I’ve been invited to help out at the opening service of Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler; it’s an honor to share the ministry of those three wonderful colleagues. The thought of their project reminded me that an age or two ago — back before the weblog meltdown — someone called my attention to the discussion of [emergent] church and academy on Jonny Baker’s site. It’s a terrific thread, poking at the sore issue of how we might better prepare people to lead congregations in the contemporary world (of which a subsidiary issue involves the merits of academic training for clergy).
We’ve been through this before, here and here. The issue, however, merits our revisiting at intervals. Before I go on, though, I should admit that I’m both ordained and a card-carrying academic. Anything I say that inclines toward supporting the institutions of church or academy may be overdetermined by my financial vocational interest in the survival of those establishments. Further, I don’t construe most of what follows as a rebuttal of jonnybaker or any of the participants in the discussion there; I’ve been impressed by their generosity and patience in dealing with the topic.
Bearing that in mind, then, I agree with jonnybaker’s commenters that there’s a deep problem besetting theological education and church leadership. Critics typically characterize the problem as an academically-isolated theological magisterium trying to indoctrinate would-be leaders with a practically-useless corpus of ecclesiastical trivia — as opposed to an ideal world in which students learn about how things actually happen, how people come to love Jesus, what kind of spiritual guidance one should offer postmodern might-believers, and so on. There’s enough truth to that characterization to make it durable, but it conceals several pertinent aspects of the problem.
First, I know relatively few theology professors who aren’t at least trying to inculcate their subject areas in ways that would inform pastoral practice. Contrariwise, almost everyone I know in the field struggles yearly to devise better ways to aid students in recognizing the applicability of theology (history, biblical studies, ethics) to the work of mission and ministry. That doesn’t mean any of us succeeds, but at least we’re trying.
Second, the familiar criticism tends to reinforce stereotyped caricatures of theological education more than to resolve the persistent problems that we encounter. Anyone can pick on underfunded, overworked academics for concentrating on the dimension of their work that brings them joy and satisfaction; everyone will benefit more if we eschew demagoguery in favor of imagining possible solutions to the present unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Third, some of the critique depends on the premise that we have a decent idea of how to teach the desired pastoral skills during a period of academic training — a premise whose soundness seems to be worth examining. I learned almost all my “practical” craft on the job, and I like it that way, so I’m probably not well-situated to judge various approaches to learning for ministry. Still, I have seen relatively few academically-based courses for the practice of ministry that can demonstrate consistent effectiveness (I say this from the secure vantage point of Seabury, which makes its successful practical ministry program one of its distinctive benefits).
Fourth, and I will probably repeat this till I reach my deathbed, far too many people preparing for ministry know far too little about the church they’re preparing to lead. The church does not, on the whole, demand very much preparation at all compared to the responsibilities its leaders bear and the wisdom and understanding that congregations expect. This isn’t a matter of intellectual elitism; electricians and steel workers undergo extensive training before they reach the most fully-credentialled level of their line of work. If church leaders presume to take on involvement with the souls of trusting congregants, they can jolly well learn a thing or two of what the church has ascertained beneficial for souls (and baneful).
I doubt that formal academic training on the model of the secular academy provides the most propitious venue for theological education. Margaret and I home-school our children, and I’d just as soon home-school seminarians. Reluctant as I am to treat maladaptive cultural formations as simply given, I don’t see a way for churches to back away from institutionalized clergy training. (If someone wants to support an effective alternative, they should by all means let me know.) The urgent issue, then, concerns how academic institutions best instruct and prepare students for ministry in non-academic settings.
A number of suggestions present themselves, but let me just throw out some starters in an unordered list:
- More thorough pre-seminary catechesis for aspiring church leaders
- Unashamed academic grounding in elementary levels of church teaching on theology, Scripture, ethics, history, and so on
- Professors who know and sympathize with the daily work of ministry
- Professors who know and enjoy the cultural world in which their students move
- Students who are willing to learn more about the topics of theological education
- Churches that actually want excellent leaders, and are willing to demonstrate their respect
Part of the difficulty with such notions is the change they would require of everyone involved; it’s just easier to expect little of church leaders, reward mediocrity, allow faculties to pontificate without edifying, and watch as the whole enterprise spins its wheels without any cultural traction.
The thread at jonnybaker’s shows people who care deeply about theology and its implications, though, as they wrestle with imagining how people who share their love for truth and for God’s people can grow in faith and understanding as they also prepare themselves for the peculiar work of helping congregations draw nearer to God. Perhaps we need to imagine and support “emergence” in our theological education along with our congregations.
Whatever that looks like, I can’t bring myself to expect that it involves deliberately forgoing a rich acquaintance with the wisdom of millennia of theological reflection. We are not better servants of God and neighbor for pretending that the Word of God began with us. We can absolutely do better by way of readying ourselves for ministry, and extant institutions tend to mask the shortcomings they impose on us. How do we, then, recuperate from modern dysfunctional models of education for ministry, without trying to erect a complex strcture beginning at the fifth floor, without strong foundations or support members?
I’m sure as can be that I’ve allowed my preservationist impulse to draw me away from a better response — but this is a start anyway.