Progressive Christian Channel
The Adventurous Seminary: Holistic, Relational, and Innovative
While I enjoy times of scholarship for its own sake, I believe that theological education must be mission-inspired. It must, as Stephen Covey asserts, begin with the end in mind. Accordingly, the scholarship of seminary professors must connect with visions of faithful excellence in professional and pastoral life. Seminary must become a beacon of professional excellence, well-being, creativity, and innovation. A transformed pedagogy will lead to transformed visions and practices among professors, pastors, and congregations.
More than that, theological education needs to nurture a truly holistic vision of ministry. In my programs with pastors in every season of ministry from first call to pre-retirement, participants considered issues of self-care, ongoing professional education, congregational systems theory, social context, and visioning. These were seen in the context of professional support, practical guidance, theological reflection, prayer, and communion. Such programs are not only models for field education but also for the classroom, whose aim is deepening the call to ministry and equipping seminarians to be healthy, competent, and effective pastors. This should be the explicit goal of every seminary class, regardless of subject.
Interdependence. We live in a world of lively and dynamic interdependence. Whitehead once noted that the whole universe conspires to create each moment of experience. Too often, seminaries have acted as if they are self-contained and do not need pastors, laypeople, congregations, or denominations for their institutional sense of mission and vitality. Within the body of Christ, writ large, everything is connected. Seminaries will eventually fade into irrelevance if their mission is primarily institutional survival and not the well-being of the whole church. Seminaries need to enter into partnerships that strengthen congregations in terms of worship, preaching, pastoral care, and Christian formation. Apart from strong and vital congregations, seminaries will experience a shrinking number of applicants and well-qualified students. The education of pastors does not end with the M.Div. but continues over a lifetime through workshops, colleague groups, and seminary-sponsored congregational enrichment programs.
The relational nature of life compels seminaries to ask:
- How does our pedagogy strengthen congregations in fulfilling their vision?
- Where can we join with congregations and denominations in creating hybrid programs emerging from the creative intersections of church and seminary?
- How do we help congregations more creatively and intentionally respond to cultural and social transformation, pluralism, and the postmodern ethos?
- What practical guidance can we provide for denominations and congregations in areas such as stewardship, evangelism in a pluralistic age, spiritual formation, social networking, and other forms of technology?
- Where can we partner with other institutions, for example, denominational offices, councils of churches, CPE programs, spiritual life programs, parish resource programs, and on-line vehicles to create theological, spiritual, and practical synergies for professional, congregational, denominational, and social transformation?
Innovation. Today's seminaries are called to originate novelty to match the novelty of the postmodern, pluralistic, interdependent, and rapidly changing world. It is a truism that seminaries often move slowly and are decades behind the cultural and scientific ethos in terms of pedagogy, technology, and practice. Academic Ph.D. programs are often backward rather than forward looking in scope. In academia, cultural and congregational irrelevance is often rewarded while practical and concrete reflection, necessary for the flourishing of the church and its mission, is seen as inferior to theoretical research. While we need to treasure the living thoughts of dead people, Ph.D. programs that train potential theological professors must also be innovative in research, focus, and pedagogy.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.