Ron Walborn provides help to leaders dealing with the pressures of today’s church.


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Ron Walborn is the Dean of Alliance Theological Seminary. Ron has been the head of the Pastoral Ministries Department at Nyack College since June of 2000 and was named the Associate Dean of Bible and Christian Ministry in June 2005. Ron was elected to the Board of Directors for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in May 2005. During this interview Ron reflects on some of the pressures of leading in the church today and how an institution like ATS is attempting to prepare students for ministry and help existing pastors lead better!

Interview Highlights //

00:27 // Rich introduces Ron.

01:02 // Ron talks about the history of the Alliance Theological Seminary.

03:07 // Ron talks about the Master of Divinity course curriculum.

04:30 // Ron talks about the Alliance Graduate School of Counselling.

05:48 // Ron talks about other courses and resources available through ATS.

06:56 // Ron talks about why grieving should be part of pastors’ regular spiritual formation process.

08:39 // Ron introduces his video series on spiritual formation.

09:40 // Ron talks about how pastors need to be in a safe place and find a safe place, to enable them to disclose pastoral concerns.

11:24 // Ron talks about the value of ecclesiology in the churches in New York City and the Metro New York area.

Lightning Round Highlights

Helpful Tech Tools // Bethel Podcasts

Ministries Following // Trinity Grace in New York City

Influential Book // A Celt in Rome by Bill Crockett. Worlds Apart by Bill Crockett. Kingdom, Church, and World by Howard Snyder

Inspiring Leader // Barack Obama

What does he do for fun? // Being a new Grandpa. Walking. Golf.

Contact // [email protected]

Interview Transcript //

Rich – Alright, well welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich Birch, the host around these parts. Super excited today because we have an actual seminary leader today in Dr. Ron Walborn the Dean at ATS Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. Great School. Super excited to engage in this conversation with you today Ron and welcome to the show.

Ron – Thank you and it’s appropriate because I’m like the most unseminary deal that’s ever existed.

Rich – Nice well we’re kindred spirits then.

Ron – There you go.

Rich – That’s a great thing. Well why don’t you start by giving us a sense, telling us a little bit about ATS and your role and how does that work, tell us about your school?

Ron – Alliance Theological Seminary has a great history and it started by missionaries. There were some missionaries who were anthropologists, they came back in 1960 and they said, “We need a place to train people that are going to go across culture, that are going to go overseas, get them certain more theology, but theology in a way that they can contextualize it to the culture they’re going to.

So our seminary was started as a missionary training school. It was initially known as Joffrey School of Mission, named after a great missionary, Robert Joffrey and then became Alliance School of Theology and Mission, they have a little more theology and eventually morphed into a seminary.

But we’ve kept that DNA of integration. When you come to ATS you do get some traditional theological education but you’re getting a lot of anthropology, a lot of psychology a lot of integration. So we want to put people out that know how to minister on Wall Street and Main Street as easily as Church Street. So there’s a heavy emphasis on that kind of integration.

When I came here, back in the 80s, I was training to be a missionary in Guinea, West Africa and in my last year God called my wife and I to stay in the US and I thought, “Oh great, I’ve wasted my seminary.” I’d studied contextual theology and pluralism and…

Rich – You can’t apply that anywhere.

Ron – Well I found out it prepared me perfectly for ministry in North America.

Rich – Yes absolutely.

Ron – So that and a heavy emphasis on spiritual formation. One of our Profs likes to say, “We don’t want to graduate brains on sticks at Alliance, we want to make sure we develop their heart as well as their head.

Rich – Wow so why don’t we dig into that a little bit. What is it that you’re doing within your institution and then maybe even just for pastors out in the field, so they’re not just brains on sticks, not just people that can do ‘great theology’ but their souls are being cared for?

Ron- Well in our curriculum, let’s stay with our Master of Divinity curriculum, because that’s the three year program. In every year they have to do spiritual formation, intentional spiritual formation. So when they come in the first year, that is an initiation to spiritual formation course, where there’s a lot of entry level kind of training on basic spiritual formation. A lot of inventories. We do what’s called an MMPI-2 test which basically compares them with other seminary students and raises issues of pathology.

So I meet with then early on and we get them into counselling, if they need counselling. A lot of dysfunctional people come to seminary. So one of the things our first spiritual formation class does is kind of raises those issues early on, so that we can get them the help they need.

Then the second cycle of spiritual formation, I teach that course, it’s basically a foundation in life and ministry and we cover a lot of stuff in there. There’s also required counselling as part of that and we’ll talk about that a little deeper when we talk about different tools.

Then we have a capstone course in their third year. That kind of summarizes everything together that they’ve learned in the three years and along the three years there’s constant mentoring spiritual directors.

Rich – I was going to ask about, whether you’re providing the spiritual director piece in there.

Ron – Yeah, right alongside. So we’re trying to get it in a very holistic way. We’ve got the spiritual director, we’ve got the counselling available for them. While they’re students here, there’s no charge for counselling. We have a counselling center. They can even come with their wives, with their husbands, with their children, we allow them to do any type of counselling they need free of charge through our counselling center.

Rich – Now that seems really progressive. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that sort of thing, provided by seminaries. Or have I just been out of seminary too long to know about that.

Ron – No it is relatively new. What helped us that one of our early professors at Alliance was a guy named Craig Ellison and started a counselling school that we’re still connected with. It’s The Alliance Graduate School of Counselling. So it’s not just theology but it’s anthropology for the missions’ emphasis, it’s sociology but it’s also holistic psychology, the best of Christian counselling as well. So we’re doing everything we can to keep that integration happening.

Rich – Absolutely, the pressures when people get out into the real world can be really tough for sure. What about ongoing training and development for church leaders, does ATS do that kind of work too?

