Equipping All of God's People: Seminaries and the Mission of God

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Editor's Note: This article is part of an online symposium, "Does Seminary Have a Future?" hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to contribute to this timely conversation on the future of seminary education. But, I have struggled to find my voice. Should I speak as one who was a parish pastor for twenty years? Or should I rather speak as one who served as an adjunct professor of New Testament in two seminaries for fifteen years? Or should I speak from the perspective of my current position as Theologian-in-Residence for Foundations for Laity Renewal, where I have worked for just four years? I have decided to speak in this last voice, informed by my experiences in the parish and the seminary.

I work for an organization that cares deeply about the ministry of the people of God. Foundations for Laity Renewal is the parent organization of Laity Lodge, which was founded fifty years ago by Howard E. Butt, Jr. For a half-century, Howard and those of us who have labored alongside him have sought to equip and encourage the laity (non-clergy) to live out their calling as ministers of Christ in the church and the world. We value the special role of ordained pastors in the church, and have sought to team with them in the crucial work of preparing all of God's people for ministry, that is, for building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).

I believe that the ultimate goal of seminary education should be equipping God's people to participate in God's mission. Of course what I've just said requires considerable unpacking. I've done some of this in an article on my Patheos blog: "The Mission of God and the Missional Church." I'll focus on implications for seminaries in this current column.

Now, one might object that seminary education isn't primarily for the people of God, but rather for those who will serve the people as clergy. Am I suggesting that seminaries should lose this focus and seek to educate all of God's people? Not necessarily. I think it may be fine for a seminary to focus on the training of pastors. But this training should be seen in light of the wider goal of equipping all of God's people to participate in the mission of God. Pastors should be prepared and sent into the church as the prime equippers, those who will teach and lead and live and pray so that all of God's people might be fully invested in his mission.

I fear, however, that this is not a widespread understanding of the purpose of seminary education. Other models seem to dominate the seminary scene. The structure of the seminary curriculum assumes that pastors are primarily scholars who dispense information or counselors who care for the wounded. Outside of the seminary, pastors may be seen mostly as CEOs or as contemplatives. I happen to think there are essential elements in each of these pastoral images: scholar, counselor, leader, and contemplative. But these elements should be in service to a biblical vision of the pastor-teacher as one who equips God's people for ministry.

The idea that seminaries should train pastors who equip God's people for participating in God's mission is not something I thought up all by myself. I first heard this, or something very much like it, from Darrell Guder, the Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. As a professor and dean at Princeton, Guder has labored to advance a missional view of pastoral education. I have heard a similar vision from Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary. David Gill is the Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He advances this seminary's effort to train pastors who will in turn train their people for living out their faith in the workplace, thus contributing to God's mission in the world. I expect there are many other seminaries that are beginning to think in this way. This, I believe, bodes well both for seminaries and for churches.