What I Wish Seminaries Would Teach

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.

4)  Worship skills from the outside world.  Seminaries should hire acting teachers, voice coaches, visual artists, and musicians who have no religious affiliation.  These professionals should teach seminarians communication skills from the arts world outside the church.  Seminarians will get plenty of exposure – for better and for worse – to traditional church worship modes through their internships and work experiences.   Students need to unlearn much about the worship forms they’ve experienced before they get to seminary.  Learning from talented “outsider” artists would give them a new toolset for developing liturgies and preaching styles.

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.

About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .

  • Theophile

    Hi Jim,
    I think the dishonesty starts when we take Matthew 23, and pretend that Jesus instructed to build hierarchy styled institutions, and appoint ourselves such dignified titles, as Teacher, Pastor, Father, or Pope. Titles of “positions of power” usurping God’s authority through scripture, with claims of “Apostolic authority”.
    Personally I think Foxes book of Martyrs settles the dispute over who God’ children really are: Those who read His word and believe & obey, or those who follow doctrines & traditions and the “Authorities” in the “Church”.
    The quickest way to see the difference between what the Bible says and what is preached is to investigate the religious holidays:
    Easter was celebrated by Herod while planning to kill Peter, in Acts 12:4, Easter is part of “mystery Babylon Religion” and predates Christ.
    December 25th is the birthday of Tammuz(Ezekiel 8), sheep are not in the fields in Dec. and tax time of Rome was at harvest time. The date Jesus was born is not mentioned in the Bible, but:
    The date most mentioned in the Bible, Passover is nearly ignored by the “church”, even though Jesus said to keep the Passover “in remembrance of Him”.
    Last but not least God’s Sabbath: Blessed, sanctified, and made holy by God at creation, has not been “done away with” and it is not at the opposite day of the week on the day of the sun god Baal. Even though a bunch of guys with “titles of dignity and honor” 300 years after Christ at the council of Laodicea said so.
    Hey heres an idea: Lets throw out doctrine and use the Bible instead.

  • Robert

    We don’t ignore Passover, we just re-worked it and called it Easter. Sunday isn’t, as far as I know, the day of Baal, who was a storm god not a sun god. It was the day (according to Constantine, who probably got it right; I’m not sure whether there’s any supporting evidence) of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun.

    Anyway, never mind that. The one place I disagree is on the entrepreneurial stuff. Business management requires a totally different approach to serving a congregation. Some US churches seem to have become businesses, but, looking at it from afar, I hear alarm bells ringing. How much is the profit motive and all that comes with it distorting their witness?

  • Charles

    As an orthodox Christian (let the “Nicene” Creed stand as suitable shorthand here for those who want a definition of “orthodox”), I like some of this and don’t much care for the rest.

    Item five (spiritual practices) sounds pretty good to me, as long as “experiencing God directly” includes the way God is mediated in the worshipping community and through Scripture and Tradition. (“Tradition is the life of the Spirit in the Church” [Vladimir Lossky); "Tradition [capital "T"] is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” [Jaroslav Pelikan]–see GK Chesterton for added sentiments of the same sort.)

    Item four (worship skills from the outside world) sounds a bit too “So Cal” (think the entertainment industry) for my taste. Worship is something we “do,” in the first instance, not “experience.” Liturgical churches, at their best, understand this and know that “experiences” will not be lacking. The liturgically sterile forms of worship you probably learned at San Anselmo need gimmicks to keep the troops alert–the downside of protestantism.

    As for item three (entrepreneurial skills), it’s all (once again) a little too much “So Cal” (the area, not the university) for me: church as “marketing” (see Rick Warren for an “evangelical” crash course in this). Maybe we should do something really outrageous and take a backward (retrograde?) peek at the desert fathers and mothers and the medieval monastics. They (at their best) “marketed” by the transformed lives they displayed.

    As for item two (honest, lively preaching), Amen, brother! Preach it! Whether the “good news” is really about evolving human experience rather than this “once for all” stuff about human behavior calls for a little discernment that progressives tend not to have a mechanism (creeds, coucils, magisterium, whatever) whereby “we” can identify if we’re on the “right track” (if indeed there is a right track, “right” being a bit too authoritarian and non-evolutionary). My curmudgeonly guess: lots of Zeitgeist stuff will (quite innocently) be smuggled in as if it were de facto the evolving spirit of God revealing itself. The “German Christians” of the thirties were convinced this was so.

