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!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!