“Presbyterian? Is that Catholic?” Claiming a denomination when asked about religious affiliation has become about as irrelevant as claiming a county instead of a state when asked where you’re from. In an increasingly secular and spiritual-but-not-religious world, denominations have lost relevance, amounting to afterthoughts in conversations of Christianity.
Denominational identity is the most pressing issue facing denominations today. If denominations have a chance at survival then there must be a push for each denomination to claim its most distinctive trait. There should be no hesitation before Presbyterians claim education as our trademark.
As a graduate of Davidson College, I’ve witnessed and been transformed by a school which roots its mission in the Reformed PC(USA) tradition. There’s a palpable commitment to learning with imagination and without boundaries in classes of all departments. I, along with Davidson’s leaders, would credit the best and most definitive traits of this school to its foundation in the church.
Although Presbyterian seminaries are strong and attract students from different traditions, we cannot resign ourselves to pride, or complacency for that matter, in the state of our seminaries. We must transform our already-strong seminaries into an educational experience that models our hopes for the church and the world. Presbyterian seminaries haven’t wavered in their commitment to rigorous academics; however, now it’s time to deconstruct some classroom walls and bring our education into the world.
Students who come to seminary should expect to engage the most critical issues facing the church and the world. Whether a seminary chooses a single issue to engage and then mobilizes efforts around it for a year, or chooses several pressing issues of its community and commits resources, all students should enroll with the expectation that they will be engaging prevalent needs of the community in and out of class.
Educating leaders of service cannot happen solely in class discussion. Certainly, critical thinking is necessary for strong leadership, but seminaries cannot allow future leaders the luxury of an alienated, disengaged world. Currently, the seminary experience is three years in preparation for ministry. Seminary must become three years of ministry alongside a supportive community of peers, faculty, and administrators.
Students will no longer walk across the stage at graduation with hypothetical questions of how to lead a congregation in response to community needs. They will already know what it’s like to do that work and will have been able to reflect theologically in class. Seminaries can become lab space for the leaders of the church. I’m convinced that if Presbyterians invest in their seminaries then we can transform ministry and the church’s relevance to the larger world.
Talks of what ministry could look like will not need to happen as frequently if we, seminary leaders and students, begin to live these conversations. Seminaries must demonstrate church, community, advocacy and innovation, because only when seminaries live it can we trust that those who devote three years to the system can model this in the secular, spiritual-but-not-religious, denominationally-unconcerned world-at-large. Presbyterians are in the best position to bring the change. So what are we waiting for?
Betsy Lyles is a senior at Columbia Theological Seminary and a 2011 graduate of Davidson College.