Why Churches Still Need Seminaries: A Complicated Case Study

Recently Tony Jones suggested that seminaries are “training people to repair phone booths.” Sadly, he has a point. Seminaries are struggling to find new students–and even to keep the ones they already have–because they are becoming increasingly disconnected from the realities of our complicated world.

In the Integrative Seminar I’ve been teaching this semester, we’ve been using case studies as a way to think about the ways that theology, biblical studies, spiritual formation, leadership studies, and social science can come together to help us think through complicated (and real-life) situations that affect the church. How many times do pastors exclaim, they never taught me that in seminary! Of course, seminaries can’t teach everything that pastors will face. But I have to say, I’ve been deeply impressed with the way these students have been raising some very difficult questions and problems in the church–questions and problems they have already faced. Despite the decline in theological education and the short-cut approaches that some churches and denominations might be considering as ways to get around the seminary, I am still convinced there is a need for seminaries–so long as those seminaries quit “training people to repair phone booths.”

I am posting below the first case study I presented our students, as a way of illustrating why we need “contextual theologians” leading the church today (can seminaries start thinking of their task as training contextual theologians?).

Note: This case study is loosely based on a real situation, but the case has been masked to protect identities. All names (including the church name) are fictional.

Case Study: A Complicated Situation

Stacia Hayes is the children’s minister for Parkridge, a relatively conservative, non-denominational church in suburban _____. Her church is relatively new (6 years old), but has seen tremendous growth in the past 3 years. Parkridge has focused on reaching non-believers and disaffected, former Christians through non-traditional services and intentional outreach to the community, and therefore has attracted a fairly wide diversity of people with a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience in the Christian faith. Even though Parkridge takes fairly traditional stances on controversial issues like homosexuality, it has articulated a consistent message of emphasizing grace and hospitality toward “seekers.” When asked directly about the church’s views on homosexuality, the pastor, Derrick, likes to say something like: “Homosexuality as an orientation is not sinful, but homosexual behavior is a sin. However, we are all sinners and are all in need of grace. But that doesn’t excuse us from working on our sin and seeking holiness.”

Along with this tremendous growth, Parkridge has seen dramatic growth in the number of children participating in the children’s ministry. Stacia was always on the lookout for good volunteers!

She was thrilled when a middle-aged married couple, Dan and Mary, came to her expressing their interest in serving in the children’s ministry together. They had two children who participate in the ministry already, so they both felt compelled to help out. Dan was a social worker who works with children with mental disabilities, and Mary was an elementary teacher, so they bring expertise and experience working with kids. Before they committed, however, they requested to meet with Stacia personally so that they could share some of their personal story.

In that meeting, they informed Stacia that Dan is Mary’s second husband. Mary divorced her first husband, who had been repeatedly unfaithful to her. She met Dan a year later, and they have been married for 2 years.  After hearing this story, Stacia assured them that this wasn’t a problem. The church took a welcoming approach toward divorce and remarriage, understanding how difficult marriage can be. Furthermore, infidelity is a valid biblical reason for divorce.

But there’s more, they said. Ten years ago, Dan underwent a process of gender transformation. He was born with a female body, though he knew from a very early age that he was not comfortable as a woman and that he was also sexually attracted to women. As he underwent the sexual transformation as an adult, he changed his name from Margaret (his birth name) to Dan. They assured Stacia that Dan is now biologically (and psychologically) male and that they are living in a heterosexual relationship as a married couple. They both love Jesus and want to serve him in the context of this church.

Stacia said she would have to think more about it. After conferring with her pastor, Derrick, they both decided that it would be better to decline Dan and Mary’s offer to serve in the children’s ministry. Stacia told them that it would be too complicated for the church and that many of the parents wouldn’t understand. In response, Dan and Mary left the church to find a more welcoming congregation.

Question: Are you comfortable with how Stacia and Derrick handled the situation? Why or why not?

 


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