Ron – We actually do. More and more what we’re doing is opening up our doctor of ministry classes that if somebody wants to come in and audit they can come in and sit through a course with Sherwood Lingenfelter who’s out at Talbot, Fuller. He comes in and he’s one of our Profs. David Ireland from Montclair comes up and does a course on culture transformation and Martin Sanders and myself do renewal weekends, not just here in the seminary but we’ll go out into churches and do weekends on spiritual renewal and spiritual formation.

So there’s a lot of resources that we make available to the local church. Not only inviting them in but our professors going out.

Rich – There’ll be hundreds of church leaders listening in today, if you were going to offer them some pastoral guidance, some kind of next steps on the spiritual formation front, I realize this is not a great format for that, it’s just an interview, but what would you suggest, some things they should be thinking about as they think about those issues?

Ron – This is going to sound like it’s coming out of leftfield, but I really believe one of the things pastors have to grab onto is the concept of grieving. I don’t think we grieve our losses well and I think that that handicaps a lot of pastors in embracing next steps, in terms of spiritual formation.

Loss isn’t just the loss of a loved one, it’s not just death, it’s when your dreams begin to get picked off. It’s when your vision for ministry begins to get sabotaged, it’s when friends betray you. I find so many pastors, they don’t allow themselves to grieve adequately and well. What happens is they begin to live reactively instead of proactively, the margin in their life gets so left with hurt and pain.

So what I advocate, when I go out and speak to pastors, is that grieving needs to be a regular part of their spiritual formation process. In fact I think it should be part of the Shabbat, the Sabbath rest, where at the end of every week we pause and we certainly thank God for the victories. But then we take some time to journal and process and maybe we need to process with another safe person, the losses that we’ve gone through this week.

When you do that well, when you grieve well, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted,” there’s a comfort that comes, pastors can leave stuff behind, to embrace what’s coming next. It allows you to embrace the next season rather than live out of the past. I think, I’ve found over the last 15 years that that is one of the key pieces for pastors.

I’ve actually done a, I’m not trying to sell my own video series…

Rich – No it’s great.

Ron – I do have a six session series on spiritual formation. We deal with the discipline of honesty, we deal with bounded set, which is kind of legalism, religious spirit stuff that kills our faith, we deal with grieving and it’s six sessions. It comes in a DVD series with books for people. It’s designed for small groups. So if they contact me at the seminary I can put them in touch with where they can get that through my production company. So just a resource.

Rich – Yeah that’s very cool. Now what would you suggest to, something you said, there’s a lot of solo pastors who listen to this show and they carry a lot with them. They go home at night and they don’t really want to unload on their spouse, because that can just become toxic. How would you suggest to, even a solo pastor who’s out there, to find someone else? What would be some steps you think they could take, to find someone, needing help with some of that?

Ron – Well the first thing I’d tell people that are desperately looking for someone to be safe with, is that you’ve got to be a safe place before you can find a safe place. Really kind of the first steps is, “Am I the kind of person that somebody would feel safe disclosing their heart to?” I think that’s a goal for all of us.

Henri Nouwen wrote a great book called Wounded Healers and it’s the recognition that vulnerability is a strength not a weakness. When I do that, it’s amazing to me how I begin to discover people that I can also be safe with. When I decide and determine that I’m not going to judge, I’m not going to condemn, I’m not going to be critical, I’m not going to be competitive with other pastors. Because I think other pastors need other pastors to be safe with.

I’m a big proponent of really building collegiality inter-denominationally with other pastors, because I think sometimes pastors outside of denomination can be our safest places.

Rich – Absolutely. I actually, just last night I had a pastor friend of my contact me and say, “We just need to get together and talk, there’s some stuff…” It wasn’t anything significant, it was just life stuff and we wrestled through some of that. Sometimes I think, particularly for people who are processing a lot of pastoral concerns with people, day in, day out, you need someone to interact with and to talk, “How does that impact me? What’s that doing to my spiritual development? How am I dealing with that?” For sure.

Ron – Yeah because not every place is a safe place.

Rich – Right.

Ron – I do a talk on the discipline of honesty in that series and you can’t turn your pulpit into your therapy.

Rich – That’s true.

Ron – Because you don’t cast your pearls before swine, your people are pigs but they’re not a safe place. You’ve got to find a safe place.

Rich – Absolutely, absolutely for sure. Well what else would you say, to folks that are listening in today, is there anything else you’d love to share with them?

Ron – Sure come to ATS, we’d love to have you. There’s still time to register for this fall. Or not if you don’t have your undergrad degree yet. What I would say is, listen God’s doing amazing things in the churches in New York City and in the Metro New York area.

Rich – So true.

Ron – There’s such amazing stories of God on the move in the church and I know there’s a lot of people that are kind of down on church but I have a real high value on ecclesiology and I think sometimes those of us in Parachurch ministry, kind of look down on the local church.

I just had a conversation with a dear friend of mine, he’s a CEO for a Parachurch organization and he said, “Ron I don’t get it, why aren’t my people growing after they get from their mission trips, after they do this incredible stuff?” I said, “They’re not growing because you have no ecclesiology. You don’t go to church, you don’t tie them to the church and the church is God’s vehicle for long term spiritual growth and wholeness. I know it’s dysfunctional and I know it’s broken but God loves his bride.” So I’m excited about what God’s doing in the church in the Metro New York area.

Rich – That’s so true. Absolutely. I appreciate Nyack and ATS as someone who’s ministering in the kind of Metro New York area. It’s one of those schools that you bump into people all the time. You bump into great people who have been through your school, or benefiting from your schools and I’m just so thankful that you’re a part of the matrix of what God’s doing in our part of the world, for sure…

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.