Seminary or Cemetery? How Theological Educators Can Assist Their Students

I have heard a bunch of jokes by the close-minded religious person that Seminary is best pronounced Cemetery.  While theological education has been one of the greatest gifts to my faith, I do understand why this reputation has developed.  Part of the problem is ministers’ inability to trust the congregants enough to tell the truth and for the congregants to take time to listen, learn, and continue questioning so Seminary turns in to a bunch of theological Shock & Awe.  Yet there is a real problem that exists in many Divinity Schools and Seminaries (places that educate future ministers) because I took 10 minutes and came up with over 40 friends whose experience with theological education did not enhance their faith but left it deconstructed.  Most of these friends are no longer part of the church and justify leaving by footnoting their text books and name dropping their Seminary professors.  Why is this?  Part of the answer I think is the culture of theological education.  John Cobb once told me that theological education began dying when German theologians in the 19th century felt they had to justify their discipline as an academic disciple to be included (and funded) in the University.  This legacy has led in part to the experience of many of my friends.  I was talking to a couple friends with a similar concern and suggested that professors could and should take the lead in the culture change around theological education.  Here are four suggestions we came up with over drinks.  Would love to add more if you got’em!

  1. Actively Attend & Participate in a Faith Community: Ohh and tell us about it.  I have been struck at how many people professionally (I hope called) to educate and equip future ministers are not invested in an actual faith community.  If an individual cannot be at home in any (hey I’m pretty emergent so ‘any’ is very broad) faith community then I don’t think they should be teaching at a professional school that exists to serve the church and not primarily the academy.  Why? Being a theologian is a ministerial vocation in which one is serving the church’s imagination, tradition, and conscience and to not be involved in any part of the church seems a bit disingenuous to all the people, churches, parents, and ministers who support the school financially and send their future leaders to you.
  2. Read Scripture, Pray, and Grow in One’s Faith: To the non-academic I am sure it is weird to think you would teach ministers without actually praying, reading scripture and continuing to grow as a follower of Jesus but academic training is often a process that can sterilize one’s faith.  The texts, practices, and ethical challenges all become fodder for pontification and examination but rarely are these places so central to the life of faith locations for a divine encounter.  It’s as if being able to explain something intellectually ends up explaining it away as a sacred activity or text.  Yet this critical mind is essential for theological education and when it is developed with mentors who learned to turn this critical mind into a resource for faith development it is way more likely for the students to learn to do the same (and in turn assist the church in doing so).
  3. Share Your Testimony with Your Students: This is a seminary or a divinity school.  It is ok for the professor to let the students in on their own life with God, faith, doubts, unanswered questions, and the joy of academic work for faith.  Tell us you have changed your mind, aren’t sure on somethings, really convicted over a particular issue, and thrilled about what former students are doing.  What if we assume that the professor, future non-profit managers, preachers, social workers, justice advocates, and theology bloggers in the room are all part of Christ’s body seeking to join God in working for the salvation of the World?  If we assume that then the students and professors can turn the classroom into a kin-dom of God laboratory where the liminal period of theological education is a creative and transformative space hosted by the professor.
  4. Practice the Vocation of Theological Educator with Integrity: There is nothing better for a minister in the making than a mentor with vocational integrity.  As an educator I think that includes holding us accountable academically to the standards of the school and more importantly to the living Christian Tradition each graduate will be a special steward of.  Learn to communicate better with each class as we hopefully will with each sermon.  Recognize when expectations need to change because of a person’s life circumstance, gifts, and context like we will hopefully do when we are in leadership.  Be timely and attentive to all the work we turn in to you and not neglect your students work for your publishers.  Recognize that the topics of theological education bring up way more emotionally and personally than other disciplines and sometimes a frustration with Augustine, Karl Barth, or a church polity class is way more than crosses your eyes on the paper or comes out of our mouth.  God-talk is personal.  Thinking critically about faith can be very intimate.  Model for us both academic excellence and the spiritual attentiveness.

If you are a Seminary\Div School Student\Grad I would love to know what you think and if you can help me add on to the list!

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14 comments
Nathan C. Detweiler
Nathan C. Detweiler

These are absolutely incredible thoughts Tripp. Yes and Amen to all you have said. I have benefitted from my seminary education precisely because I can instantly pass it along to my local church where I attend. EXPENSIVE $eminary can be a blessing to SO many people when you are plugged in to a real body of Christ somewhere. It's so fun to give it all away, then learn more from it all over again as people around you procsess the information all over again with you. So many conversations can be had! You can learn so much more! It would be a shame to miss those opportunities. It certainly doesn't need to become a cemetary, like you said.

