The seminaries and their constituent congregations enjoy a deep and abiding relationship within the ethos of American Presbyterianism. In fact, in a time when much of our denominational ecosystem is under some degree of stress and decline, it is my observation that the seminaries and the great majority of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations remain its healthiest components.
With respect to our ten PC(USA) seminaries, I have already had ample opportunity in my three years of serving as a seminary president to get a good look at the complexion of theological education in North America, and I believe they are without peer. They represent the gold standard when it comes to the quality of education, the quality of faculty, the quality of clergy being sent out into the church, the value base still alive in our denomination for the stewardship of the mind, and their sheer institutional strength and stability.
It is also interesting to me, in terms of the relationship our seminaries have to the church, that over the last decade, when Presbyterian seminaries have chosen presidents, they have overwhelmingly chosen pastors and not academicians–persons who, even if they have a Ph.D., are coming straight from the parish where they have spent most of their ministry. That is a profound statement, I believe, that at a deep level the church and the seminary want to be in still closer conversation.
And maybe it’s about time, the church and the seminary may be saying to one another. From the church’s perspective, there is this sense–not always justifiable, in my humble opinion–that the seminaries are out of touch with the life of the church; that their faculties are not sufficiently engaged in the on-the-ground life of the church; and that the questions we pursue in seminary are not necessarily the questions that most concern the church.
Churches ask seminaries
As evidence of this perspective, whenever I go out to preach, people come to me and say, “Why isn’t the seminary teaching _____.” Fill in the blank! Why isn’t the seminary teaching people how to run Session meetings, how to do a stewardship campaign, how to hold the baby at a baptism, how to preach sermons that aren’t boring, how to relate to the media, how to be super-literate technologically, how to grow the church, how to pastor multi-staff churches, how to manage their own money, how to do more effective pre-marital counseling, how to take care of themselves better, how to prioritize their own physical fitness, how to plan Sunday School lessons, how to administer, how to socialize, how to relate to the media? And furthermore, why isn’t the seminary teaching ministers’ spouses, too, how to do this and how to do that?
Although I’m able to say to these earnest questions that a number of these matters of practical theology are indeed covered in this or that congregational leadership course, there is always a remainder. So, assuming that the church still wants us to teach the core of any theological curriculum–Bible, theology, church history, pastoral care, liturgics, preaching, ethics, Christian education, and so on–if we added all the other things that the church demands of us, it would take eight-and-a-half years for a student to earn a Masters of Divinity! Moreover, we would send them out to the church armed with the latest technology and the latest good ideas on stewardship and the latest wisdom on administrative style and technology and self-care, and in five years that knowledge would be outdated or irrelevant. Nonetheless, there is in some quarters of the church a “trade school” mentality; and, were the seminaries to succumb to it, I believe that in less than ten years the church would be saying to us, “Why isn’t the seminary teaching Bible and theology and church history and all the rest?”
But the church is bringing these questions to the seminary, and that’s important. Seminaries need to listen and get beneath the questions to what they may be saying about our present time.
Seminaries ask churches
Speaking now for at least one seminary, I, too, have some questions for the church.
I want to know when the church is going to get back seriously into the business of lending its own voice to the calling voice of God so that every single church member has something to contribute to the task of discerning and encouraging persons in the congregation with gifts for ministry. The church lost its nerve a couple or three generations ago, and in many congregations stopped expressing such support. In fact, in 1999, we noticed a dearth of Presbyterian clergy under the age of 35–7% in that year, compared with 24% in 1975–and then got busy turning that trend around. The 7% figure is starting to climb again, thankfully, but there is still a long way to go.
Secondly, I want to know when many churches will begin to understand themselves again as “teaching congregations”–and not just for seminary interns, but for pastors coming to them straight from seminary. It used to be understood that seminaries prepared a student with the theological foundation upon which to build a ministry, and the churches that student would subsequently serve continued to equip him or her with many of the practical skills of ministry. Never in the 23 years of my parish ministry did I stop learning, from wise elders and other parishioners, how, in effect, to be a minister. No seminary could have covered in its curriculum the endless learning experiences that fed me in every parish I served.
