When people meet to discuss the future of theological education, they almost invariably devise plans that emphasize more and more topics from outside the classical theological curriculum. These plans laudably aim to extend the student’s competence from solely technical, academic expertise (“Pastor, should I be worried about my daughter’s incipient Apollinarianism?” “Not unless she lapses into Eutychianism, my dear; now, please polish the asperorium”) to such valuable skills as small and large group dynamics, elementary accounting and finance, the ever-popular appliance maintenance, roofing, and subclinical diagnostics and therapy. Throw in an increased emphasis on subjects in the umbral area of the classical curriculum — ritual studies, non-Christian traditions and interfaith relations, the histories and literatures of movements that the catholic tradition deemed heretical, to propose a few — and due attention to currents in the church that the dominant Western perspective has overlooked (and in some instances “suppressed”).
I think it would be swell if leaders in the church could handle checkbooks, boilers, thuribles, rabbinic Aramaic, innovative coming-of-age rites, contentious committee meetings, and synodal policy-making with equal aplomb. Oh, and could preach. I vote a very firm “yes” for omnicompetence.
Now, since few will attain that ideal (and I begin by confessing my own merely partial competence), and since we can’t inculcate everything in three years of theological education, we must face the problem of what to emphasize in three years of graduate education. I have two overlapping responses, one as an ecclesiastic (“an open, unrepentant ecclesiastic”), and one as an educator.
As an educator, I believe with greater and greater conviction that people learn what they’re ready and motivated to learn, and that some of them can fake learning what they’re obligated to simulate learning (but don’t care about). I thus advocate a more open curriculum: my proposal at Seabury would involve each professor offering a required introduction to her or his areas of interest, and all other courses would be offered as electives. Students would take the courses they care to, and if they didn’t care to sit through Early Church History or New Testament Introduction, that would be their lookout; they might be such paragons of small group dynamics that they should be accredited on that basis alone, and heaven knows I don’t mind the absence of unmotivated, resistant students.
As an ecclesiastic, I affirm Darryl’s point. However valuable all the pastoral-managerial skills are, they don’t matter if the pastor-managers don’t understand the truth that they’re proclaiming. I predictably compare the practice of theological responsibility to the practice of medical responsibility: do you really want a physician who’s a great organizer of small groups and whose office roof is watertight, who balances the books without help — but who’s a bit spotty on anatomy, diagnostics, and remediation? A pastor (whether of an established “institutional” church or an emergent coffee-shop congregation) needs to understand the gospel she proclaims. That understanding may derive from a graduate degree in theology, or from patient catechesis at the side of a sainted gramma, or even an immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit, but if you don’t know your theology, you’re treating souls without adequate understanding of anatomy and diagnostics.
This has run too long, and I haven’t adequately nuanced my polemic — but the short version runs, “Theology matters.” Well-administered, vaguely spiritual, socially congenial worship groups can get along for a while, but I’m unshakably convinced that the the church thrives where the whole congregation embodies, enacts a deep coherence that unites what they profess, how they spend their time together, and how they shape their lives outside the church. That deep coherence depends on someone understanding theology as well as a doctor understands physical health.