Theological education: liberating our hapless Gulliver

The modern seminary, like the proud organ of the cathedral, bears witness to the “great tradition” of theological inquiry as well as to its role in an especially influential era of Christian witness.


But even as we marvel at the enormous capacities of the seminary, we may note that the seminary (to switch metaphors) seems a bit like Jonathan Swift’s hapless Gulliver: a giant, to be sure, but one captive to a multitude of Lilliputian realities.


I want to try to name some of those Lilliputian realities in order to get at what theological education for the church, through the seminary, might look like in the 21st century.


Among those mighty Lilliputians, we might notice the growing numbers of students who enter seminary insufficiently formed by a congregational community.


This was brought home to me when, in the spring of 2011, our director for field education, Hal Murry, shared with our faculty a graph entitled “Synchronizing Church and Seminary.” Under the “old norm” of the ordination process, one saw a neat alignment between ecclesial formation and academic preparation: A seminarian emerged from deep within the folds of congregational life, went to seminary, and then became a pastor.


Today, we see a “new norm” taking shape: Students arriving at the seminary doorstep have only recently returned to a church they left during their college and early professional years.


Their ecclesial formation,” says Murry, “lags behind their academic preparation. They arrive prepared for an M.Div., for the academic side, but lag behind in terms of their identification with the life of the local church. And given what we’re seeing with the decline of the church, we’re likely to see more of this rather than less.”


Consequently, the church’s role as incubator or “little seminary” for future pastors has been diminished or interrupted.


Another aspect of the catechetical problem is something that George Barna calls a shift in reasoning for entering seminary: As compared to students of the ‘50s and ‘60s, who often identified a particular feature of the pastoral life as something they were called to do (preaching, pastoral care, teaching, missions), today’s students speak of an experience of loss (divorce, vocational crossroads, disease, global crisis). These experiences of life, often painful, provide the basic stimulus for entering seminary and church service.


Maybe this comes with the territory: Pastors often pass through some kind of fire before they choose their vocations. Mindful of this, seminaries are staffed with caring professors as well as professionally equipped caregivers.


Even so, it needs to be remembered that the modern seminary emphasizes theological education and formation in the life and habits of pastoral practice. That doesn’t exclude personal wholeness (we hope!) but it doesn’t end there either. For some, the vocational purposes of theological education will inevitably take a back seat as they try to heal deep personal wounds.


r-hoch.jpgBut just say that through determination, counseling and hard work, our student makes it through seminary: Our student graduates, a new pastor, a new congregation waiting to receive her or his leadership.


Glorious day, right?


Not necessarily. Students often graduate into a church dysfunctional rather than a church very much triumphant. Couple that with a new minister, still trying to adapt to preaching every week, identity concerns and pastoral rhythms, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.


The figures show a bleak outlook for new pastors: Not only is the market contracting, but many pastors will drop out after just six years of ministry. Another group engages in what might be called “serial” calls: Hearing the “call of God” every two to three years, they leap-frog from one sinking pontoon to another, just trying to survive.


Not surprisingly, cynicism and burnout often appear to be the hallmarks of pastoral service.


In the middle of this is that giant, theological education, which has its own set of troubles, not completely unrelated.


To begin with, although the seminary is an institution of the church, it is beholden to accrediting bodies and academic guilds that many in the church would find bewildering and, in some instances, openly hostile.


My area, preaching, supplies an example: While historical and biblical studies align themselves to academically respected cognate disciplines (e.g. the cognate discipline for systematic theology is philosophy), preaching remains embarrassingly close to the life of the church, unaligned with a “respectable” area of academic inquiry. As a result, among most mainline seminaries, students may have just three hours of preaching out of an 80- to 90-hour program of full-time study — a shocking discrepancy between the preponderance of pastoral activity and their seminary education.


Read this as a struggle to survive in the secular academy. And read this as a drift between congregational mission and the purposes of theological scholarship.


