I am not your usual seminary president. I have a Ph.D. but it is in international relations, not theology, Bible or church history. I served congregations as a pastor for 15 years, but the congregation I served for 11 of those years had fewer than 100 people in worship most Sundays. I taught courses at the university level, but have never been part of a faculty. My credentials are all wrong.
How did this happen?
Before becoming president of San Francisco Theological Seminary in July, 2011, I worked for Bread for the World in Washington. Bread is a wonderful organization, a collective Christian voice that urges our nation’s decision-makers to end hunger at home and around the world. That collective Christian voice is made up tens of thousands of people in more than 50 denominations across the religious spectrum — Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Pentecostal, African-American — who are united in the conviction that their faith calls them to engage our political leaders in the sacred work of ending hunger.
One thing that has impressed me during my time at Bread was the importance of religious leaders. God knows we need such leaders in every time and place; Bread for the World wouldn’t exist without them. I saw this on an almost daily basis: Grasped by the power of the Gospel, people are moved to make a difference in the world, especially for those who are hungry and poor, and to bring others along with them in that endeavor.
So it was clear to me that we need institutions that cultivate, nurture and equip religious leaders for the world and church of the future. For me, that means seminaries. Seminaries are critical institutions in the life of the church. As the name implies, they are the seeding grounds for the transformation and renewal of the church in the world. They are laboratories for incubating religious leaders who have been called by God to encourage and challenge communities to live out the Good News of Jesus Christ.
But when some of my friends discovered that I was thinking of becoming the president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, their reaction was incredulity. “Why would you want to become a seminary president?” they asked. “Don’t you know what’s going on in seminaries these days? Many of them are on the ropes financially. Enrollments are declining. Denominations are in trouble. There are fewer jobs for pastors, and especially for recent grads. And given what most churches are able to pay their pastors, why would anyone want to increase their debt burden by taking on the tuition and expenses of three or four more years of graduate education?”
So, why did I leave Bread for the World to become president of San Francisco Theological Seminary? The answer is simple: I experienced the call of God once again in my life. My experience is not exceptional. The call of God comes to lots of people in a wide variety of forms, but however it comes, it lays claim upon our lives.
I believe that God is calling seminaries, and those who serve and support them, to respond to a changing world and a changing church with a fresh vision for ministry. Seminaries need to be places of hope and energy for a transformed church capable of healing a broken world. This is my vision for SFTS.
As others have said, seminaries should think of themselves as places of spiritual formation rather than repositories of theological information. Spiritual formation is a lifelong endeavor, but seminaries can be the place where spiritual formation is catalyzed and intensified. Graduates of seminaries should be equipped and empowered to be the kind of religious leaders whose ears and eyes are attuned to God’s presence in the world today, and who can bring people together and motivate them to participate in God’s mission as it is now unfolding.
There is a place for the classic courses of seminary education. Through biblical studies, seminaries bring depth and breadth to the power of God’s Word to change lives and relationships. By offering courses in church history, seminaries remind students that God continues to move in human history to achieve ultimate purposes and that “new occasions teach new duties.” By offering courses in theology and ethics, seminaries challenge students to re-examine their ways of understanding who they are and who God is, and then to ask “so what?” By focusing on practical theology, seminaries expand the possibilities for ministry and mission, encourage personal growth, and teach new skills and competencies.
But the classic curriculum of seminary education is not enough. Seminaries like SFTS must radically reform their educational models and the curricula that support those models in order to connect with the sea-changes taking place in the world today. God is calling seminaries, including SFTS, to a task in which we ourselves will be transformed. Seminaries have to move not only beyond the old dogmas and pedagogies; they have to help the world and the church move beyond the divisiveness and corrosiveness that are needlessly tearing our world and church apart.
The prophetic ministries of the 21st century are ministries that foster conversation, interaction, common action and uncommon community among people and groups that do not know each other, do not understand each other and do not agree with each other. We need church leaders who are capable of bringing people together across the political, ideological and cultural divides, and of bridging those gaps.
We need to design seminary education in a way that provides the intellectual underpinnings for that kind of leadership — the biblical understandings, the lessons from church history, and the theological and ethical basis for such ministries. But we also need graduates who have been given the opportunity and challenge to develop the emotional intelligence, spiritual formation and practical skills that would enable them to be the kind of religious leaders our polarized, parochial and partisan world so desperately needs.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Kierkegaard’s notion about how we live is instructive not only for individuals like you and me, but for theological education in a time such as this. To “live life forward” is essentially to live by faith. We take our direction by the prompting of God’s Spirit, without understanding fully where we are going or how we will get there. That should be true for seminaries and theological schools as well. Neither the path nor the destination is clear, but what is important is that those of us who are committed to theological education continue to listen closely to what the Spirit is saying to the church.
My first assignment with Bread was to lead the organization’s effort to urge the U.S. Congress to provide deeper, broader and faster debt relief for the world’s poorest countries — Bread’s contribution to the Jubilee 2000 campaign. No one thought we could do it, even we ourselves. Poor-country debt was an esoteric topic, too hard for most people to understand. The problem seemed so big. The odds were stacked against us. But there was something of God in this effort. God’s Holy Spirit was at work.
In 1999 a small coalition of church groups — Church World Service, the Episcopal Church, the Methodists, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholic Relief Services — and Oxfam America focused their efforts on introducing and passing bipartisan legislation. Our efforts succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Bread for the World itself generated over 300,000 letters to Congress. We not only passed legislation, we changed U.S. policy, and the policies of other rich countries and international financial institutions. That assignment showed me the power of the collective Christian voice to change the course of history.
This is the same opportunity that San Francisco Theological Seminary has today. I trust we will be able to look back on this time of transition and uncertainty at some point in the future and recognize how God was working in and through SFTS to do a New Thing.
JAMES L. MCDONALD is president of San Francisco Theological Seminary.