It’s been a long time since I was a seminary student. I graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1979 with an MDiv degree. Since then I have worked as associate pastor in a large church, community organizer and non-profit agency director, university campus minister, small church pastor, and now in university religious affairs. I’ve had three decades of OJT – on the job training – and it would have been nice to have learned some of it an easier way than the hard way. So here I offer my list of things that I wish they’d teach in seminary.
1) The Jesus Seminar (Westar Institute) approach to biblical study. It’s dogma-free, cutting-edge scholarship that is presented in a church-friendly manner. Future pastors need to get a clear-eyed view of the historical circumstances in which the Bible was assembled, without wearing doctrine-colored lenses. They can study dogma and doctrine in other classes.
2) Honest, lively, jargon-free preaching skills. Pastors need to learn how to preach and teach the Bible in creative, engaging, inspiring ways while making it clear to parishioners that it is a description of the evolving human experience of God, rather than a set of once-and-for-all prescriptions by God for human behavior. Seminaries need to teach future pastors how to make the transformative power of the Bible come alive while being honest with their parishioners about the poetic, metaphorical, and mythological nature of its content. Churches are dying of dishonesty! Seminaries need to be braver than the denominations that support them, so that future pastors will have the courage to speak their truth from the pulpit. Seminarians must learn to preach in plain English (or plain Spanish, etc.) without theological or denominational jargon. They must learn to preach in the language of people who are outside the church. Otherwise the only folks who will understand them, or want to listen to them, are the (shrinking) number of people already in the pews.
3) Entrepreneurial business skills. Seminarians need to be told that to survive the coming massive changes in religious life in America and the world, they’ll need to become entrepreneurs. They need to be taught that they cannot rely on denominational structures to facilitate their careers. They need to be taught about current and long-term trends in religious affiliation and spiritual identity. They need to be taught to take their profession into their own hands and learn how to create and manage all kinds of religious institutions that meet the changing needs of the population. Seminaries should include coursework in how to start up churches, retreat centers, small groups, charitable organizations, and for-profit enterprises that serve the market for religion and spirituality. They need to teach skills in finance, personnel management, community organizing and development, and organizational theory.
5) Spiritual practice. Seminary ought to be a time for practicing what professors teach students to preach. Meditation practice, prayer, contemplation through the arts, and other forms of mystical spirituality should be integral to the seminary experience. Students need to experience God directly in order to make sense of religion to themselves and others.
I pray that seminaries will morph into prayer tanks, places where lay and professional people can come to deepen their spirituality and hone their leadership skills. I envision a time when seminaries are better known as retreat centers for lay people than as schools for professional pastors. If seminaries have a much wider cultural focus and impact, I believe they’ll be better able to serve their traditional functions for the church, as well.
For more perspectives on the future of seminary education, click here.
Jim Burklo is Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California and the author of Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians.