Magazine article The Christian Century

First Call: From Seminary to Parish

Magazine article The Christian Century

First Call: From Seminary to Parish

Article excerpt

I WAS A freshly minted product of seminary, plopped down by the bishop into a forlorn little church in rural Georgia. During my first sermons, my congregation stared at me impassively.

At first I thought that the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between us was due to a gap in education. (Educated people tend to think this way when dealing with the uneducated.) Then I noticed that my parishioners easily referred to scripture in their conversation, freely used biblical metaphors, and sometimes mentioned obscure biblical texts that I had never read.

At first I thought that their way of interpreting the world was primitive or simple or naive, but eventually I realized that their ways of thinking were different from mine. I had been trained to construe the world psychologically or sociologically rather than theologically. I was thinking in the mode of the academy; they were thinking with the Bible. We were not simply speaking from different perspectives and experiences, but across the boundaries of two different worlds. I was in the middle of an intersection where two intellectual worlds were colliding.

While it's risky to characterize so complex a phenomenon as theological education as "the seminary," the world of theological schooling is more uniform and standardized than the world of the church. Seminaries, whether large or small, conservative or liberal, have more in common with each other than with the churches they serve. Their internal lives--how they construct their curricula, select their faculties and set expectations of their students--are based more on the models of other seminaries than on the mission of the church.

Seminaries in my denomination--United Methodist--are experiencing a growing disconnect between the graduates they produce and the leadership needs of the churches these graduates serve. This disconnect causes friction between churches and their new pastors, and sometimes defeat for all concerned. It occurs because Protestant seminaries have organized themselves on the basis of modern, Western ways of knowing. They are still held captive by an epistemology borrowed from the modern university, with its notion of detached objectivity, the fact-value dichotomy, the separation of emotion and reason (with reason as the superior means of knowing) and the loss of any authority other than an isolated, sovereign self that is subservient to the needs of the modern nation-state. Seminarians are equipped mainly to provide a kind of chaplaincy care for those who have difficulty functioning in a capitalist economy; many discover that they lack the prophetic skills necessary for ministry.

At the same time, seminaries have overlaid the church's ways of thinking with academic thinking, and the seminary as the church created it to be (a place to equip and form new pastoral leaders for the church) has become the seminary as graduate-professional school for credentialing. It's a place where faculty talk mostly to one another. (Nietzsche noted that no one reads theologians except for other theologians.) Faculty accredit and tenure other faculty using criteria derived mainly from the secular research university. While the seminary desperately needs faculty who can negotiate the tension between ecclesia and academia, most faculty continue to be most adept at embodying academia.

The seminary selects and evaluates its students on the basis of the same criteria. Instead of selecting those students who can most benefit Christ's work with the church, it uses criteria by which it turns out many pastors who have little interest in serving the church.

District superintendents and I were unimpressed with a recent group of soon-to-be seminary graduates. As administrators in a declining organization, we desperately need people who can take risks, develop new churches and new ministries, and help lead us out of our current malaise. These seminarians seemed most interested in being caregivers to established congregations, caretakers of ministries that someone else initiated. …

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