Aaron
Aaron

I agree that theological educators should try to make positive statements in addition to negative ones. And I think that simply stated the negatives is easier for most professors. But I think that a good theological education should deeply unsettle one's faith if not kill it (for a time). How else can we experience healing or resurrection? The term "cemetary" should be celebrated. I worry that too many students hang on to their childhood faith by a thread and never truly surrender to the God above God (Tillich's phrase). I also worry that too many students want a new postmodern outlook on religion without having fully engaged the Enlightenment's critique of religion and Christianity. All this is to say that praying and worshiping with students may not be always possible if one is to have a strong theological education. How do I pray to God when the only God I ever knew (or thought I ever knew) is no longer real? How do I authentically worship if the object of my worship is purely symbolic? Indeed, what do I love when I love my God? And how do I love (or pray or worship) when I love my God? It is cheap and artificial religious education that wants to maintain faith by avoiding that which can and should kill it. ("Whoever wants to save his life will lose it.") Theological educators can assist their students best by more directly breaking down their childhood faith and more directly speaking about how this death is painful yet necessary. It should not offer false hope in God or the Bible or Jesus or the church, but it should challenge these most basic foundations and still offer the possibility of faith, hope, and love. The God that one finds on the other side of this journey (and many others) is the God that theology seeks to understand. This is the God that called Abraham from his home and led him to an unknown place that God would show him. This is the God that abandoned Jesus on the cross and caused the disciples to flee, yet stirred within them a new life that proclaimed resurrection and the kingdom of God. In short, what is needed is more direct communication about the need to break down one's faith in order that resurrection might be possible in some form.

Kent
Kent

Great post. I teach theology in an Christian undergraduate setting and have taught it in the seminary context as well. Two books stand out to me as I think back to what shaped by teaching priorities: Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education; Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine; Karl Barth, Introduction to Evangelical Theology. This is not to say other voices from the Great Tradition didn't impact me (I can't help but think right away of Anselm, Augustine, Hillary of Poitier, and Calvin), but I read these three while my pedagogical vision was being shaped, and they enabled me to "see" a way beyond the myopic and deadening affects of modern theological scholarship that is divorced from the life of the church. I have written on this topic actually, and I would be delighted for your feedback. You will find on ongoing series titled "Theological Educator as...(Ruminations of a Novice)" on my blog, Theology Forum. Cheers.

Pat Pope
Pat Pope

I had a great experience in seminary and would do it all over again. Many of my professors were either active or former pastors and invested in a faith community, so they were not strict academicians with no real world church experience. From my experience I would say students need to come to seminary with an open mind. Without it, it will be hard to digest the information and for some may lead to disillusionment. There is a definite divide between the church and the academy and that is somewhat disappointing, but when you get over the disappointment, you commit yourself to working for either or the other or in working for bridging the gap between the two. Which brings me to your quote near the beginning of the article, "Part of the problem is ministers’ inability to trust the congregants enough to tell the truth and for the congregants to take time to listen, learn, and continue questioning so Seminary turns in to a bunch of theological Shock & Awe." I was just sharing with a seminary board that I sit on that many pastors don't share as they could because of that little thing called a paycheck. Some parishioners can make your life so miserable, pastors begin to weigh the cost between keeping a job and teaching their convictions. One of the things our board is looking to do is offer continuing education for those who may not want a seminary degree, but would like some theological training. Hopefully, by appealing to this segment of the Church, we can help educate more of those in the pews and help minimize some of that theological "shock and awe".

Deacon Sara
Deacon Sara

Just read all the comments and Jeremy, Laura, and Challid need their motions "Seconded"!

Deacon Sara
Deacon Sara

This is dead on Tripp. I think part of the problem is that there is liberal Christianity or progressive Christianity and then there are people who are activists that have decided to use the language and symbols (along with people who have no clue's money and trust) but are not really Christians. Maybe Christian isn't the best word but whatever you want to say that means someone who really believes something about God because of God acting in Jesus and we get to join in! I think the culture of fake-believer and just plain progressive (or worse vaguely spiritual, new thought crap) liberal Christians are dead weight for the seminaries and the actually progressive Christian people. Your should add a 5th that says understands themselves to be on mission for God and supporting her church by helping to train the Church's ministers for service.

JR Rozko
JR Rozko

This may very well be just a derivation of what you have said above, but perhaps stating it a bit differently will prove useful, "Live and speak in such a way that your students learn that following Jesus is both the prerequisite and aim of a faithful theological education." This is fresh of my mind after reading Ollenburger's, "Hermeneutics of Obedience." (http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?232)

JR Rozko
JR Rozko

This may very well be just a derivation of some of what you said above, but perhaps stating it a bit differently will prove helpful, "Live and speak in such a way that your students learn that living like Jesus is both the prerequisite and the aim of a faithful theological education." This perspective is fresh on my mind after reading Ollebburger's, "Hermeneutics of Obedience." (http://www.directionjournal.org/article/?232)

Jennifer Harris Dault
Jennifer Harris Dault

This post makes me very thankful for the seminary education I am getting at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. My professors are excellent scholars, but they are also people of faith. Many serve as staff members or Sunday School teachers at churches -- several others regularly supply preach. All have talked about their own faith tradition (not all are Baptists -- and even among Baptists, we have American, National and Cooperative represented). Most of my classes begin with a Scripture reading and prayer. My classmates and I regularly quote our Hebrew Bible prof who was known for saying "there is a reason we call this 'faith.'" Any time I have been tempted to throw out everything, the lives of my profs have held me in faith.

