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Todd Cioffi on Congregational and Ministry Studies

Todd Cioffi, professor of Congregational and Ministry Studies at Calvin College, explains why word of mouth brings students to this new department.

Why did Calvin College start the Congregational and Ministry Studies (CMS) department, and why did you want to get involved?

The department grew out of Calvin’s Lilly Vocation Project, directed by Shirley Roels and others. There was a good response from students and faculty. That success raised the question about how we think about Christian vocation, and, more particularly, how Christian vocation is informed by our connection to the church.

When I came to Calvin to interview for this new department, I fell in love with the college. I have a PhD in theology, and I’m also ordained in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). I’ve been straddling the line between doing ministry and thinking about ministry. Here I get to do classroom work, do high powered academic projects with students, talk about my ministry experiences, and partner with students, churches, and pastors.

Why does the CMS program offer only courses and a minor, no majors?

We’re not adding something totally new to Calvin College so much as helping put a sharp focus on its mission. That’s why we don’t offer majors. We offer a ministry leadership minor with several emphases. We are talking about specific ministry in and through the church, but we’re also talking about how people, vocationally, are being formed through the church and college to live out their work in the kingdom of God through their careers.

A lot of our courses are interdisciplinary to help fill a gap that students in art or business or engineering might feel in how to live out their Christian vocation. We partner with as many departments that want to partner with us, whether that’s religion, sociology, social work, or something else. Because CMS is a new department and because they’ve thought it through, people here are very creative.

Is CMS mainly for pre-seminary students?

No. About two-thirds of students who come to CMS will not be going to seminary. That’s great. Unless you really feel called to seminary, we want you to go out and be an engineer, be a nurse, be an artist, be a business person. And do it as an extension of your life identity in and through the church.

We do offer ministry internships and Jubilee Fellows, a program designed for students who are specifically thinking about pastoral ministry. If a student comes to us and say, “I am so pre-sem,” then we connect them with the pre-seminary program that’s a partnership between the religion department and CMS.

Young people who grow up in a church often drift away from it during college. What do CMS students say about their church experiences?

We’re finding with our students—and national research shows this—that young adults are more confused than opposed to religion and spirituality. If I say, “The church has to be one of the most significant aspects of your life as a Christian,” they get nervous. The perception is that church is a lifeless stale spiritual expression associated with other class and cultural things. But if I say, “Christian community has to be a significant part of your life as a Christian,” they’re all for it.

We talk about how good Christian community includes worship. And when you start breaking down what impact various worship practices have, and how worship forms community, they’re very open. So then, we can send students out on academic projects to do in churches. They say, “Wow, I never noticed that before—and, now that I do, I like it.”

What do your students wish that church leaders get about how they want to be involved

They wish they were taken more seriously. We have to break this notion that you need to get married and have kids and a mortgage to truly have a place in the church. I ran into that myself, because I married late and had kids late. We need intentional effort to connect older and younger in relationship, whether it’s small groups or a project that requires people from different generations. Sometimes we act like we can’t reach kids because we don’t know their language. But they’re suggesting, “You don’t need to come to us knowing hip hop. Just talk with us and listen to us.” There’s a lot of potential in these conversations. Often we in CMS say to each other, “Wow, if these students are to be church leaders, ordained or not, then we’re in good shape.”