Thirdly, I want to know when the church will recapture its zeal for funding the seminaries. Were it not for the Theological Education Fund in which congregations voluntarily send at least 1% of their annual budgets for coordinated distribution to the seminaries, there would be very little denominational support for our seminaries. At Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, we are deeply grateful for the roughly $200,000 that came to us this year from the Theological Education Fund, but we have a budget of more than $9 million. If the denomination expects its seminaries to be accountable in a number of important ways, then–at the congregational, presbytery, synod and General Assembly levels–it should seriously get back into the business of funding its seminaries.
As the church and the seminaries strive to be in closer conversation, we will discover, I suspect, many common challenges placed before us in these interesting times. I can think of at least three. First, the church and the seminaries face together the challenge of nurturing a Reformed identity. On our particular campus, the challenge, to a greater and greater extent, is that of forming–not just informing–the students who come here. They come with less and less of a sense of having grown up in the church, and knowing its customs and folkways. We work harder these days at the task of forming them with a rigorous theological education that prepares them primarily for service in the parish. We are betting, by the way, that the best way for us to do that is going to be in a residential community and not primarily on-line, as important as distance education is in many ways. Seminary, after all, is not just the information you get in class, but the formation you get in chapel and over a cup of coffee in the refectory and in a conversation with a professor or fellow student.
Secondly, the church and the seminaries face together the challenge of being memory-bearing organizations, even in a culture in which the act of remembering is distinctly out of fashion. When I was a pastor in New York, serving a Presbyterian church on Long Island that was started in 1660–the fifth-oldest Presbyterian church in America–a frequent visitor in worship sitting in an ancient meetinghouse surrounded by a Revolutionary-era cemetery, came to me once to complain about everything in the church’s worship that was so “out-of-date.” The Confession of Sins, the robes, the creeds, the hymns–they were all “so hopelessly yesterday” as she put it. Then she said to me: “I’ve decided, in fact, that everything that preceded my own birth is irrelevant!” I thought about that statement–the Magna Charta, the Reformation, Brown v. the Board of Education, all of it irrelevant. Her name is legion in our culture, so surely the temptation for seminaries, and for the church, is to get with it and thus forget! But we do so at our own peril.
In our chapel, the columns on one side of the nave symbolize the Major Prophets, and those on the other side symbolize the four gospel-writers. Elsewhere there are carvings of each apostle and, in the chancel behind the Lord’s Table, is a reredos that features the Pelican-in-her-Piety, an ancient symbol of the atonement. The pulpit and font and table symbolize the central acts of Christian worship, and a silver cross–a reproduction of the St. Martin’s Cross on Iona–presides over the whole scene. The chapel, in short, is a repository of memory. And so is every classroom. And so is every faculty bookshelf. And so is every conversation in which a teacher and a student hash out some piece of our story that has abiding significance. We are charged with remembering, but in this day and time such an act of memory is downright countercultural. Yet, the memory that we nurture in all our seminaries–and in all our churches–is the only thing, curiously, that can faithfully guide us into the future.
Lastly, the church and the seminaries face together the challenge of beholding our common enterprise, dispirited and fractious and disorganized as it often is, and seeing it anyway with the right kind of vision–with eschatological vision. Otherwise, why would we each bother to keep teaching and worshipping and educating and serving? I believe that both the church and the seminary suffer in many quarters from an altogether too cynical and withering critique, from within and without, that discredits too much and acknowledges too little. From those who believe that simply growth and energy forecast the viability of the church and its future, the critique is that the church and seminary alike are too anemic. From those who believe that theological rigor alone defines the faithfulness of the church, the critique is that both church and seminary are hopelessly squishy in what they profess. From those who believe that the church should simply be on the barricades of each and every justice issue, the critique is that church and seminary are dusty artifacts that have lost their relevance. Based on the last service of worship I attended, the last congregational luncheon I ate at, and the last Church School class I taught, each of these critiques suffers from premature certainty. For, more often than not when I go to church, I get some glimpse of the messianic banquet–right here amid all of the brokenness.
From the seminary, as from the pew, it is still possible to get a certain take on the church, a certain view of it. It isn’t always much to look at–so polarized and embattled and often timid. It can rarely hold a candle to snazzy corporate paradigms, glitzy television ministries, easy entrepreneurial slogans or coffee-bar mega-churches and giga-churches. All it’s good for, really, is holding the world together. And our job, in this time which we didn’t ask for but were simply given, is to continue to love the church, to love the task of theological education, and to love the Gospel–for God’s sake and for the sake of the world.
Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.