Is it time for changes in our gatekeeping?

From California to New Jersey, Presbyterian seminary students are graduating.


Good. We need excellent pastors in many roles. And although I wish not to detract from their celebration of this achievement, I do think it’s time to rethink both seminary education and ordination.


I’m not the first to suggest this, but so far nothing radically different or a lot better seems to be happening.


One of the people suggesting seminary changes is Landon Whitsitt, vice-moderator of our General Assembly. In a recent piece on his website, he proposed “experimenting to see if there is a new and different way forward than the one we’ve assumed.”


He urged taking advantage of today’s technology to “generate a body of theological, biblical, and pastoral knowledge and make sure that everyone who wants it has access to it.” Then, he wrote, we could make pastoral apprentices of people who feel called to ordination.


There is much I like about this idea, though I think it undervalues the wisdom and experience of good seminary professors.


I recently had a chance to ask Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren about seminaries and he suggested that most in the mainline denominations are good at turning out pastors for traditional churches but haven’t figured out how to get people ready to lead newly forming mobile faith communities, which is where growth is occurring.


As for ordination itself, I’ve long struggled with the concept — even for the six years I served on our presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Such committees play a necessary gate-keeping function, in part because that very function is often ignored by local congregations sending candidates to presbyteries.


And yet I think the power to ordain should carry with it a responsibility not just for assuring the candidates’ competence and true calling.


It involves that for sure, even though presbyteries in many ways simply abandon those responsibilities once the ordination questions are asked and answered — not unlike the way in which universities take little or no responsibility for how their graduates perform once they have their diplomas. What would it mean to offer a guarantee — or maybe just a limited warranty — to congregations agreeing to call the newly ordained?


Beyond all of those concerns, we should acknowledge that our gate-keeping process, necessary as it seems, sometimes results in shutting out people who would be fabulous pastors but who seem unable or unwilling to make it past our various requirements.


I don’t want simply to toss out the ways we’ve been doing seminary and ordination, but I do want our denomination — perhaps in conversation with other branches of the faith — to start talking seriously about whether the ways we handle these matters now meet the needs of the 21st Century church.


I’m not fully happy with Whitsitt’s apprenticeship idea for seminary training because I think candidates for ministry need more than one or two models for how to be a pastor. And I’m cautious about tossing out our rules for ordination.


But surely we can hold both matters up to the light and see if God might be drawing us toward a different way of doing things.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book . E-mail him at