Another feature of our captivity as an institution appears in the unstated assumptions of the seminary structure: institutionally, we assume catechesis is sufficiently thorough before students enter seminary; we assume (institutionally) students will graduate into churches prepared to receive their leadership; and we assume (institutionally) students will be “sustained” by a network of denominational and cultural ties once they graduate.


Three years and you’re done. That’s an M.Div. And we heave them unto the Lord or unto the chaos, sink or swim. Many sink.


While that state of affairs may be OK for social Darwinists, it seems wrong for people of the church. So I want to make a few modest proposals, all based on the idea that the seminary remains a vital part of being the church today. And some of these things, seminaries are living into now, but we still have far to go.


To begin with, I think we need to reform our curriculum through interdisciplinary settings and collaborative teaching.


Seminaries differ in the amount of interdisciplinary cooperation present in course development and delivery, but in general divisions (Bible, History and Theology, and Ministry) design and deliver their own courses. Where this pattern prevails, it only encourages us to live out of our respective “silos of specialization,” silos that impede the acquisition and modeling of the vital interdisciplinary skills that contribute to the life of the church. Without a model of that sort of thing in the classroom, our scholarship remains tethered to an insufficiently integrated theological program of education. In the end students and churches pay the price.


So, I say, dissolve divisions (at least for the purposes of course formation) and reconstitute our faculties in cross-disciplinary conversations in course development as well as course delivery.


I don’t think this sort of thing is a real threat to our scholarship; our respective guilds are not going anywhere, but then again, if we think about it, neither is the current model of theological scholarship for the church.


Relatedly, we need to continue to broaden the educational envelope of the seminary classroom. We need to remember that the classroom extends both before and beyond the seminary experience and that our ultimate classroom resides in the life, mission and witness of the local church.


With these concerns in mind, beginning in 2012, UDTS launched an online course, Christian LeadershipPlus, a course designed to provide an online classroom for new pastors as they continued to hone their skills and reflect on their vocations as teaching elders. The idea was that a weeklong study leave or going to hear a brilliant “sage on the stage” for a weekend did not get at the more basic, formative challenges confronting new pastors.


At the same time, we wanted theological education to offer the gifts that it could, in fact, offer. So, like other “traditional” seminary classes, this course includes a simplified syllabus, hoped-for yields, textbooks, assignments and conversations with peers and a professor.


In the summer of 2010, as we ended the first trial experiment with this class, participants said it helped them to address identity issues; they felt encouraged by the fact that their preaching was being “heard” by similarly yoked peers who could help them reflect on their work theologically and pastorally; they also said they were reaffirmed as belonging to the Reformed tradition while they pastored in parts of the country where that tradition is less well represented.


Academically, the course explored the challenges and rewards of preaching from Pauline texts. According to one student, she “didn’t feel so bad preaching like Paul!” Another reflected that, because the course took place under “the umbrella of seminary,” it provided a helpful note of continuity between his seminary experience and his pastoral service.


We continue to explore this kind of educational format. There’s trial and error in every new thing. But for my part, the course expanded my sense of vocation to the kind of holistic teaching that emerges in settings where the Sabbath rhythm, and not the academic guild, casts the longest shadow.


Ultimately, local congregations that produce seminary students need to partner with educators to supply a congregational context for the seminary classroom. We shouldn’t be “going away” to seminary, either online or residentially. Local churches cannot let the seminary do theological education by proxy, but need to reclaim the church’s vocation as the classroom of the Holy Spirit.


Likewise the seminary needs to imagine ways that it can realign its life so that it speaks coherently to the life of the church it was designed to serve.


This does not mean jettisoning the Association of Theological Schools or dropping guilds, or the real fruits of specialization, but it does mean taking an honest look at how the seminary can serve the church in missionally coherent ways, using its strengths to maximum effect.


ROBERT HOCH is associate professor of homiletics and worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.