Magazine article The Christian Century

Scholars for the Church: Preparing Seminary Teachers

Magazine article The Christian Century

Scholars for the Church: Preparing Seminary Teachers

Article excerpt

"HOW WOULD your introductory course in your field help prepare students for ministry?" This question consistently stumped candidates fresh from graduate school who were interviewing for a faculty position in our theological school. The candidates were bright. They could map their disciplines with precision, and they cared deeply about the role of religion in society. But even those who wanted to teach in a theological school stumbled when we asked them: "What do you think ministers really need to know about your subject in order to lead people in lives of faith and action? How do you help students learn those things?" Their fumbling for answers demonstrated something veteran theological educators know firsthand--how hard it is to connect academic expertise to the deeper work of forming students for Christian ministry.

Church leaders and theological educators have worked on many levels in recent years to bridge the gap between academy and congregation. Parishes have offered transitional internships for seminary graduates heading into congregations. Clergy have met to refine theological wisdom learned in the practice of ministry. Seminaries have revised curricula and created new programs. Scholars have studied the history of theological education and suggested reconstructing the course of ministerial study and the role of practical theology. Foundations and denominations have supported these initiatives with significant investments of time and money. It has taken work at all of these levels to help bring congregations and seminaries closer together. Until recently, however, one part of the larger network has received relatively little attention: doctoral education in religion.

Doctoral education plays an important role in perpetuating the divide between academy and congregation. It is what one scholar calls the "real home" and the "strongest institutionalization" of the gap between theology and practice. Graduate programs reinforce divisions between areas of study and establish deep commitments to specialized scholarship. "You hear so much about the gap between seminary and ministry," one Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt said. "But the real gap is between seminary and doctoral work."

That gap can feel deep and wide to students who come to doctoral study formed by a seminary curriculum designed with ministry in mind. It can feel even wider to those in seminaries and divinity schools who are trying to hire recent Ph.D. graduates to teach people preparing for ministry.

In 2003 a Vanderbilt study group surveyed deans and presidents of theological schools about their experience in hiring new graduates for faculty openings. These leaders expressed consistent disappointment in the candidates coming out of top graduate programs. One dean said that "at least two-thirds of applicants" for positions in his school "give no evidence of understanding what it takes to prepare people for ministry."

The informal survey yielded a telling picture. Too many candidates in the so-called classical disciplines--like biblical studies and church history--demonstrate neither the desire nor the ability to connect their scholarship to the work of ministry and the lived religion of existing communities. At the same time, candidates for positions in the arts of ministry-like congregational leadership and homiletics--often understand such connections but lack rigorous academic training and do not seem ready for the kind of scholarship the school expects.

These observations reflect two sides of the same coin: the lack of integration of theology and practice in doctoral programs. Most Ph.D. programs in religion are geared to produce research scholars. This paradigm has produced tremendous advances in certain kinds of knowledge, and these advances should not be discounted. Training for membership in a guild pushes students to think critically and deeply in a field--goods that would be lost if academic disciplines were dissolved. …

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