary is that we can take a key idea from one setting and start thinking about its application in another setting. So, one of the key questions advocates for hybrid degrees for ministry are asked is about formation. How is it possible to ensure that a person develops spiritual habits when most of their instruction is delivered online? It is obvious how formation happens in residential programs. At Virginia Theological Seminary, we have an expectation that every student participates in at least one corporate act of worship every day. Through requiring this practice, we hope to instill a sense that a day without a conscious and intentional pause in the presence of God, is a day in which something vital and important is missing. But how is it possible to inculcate this same sense through a hybrid degree? 

One of the ways we instill this sense with hybrid students at GTS is through online retreats, such as the recent one organized by the Rev. Dr. Robert Flanagan. One student, Shannon Darke, took the time to email me to share how much she gained from it. She wrote: “It was wonderful and such a treat to get to pray and reflect with members of both cohorts. The content and exercises that he put together were a perfect balance of praying and being ‘present’ with our seminary community and having personal time to pray and reflect. I have even been able to pull from some of the materials for the adult formation class that I help teach in my field placement each Sunday. What a great way to help us establish and encourage practicing personal focus and renewal.” 

So, what exactly did the online retreat involve? The program, which started at 10am and finished at 2pm, was carefully paced:  

10am: Welcome and Opening Prayers 

10.20am: Mystical Contemplation where each student explored four questions on their own: where do you see God in your life? How has your relationship with God changed while you have been a seminarian? In what ways does God support you right now? How can these mystics (Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, The Cloud of Unknowing – extracts are provided) motivate you in your seminary life and current ministry? 

11.30am: Contemplative Gentle Yoga on Zoom, led by a Kirpalu yoga instructor. 

Noon: Meal Break. 

12.30pm: Contemplative Walk. 

1pm: Lectio Divina on their own, focused on the theme “The Tenderness of God”. 

1.50pm: Closing Prayers on Zoom. 

2pm: The Day Concludes. (There was an optional event in the evening) 

One advantage the hybrid students gain from formation experiences such as this online retreat, is that they are being introduced to practices that they can continue for the rest of their lives. Perhaps at this point, Virginia Theological Seminary can learn something about formation from GTS. A daily Eucharist with hymns is difficult to replicate once one graduates from seminary; lectio divina or meditating on the mystics are exercises one can do for the rest of one’s life. Perhaps we need the Rev. Dr. Robert Flanagan to organize an online retreat for our residential students! 

The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D.
Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary and the President of The General Theological Seminary

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