Carl Gregg
Carl Gregg

Couldn't agree more. I especially love your description of seminary as "theological Shock & Awe." If you haven't seen Dale Martin's short book "Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal," I think you'd really resonate with his suggestions: http://amzn.to/muyNAV. If nothing else, check out the final chapter where he lays out a systematic proposal for structuring theological education along the lines you describe.

Willie
Willie

Hello Tripp, like this site and the podcasts. Yours is the first article I've seen about this important topic. In my four years of seminary (couldn't finish the huge Mdiv in 3, like most freaks did) although my profs and the student life coordinator had good intentions and I am just speaking for myself, though I suspect other classmates feel this way from post graduate facebook chats, there was a black hole of spirituality and just fun. Several of the Mdiv students I knew switched to the counseling program because it was so much more connected to people and real life. My favorite classes were practical theology with a man who had been a pastor for 30something years and had just been given a honarary doctorate from somewhere. We loved to just sit with him on the veranda between classes and soak up whatever we could from this grandpa smoking his pipe for 5 minutes. I think it overwhelmed him at times how starved we were for some down to earth conversation and humor. Sometimes in the hall he would just avert his eyes and take off for his office. Many of the profs would hang out with us and answer all kinds of questions in their offices. They were cool. But there is definitely a culture of eruditeness. Probably couldn't be helped. Sir Ken Robinson is always talking about how our industrialist education system exalts university and graduate professors as the highest achieving individuals in society. He says they live in their heads...their bodies are a form of transportation...it's a way to get their heads to meetings. Most of my profs were pretty down to earth though. But the curriculum could have way WAY WAY(all caps courtesy of Kanye) more practical exercises. My favorite classes were the above mentioned practical theo and 2 elective counseling courses I took. And I longed for the weekend when I could escape to the coast for a surf or some beers with my Mdiv defecting counseling bros.

Callid Keefe-Perry
Callid Keefe-Perry

I think your first four resonate with the one I'm about to put out, but I think it is important enough to warrant being addressed directly. To begin, I'll note that this primarily would apply to progressive/Liberal schools, however I suppose that it might extend beyond that as well... Develop a positive statement of faith and encourage/require your students to do the same. That is, especially in the face of your worries of self-exiling church deconstruction, it is crucial to touch base as to what you DO believe. Just as the professors are to be encouraged to share testimony, so too should it be known that they actually believe something! After all the critique, hermeneutic shifts, and poking and prodding, they are still called to belief. Too often people are given theory (as Laura says above) and it doesn't click back into faith. Into actually believing something. At places meant to help us deepen in our faith and gain skills to help others do the same, it is wild how infrequently people actually practice professing. That would be like being apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and knowing how to talk about all the tools and types of joints, hinges, and wood types, and the famous cabinet-makers of the past, and not actually making a cabinet. Actually, it is worse than that. It is like Ye Olde Guild of Cabinetry saying that proper training consists of the above, and once one knows those things she can be counted as a Cabinet Maker too. Of course, it isn't nearly that dire in reality, but then again, I don't make fine woodcraft either, so it all works out.

Laura Gundel
Laura Gundel

Since you know I'm all about the educational inclusion of practical matters, Tripp, I think we should formally address it. I've heard so many stories from students in their first preaching/ministering jobs that have been unprepared to discuss and address how academic theology and matters we learn about in DS/S actually incorporate into their jobs and lives- even with the required time of supervised ministry! Some divinity schools are more diligent about this than others (and, to be fair, that might be the particular proclivity of each teacher), but my own education has suffered from teachers who refuse to address how the abstract ideas we spend our doctoral degrees addressing actually change our personal ministry and experiences. This seems like something that is obviously addressed, but... not always. I think teaching should include having an open mind and the ability to change.

Jeremy Fackenthal
Jeremy Fackenthal

Great post! Here is another: Attend worship with your students. Most seminaries and divinity schools include some form of weekly or bi-weekly corporate worship. At some schools this is an integral part of the life of the community and faculty attend and participate regularly. At others it is scarcely attended and most faculty don't bother showing up. Worshipping with your students provides you with a shared experience that can create opportunities for discussion in the classroom and that aids in binding the community together. It also demonstrates to students that you care about the community, about students, and about being a part of worship service.

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