June 20, 2013
Yes Church, We Still Need Seminaries
But not the way we think we do.
Here on Ur a couple months ago, Skye asked "Do We Still Need Seminaries?" He described how on one hand enrollment in seminaries is dropping and on the other many of his peers are not formally trained in the classic (and helpful/necessary) preacher's tool kit of Greek, Hebrew, Exegesis, Preaching, etc. But the decline of traditional pastoral education presents us with an opportunity to re-examine why we go to seminary in the first place.
I did a graduate program in theology myself. I've benefited from it as a lay leader and engaged Christian. But I'm also troubled by the feeling that, if the truth we told, we go to seminary to become professional Christians.
A normal scenario includes a young person realizing (at about 14 or 15) that serving God is best done in formal ministry. They are zealous and become a leader in youth group, organize bible studies, play in the worship band, etc. When high school ends, our budding servant of God goes to a Bible or Christian Liberal Arts school. They attend seminary after that, then begin casting about for professional ministry jobs, likely working with a youth group. (Youth ministry is usually code for "Entry Level Pastor".)
I know personally that this model is both common and terrible. I was that kid.
I was (to paraphrase Paul's famous Phil. 3 pedigree) a future leader of future leaders.
“Raised without television, home schooled, in church attendance perfect, in ministry participation a pastor's kid, in education a BA in Church History and a Master's in Theology.”
If I had ended up where I thought I'd be, I'd be wrapping up a Master's of Divinity at the University of Chicago this year. But the Lord chose me for a path of sales and lay leadership.
Even though I was on the track to be a professional Christian, I am troubled by our idea that this path of education should be the norm. It subtly reinforces the hierarchy in the church, the idea that "real" ministry happens up front, from the in-pulpit experts. “Real ministry” is what you go to school for: preaching, pastoring, counseling. Maybe if God has an extra special call on your life you'll be a senior pastor or a missionary. With this mindset, we struggle to articulate how the daily tasks of parenting, hospitality, and faithfulness to employer and family are not less important than preaching, teaching, and leading a congregation. Our ability to understand our vocations as ministry suffers.
Beyond this dynamic of professional Christianity, the prevailing education model encourages professional Christians to stay inside the bubble of Christianity from their youth group to their eventual ministry career. Our worker bee Christians are perplexed about how their work as an actuary, garbage man, or stay-at-home parent has spiritual significance. To regain that significance the zealous worker-bee Christian spends what precious little time they aren't spending commuting from suburb to city volunteering at Church. The Professional Christian, often unable to truly comprehend the pressures of corporate America and the spiritual challenges of their parishioners, preaches on how Church should be revolutionary, Christians should be red-lettered, life should be purpose driven. Though packed with truth and good intentions, without a solid grounding in the reality of everyday people, these messages often reinforce how purposeless and black lettered and non-revolutionary a majority of the worker bee's life really is.
So, to return to Skye's question, do we need seminaries? Yes, more than ever. But the popular notion of seminaries as a place for training pastors and church leaders needs to be reexamined. Theological schools need to ask "How can we better serve the whole church?" Not just pastors, but people of all occupations who need deeper training in the faith?
To put the question another way, what if the seminary was a center of catechesis for more than merely professional Christians?
What if seminarians included Christians from all walks of life, and diverse callings instead of just future pastors or missionaries? What if a sacramental theology of the cross was brought to bear on what the worker bees did every day?
What if access—challenges of cost, schedule, etc.—was removed through online and local efforts to make attendance, connection, and mentorship from well-trained Christians realistic?
What if even those called to be pastors were required by their seminary to hold a “real world” job, as part of their ministry education?
Could this re-grounding of society in seminary, and seminarians in society reverse the decline of seminaries? More importantly, could it help us reverse the lie that real ministry requires professional Christians?
Lane Severson blogs at The Guilty Conscience. He is involved in lay leadership at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL. He spends the rest of his time changing the diapers of his five children with his wife.