Frederick Schmidt on the Future of Seminary

Seminary faculty often lack any real affinity for the church and, that too, has colored the kind of graduate that seminaries have produced. In part this state of affairs can be traced to the seminaries themselves, which hired faculty from a wide array of institutions, including many that were shaped not so much by theological categories as they were the assumptions of religious studies programs. But churches also made it difficult, if not impossible, to be ordained and, at the same time, prepare for an academic career. The complaint that anyone with a Ph.D. isn’t really interested in the church or is looking for advanced placement is a common refrain sung by bishops, boards, and commissions charged with overseeing the ordination process; and it thins the ranks of those committed to serving the church in her seminaries.

via Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education.

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  • Will be interesting to see discussion on this – I have a post coming on Friday about this article as well.

  • This is definitely one of my biggest concerns as I’m weighing options for PhD programs after I finish my MA at fuller

  • tom c.

    This is an interesting quote, but the point about “the assumptions of religious studies programs” is a bit opaque as it stands. What would those assumptions be and how are they different from “theological categories”?

    I just read a recent essay by Jonathan Z. Smith in the JAAR that could be read as arguing for a reversal of this point: that the field of religious studies retains the structure and assumptions of Protestant theology (via Tillich).

  • Pierce Withers

    Write the eulogy! I’m finishing my last semester at seminary, and have come to believe that seminaries perform one primary function and that is to reinforce and uphold a clergy and laity divide that is not in the best interest of anyone. Instead of creating a priestly caste, seminaries should be re-imagined as places open to the laity and whose primary function is to build a priesthood of all believers, not as a trade school for pastors. Schmidt is right about one thing: most of the folks I know are leaving seminary with a mountain of student loan debt and very little idea about what lies next. With such financial worries, it makes it hard to be open to discerning God’s call. Did Jesus come to initiate a jobs program for pastors? Consider this: the single largest expenditure of most congregations is salaries and benefits for the pastors and staff. In fact, according to the research that I have done, only a very small percentage, between 5 to 15 cents of every dollar put in the plate on Sunday, is used to provide care for widows, orphans, the hungry and the like. To the extent that those pennies include denominational programs that are further watered down by hierarchies and red tape, I’d have to say “Houston, we have a problem”.

    If Schmidt is correct in saying that the 1970’s produced a generation of socio-political activists, the 1980’s and 1990’s produced a generation of unlicensed therapists, then I would argue that the CEO generation he refers to is being trained to operate suburban spiritual spas with a primary goal of creating worship and programming that is much too inwardly focused, and perpetuates the sad reality of the current finances of today’s congregations. Somehow I think Jesus was hoping for something more daring, like say for example, transforming the world through his radical message of inclusion and care of the “least of these”.

  • ben w.

    To be clear, Schmidt is clear that he’s talking about “Mainline” seminaries. I graduated from an Evangelical (most readers here would say “Fundamentalist”) seminary about a year ago, and my experience was different in almost every regard (SBTS is Louisville, for full disclosure). The aim they kept repeating was the desire to raise “pastor-theologians”, that is, shepherds who are prepared to think deeply about exegetical and theological issues that will necessarily arise in the Church. Some interesting differences between my experience and what I hear from Schmidt:

    1) The President, the Dean of the School of Theology, and the most preeminent NT scholar were all the regular preaching-pastors in their local churches (“lower” guys as well). Essentially every professor I knew had at least previously held an elder-pastor role in a local church, and most still hold such a role, even if thy aren’t the primary preachers. The Professors’ affinity for the church runs deep there.

    2) The Seminary told us before we began the program that they discouraged anyone from incurring debt from their studies. I personally don’t know anyone who did (although I’m sure it happens). The Denomination pays half of the tuition for all students who were members of churches within that denomination, leaving tuition payments for a full-year’s load at about $5-6K.

    3) Biblical languages and “core classes” remain central. My program required 5 semesters of Greek and 5 of Hebrew (Elem, Syntax, 2-3 exegesis classes in that language, with a possible Composition class). Even the most “vanilla” M.Div program requires 3 semesters total for Greek + Hebrew. Add in 3 Systematic Theologies, 3 Church Histories, and 4 Biblical Studies and you have the gist of the program (88 Credits, counting everything) The study of the Bible is central (no surprise there), understanding that the students’ primary role will be applying biblical truth to the lives of their church members.

    All this is to say that although my Seminary education is not perfect, it did not share these “Mainline” issues (at least not on this scale), and I assume Schmidt would recognize this. Also, I would assume that when a Seminary moves away from the idea that their primary role is to equip leaders to interpret and apply the Bible to real human lives, they will struggle to find focus and a way forward.