    Finally, item one (the Jesus Seminar) gave me the biggest chuckle. Seeing it as “dogma-free” and “cutting-edge scholarship” sort of gives the whole game away. Perhaps the basic message of that esteemed assemblage is that our brothers and sisters (the earliest Christians) mucked the whole thing up from the get-go with all the apocalyptic, blood sacrifice, and “gnostic” redeemer myth stuff, so that Jesus, the wandering cynic philosopher (or whatever) gets so layered with distracting junk that it’s a wonder we’d even be talking about him in the 21st century. If we need references to the past, let’s go with another inspiring, but much less complicated, figure like the Buddha instead.

    (Who am I? A native (Southern) Californian who grew up in Compton and the OC but has lived in Georgia for forty years working as a high school teacher in a rural (predominantly African-American) school system–for 31 years. I’ve also taught philosophy and religion at a Methodist women’s college.)

  • Calvin Lee Montana

    It is good to see people are waking up to the long lost and modified history of the old world.

    Jesus was NOT a Jew and is actually non disputable with real facts. Jesus FEARED the Jews. Mary FEARED the Jews.
    The Jews wanted to kill them.

    The best I gather from much research is Nazarene were actually bitter neighbors of the Jews or outright enemies in many cases and the plaque on the cross was meant as a joke and an insult to the death hungry Jews. Jesus Of Nazareth, king of the Jews.
    “The king over the Jews was their enemy.” is a LOL!!

    I guess too many people just don’t understand real things and for the sake of holding power and holding table with the Christians and others the Jews tho they hated Jesus choose to call him their own which I find very insulting after having been to Israel and see for myself how the Jews there treat non Jews. You have to get away from the wonderful Christian tour groups to see the REAL Israel.

    I don’t like to see Jesus used as a tool to hold table such as a mugger uses a gun, a burglar uses a pry bar…..

    Verily I say unto thee,
    I suggest you read “The Hiram Key” re The Freemasons very detailed history of these things including great detail and facts re Solomons Temple, the 2 pillars and their meanings.
    Our very own (one of three) Pagan Statues Of Liberty…..

    Of all the books to read would be that and The Book Of Enoch.

    Do an in depth study on The Taliban and The Korosanians.
    Find truth that they are the real 4th and 5th tribes of Israel who did as God ordered and went into world. Find truth they are Muslims who converted and left the traditions just as God/Jesus ordered.
    Find also that THEY follow old tradition all the way down to their clothing which matches exactly as the clothing in Judea centuries ago and that when they meet a woman they will only meet at the wells. All long lost traditions.
    Find they also have remains of relics from Solomons Temple.

    The bible is divided, changed, parts of it mixed into other parts making the history WRONG in so many ways and I feel its intentional. Very much so.

    Moses had horns. No, as it changed they were beams of light. So Moses was a Watcher ? The only Light Bearers were Angels (Satan was a light bearer)
    Jesus was NOT a light bearer. Moses was ?
    Light is wrong. He indeed had horns and he came down from the mountain declaring himself “The RAM Of God.
    The Lamb Of God was Jeses and the Sheep were the people who followed God.
    The RAM represents Satan.

    Out of place entirely is this. When the Archangel contended with the Devil over the body of Moses he said do not bring against him……
    and Satan replied God rebuked thee.
    It is NOT the archangel who said God rebuked thee, the devil said it.
    Long misunderstood and long out of its place in the Bible.
    Moses made his own rules and his own decisions such as killing thousands of his own people man woman and child….God NEVER ordered or suggested such a thing. Period ! God rebuked thee. PERIOD.

    Reading “The Hiram Key” is the best thing you’ll do in this decade of learning.

    This era wreaks of conspiracies but slowly the people are waking up.

    God Bless Truth

  • Charles

    My “orthodox Christian” ramblings seem almost timid compared with Calvin’s esoterica. Will skip “The Hiram Key.” As a historian (of theology and intellectual history), I’ll stick with more conventional sources. Calvin’s “here’s what THEY don’t want you to know” book can be matched by dozens of others of the same type, all contradicting each other. (One possibility: Calvin’s piece may be totally tongue-in-cheek, in which case I’m losing my irony detection skills.)


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