Progressive Christian Channel
The (Not So) New Frontier of Theological Education UPDATED: A Rejoinder to Andrew Grosso
My thanks to Andrew Grosso for his thoughtful response to my article on the "The (Not So) New Frontier of Theological Education." The editors at Patheos have invited my response and in the name of promoting a conversation about the shape of theological education, I have accepted their invitation (this one time!). I will also confine my response to what I see as the two issues of greatest significance in our exchange, rather than respond point by point.
First, let me acknowledge that the Kemper School is, indeed, a "school for ministry." I was working from the title of the article in The Living Church and unwittingly used the same language in writing about the school and, more broadly, programs like it that offer a streamlined, unaccredited alternative to a theological education. The way in which we use that language is admittedly fairly fluid and, of course, one might have also described what Kemper and others are trying to do as a modified approach to a "seminary" education.
However, Andrew raises that distinction between "ministry" and "theology" to the level of a difference in pedagogy and institutional mission, teasing the two apart. It is that kind of distinction and the implicit dangers in it that prompted me to write about programs of this kind in the first place. Act by act ministry shapes the theology of the church, and the theology of the church ought to inform the ministry of the church. The two are inextricable and neither the church's leadership (lay and ordained) nor the schools that prepare those leaders can escape that fact.
So, when Andrew argues that I needn't be so concerned because, after all, the Kemper School is a school for ministry, not of theology, I find myself more, not less concerned. Whether the implication is that the school isn't trying to do something as complicated as prepare theologians, or the implication is that "doing theology" is finally not all that relevant to ministry, the distinction ignores that necessary and inescapable relationship between the two. The fact that the church often ignores that relationship is precisely what ails progressive Protestantism. In the absence of cogent, theological reasons for what it does, far too many churches are without a motive for evangelism, an apologia for their faith, or good reasons for their life and practice. People sense that, whether they can articulate it or not, and a church with well-meaning practice and right-thinking politics is hardly a reason for going to church—and our numbers show it.
That brings me to the second issue of significance: In my original article on the subject, I granted that all is not well with either the church or our seminaries. The former is not willing to grapple with what it needs and the latter are not willing to confront their shortcomings. To conclude, however, that it is time to move on, with attenuated contact hours, an unaccredited institution, and an ad hoc faculty (however well qualified), is, as I said, to beg all of the really important questions. And to strike out in a new direction, without the benefit of accreditation, libraries, and resources is no more a solution than would be an ad hoc once-a-month gatherings of competent surgeons and prospective physicians. We would protest that approach to our health care, why would we pass lightly over the peril of the same approach to our spiritual wellbeing?
Nothing that I said in my original article was meant to valorize intellectual preparation over spiritual character, nor was it meant to question the commitment and passion of those who cannot prepare on a full-time basis. But the article was written to challenge the assumption (often made by people with seminary educations and all that it affords) that others should be offered less. The problem is not theirs. The problem is a church that refuses to meet the challenge of offering preparation that amounts to nothing less than a knowledge of the living God.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/