Spiritual Formation at Bethel Seminary: A Life-changing Journey

Bethel Seminary intentionally integrates spiritual and personal formation into every area of learning, preparing ministry leaders who are self aware, other aware—and transformed by a deeper relationship with God.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

July 31, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.

Seminary Faculty and Student

Faculty serve as role models, guides, and mentors as students pursue a life-changing journey at Bethel Seminary.

Your first year at Bethel Seminary, you took a course in hermeneutics. You studied the Old and New Testaments, theology, church history. Then you took the required course in spiritual and personal formation, and suddenly you realized—these concepts seemed familiar. Somehow you’ve been doing this all along, in every discipline you’ve studied so far.

And that’s no accident. Spiritual and personal formation are integrated into Bethel Seminary’s curriculum in ways that are intentional and unique. “Integration is one of the strengths of Bethel Seminary,” says Jeff Sanders, associate dean of formation and professional development. “No other seminary does it the same way. We try to stay true to thinking holistically.”

Bethel’s been doing this for years. In fact, says Sanders, the concept was part of the philosophy of Bethel’s founder, John Alexis Edgren, who emphasized the connection between faith and the educational process. But in 1995, Bethel Seminary created an intentional structure, called the Three Centers, that changed the seminary’s culture and rippled out to impact culture in general. The centers included biblical and theological foundations, transformational leadership, and spiritual and personal formation—a three-fold emphasis that addressed a significant issue in church leadership.

That issue was leadership failure. In the 1990s, churches nationwide were facing a catastrophic number of personal and moral failures of leadership. Seminaries began to consider new strategies for training leaders who were better prepared to face the ministry demands of the current culture. At Bethel, Leland Eliason, then executive vice president and dean, instituted the groundbreaking Three Centers approach, requiring students to balance their biblical and theological studies with leadership training and spiritual and personal formation. “The genius of Leland,” says Sanders, “was that he gave structure and language to the integration of spiritual growth and formation. There was intentionality about it.”

Sanders also credits Carla Dahl, the first director of the Center for Spiritual and Personal Formation, for developing the formation arc and course content that are still used at Bethel Seminary today. “We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, dreamed this, and built it,” he says.

“Students often come to seminary not fully understanding what spiritual and personal formation is. But when they experience it here, the response we hear over and over is how much it changed their life.”

— Jeff Sanders, Associate Dean of Formation and Professional Development

Today, Bethel Seminary continues to build on that strong foundation. Spiritual formation courses—as well as courses in biblical studies, theology, and leadership—help students explore multiple levels of their own spiritual and personal journey, including context, church background, emotional health, emotional intelligence, family of origin, spiritual practices, and leadership styles. “We invite students to be increasingly self- and other-aware,” says Sanders. “This process is not easy, but it’s worth it.”

Master of Divinity student Rose Nelessen ’23 says Bethel’s integration of spiritual and personal formation is unlike anything she imagined. “The resources we read and watch and discuss in our courses always challenge or deepen my understanding of not only the person I was created to be, but the ways in which I was always meant to bring my whole self into relationship with both God and neighbor,” she says. “And my professors, even in hermeneutics and leadership courses, ask about and even hold me accountable for my personal spiritual growth. They care so much about the health and wellbeing of my personal relationship with Christ to the point where it actually astounds me.”

Fiona Tranquillo ’22, a student in the marriage and family therapy (MFT) program, says that Bethel’s emphasis on spiritual and personal formation has pushed her toward a richer and fuller view of God. “I've been able to appreciate my personal experience of God and the Christian tradition I grew up in,” she says, “but also catch a bigger vision of our God who is at work in many ways, in many different kinds of people, and across many expressions of the Christian faith. As a marriage and family therapy student, I am reminded again and again that the therapist is one of the primary tools of therapy. We are brought back to the idea of spiritual and personal formation in every course because who we are truly, deeply matters in the therapy room.”

And that’s true for every student, in every discipline. “We want students to understand that the depth and breadth of who they are matters in every area of their lives and ministries,” says Sanders. This emphasis on developing awareness leads to graduates who are better equipped to deal with the challenges of ministry in mature, Christ-centered ways—and churches and ministry agencies have taken notice. “Since its inception, our integration of spiritual and personal formation has connected incredibly well with churches, pastors, clinical directors, and therapy agencies,” says Sanders. “The practical nature of this training is real for people in the trenches. We regularly get questions and requests from other ministries, wondering how we do it.”

You know how they do it. You’ve experienced it in every course, in every discipline, with every professor. Somehow the carefully crafted structure and intentional integration create a space for something profound to happen. In this sacred space, you meet God—and yourself—in powerful, transformative new ways. You’ll never be the same.

Study at Bethel Seminary.

Bethel Seminary empowers leaders so they can effectively respond to God’s call. Three emphases of study—in biblical and theological studies, spiritual and personal formation, and leadership—encourage transformation in every student, so graduates can carry the transforming message of Jesus Christ into the world with confidence and compassion.

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