Seminaries Are Not The Problem

Seminaries Are Not The Problem March 27, 2023

Seminaries get blame for not training clergy appropriately. The blame comes from a certain segment of society which claims all that higher education does is make good people liberal. The recent approval of two southern Baptist seminaries for training clergy in the Global Methodist Church reflects this prejudice. Most secularists oppose theological education as either programming or indoctrination. The objection is the subjects studied contribute little to enhancing human knowledge or betterment of society. Conservative church leaders object to theological education that seeks to explore or discover the roots of traditions and doctrines. Any critical study is discouraged because church leaders are more concerned with what clergy do rather than learn. It is telling that a splinter group decides to do exactly what secularists criticize theological education for — programming or indoctrinating people to do the same to others. Why is seminary education important for clergy?

Seminaries For Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is necessary for intellectual life. When I was choosing a seminary my district superintendent explained the difference he saw in the two best available options for me. One would tell me what to believe. The other would ask me why I believed what I did. Both schools will ask me to explain what I believe while one will tell me I am correct or wrong in my belief. I chose the one that would require me to think critically about what I believed. It is the school that gave me the tools I need to continue thinking critically about my beliefs.

Congregations are not viewed as places where critical discussion should take place. Bart Ehrman asks why seminary trained clergy do not encourage critical discussions about the Bible and Theology in churches. I imagine the question is rhetorical in nature. Pastors learn quickly that rocking the boat of traditions do not make for a peaceful life. My personal experience of churches is that such discussions are disruptive to people who are not used to them. My United Methodist congregations often contained people who came from other traditions. They liked a previous pastor, married into the congregation, or moved into a new place and found a church in their comfort zone. Their beliefs are not in any way challenged in the ways they choose churches.

Consumer Friendly Church

People look for churches based on how consumer friendly they appear to be to them. My denomination teaches and practices infant baptism. But parents who are uncomfortable with the practice may choose not to have their children baptized. No one explains the doctrine to them. The matter is treated as parental choice. Approaches to church planting, especially as contemporary-worship congregations, bring in people who have no desire to be denominationally affiliated. The participants enjoy the program. Many see no demands made on themselves including paying for the programs. Such congregations are usually mixtures of light evangelicalism with a dash of charismatic flavoring.

Consumer friendly churches are not hotbeds of critical thinking. They provide groups of people who are almost open to any manipulation. Pastors who claim “a small group of malcontents” push disaffiliation may not realize this the result of both the consumer culture and the managerial practice of ministry that goes along with it. The seminaries do not and should not prepare students to be pastors of consumerist congregations. Being a good manager is not all there is to being a good shepherd of God’s people. Yet, many denominational leaders expect pastors to be good managers and sales people.

Educated By Seminaries

The point of clergy candidates going to seminary is not to qualify for ordination. It is not a hoop through which people called by God must jump. Requiring seminary schooling and receiving a degree is asking a person to become equipped for ordination. Candidates who refuse to learn are like recruits in basic training claiming they came to fight and not march. One may not see the point of doing this immediately. But once you have gone through the fight, the point of learning some basic soldiering becomes clearer. Some candidates fear seminary will change them.

Truthfully, I was changed in my thinking while in seminary. But the major readjustments in my thinking came from years in ministry. Seminary education gave me the tools to think about these changes beyond the feared either/or choices I once believed were always present. People who graduated from seminary unchanged by the experience have had a harder time working with other people. Most of my conservative clergy brothers and sisters bemoan the same consumerist mindset progressives complain about. The difference is one group is choosing an authoritarian path of enforcing certain beliefs on other clergy and church leaders. We are choosing to work toward a more open and greater vision. How can the answer be, take only the people who agree with you? Where does such thinking end?

Overcoming the Consumerist Disease

When conservative lay people do not get what they want from their pastors, they blame seminaries. But they are not looking at the real problem. A congregation that believes it is perfect with imperfect leadership gets only part of the problem correct. Saccharine solutions do not heal spiritual diseases. People with diabetes know saccharine is not medicine. It just gives them a sensation of sweetness without the insulin damage. Healthy, sound, and truthful spiritual practices are the medicine for spiritual disease. Theological education equips clergy to be healers. Some people, though, do not want the medicine. And the medicine is stronger based on the prejudices and assumptions of the patient.

Consumerism is the disease of our culture. It is based on keeping people discontented, envious, and therefore hostile to anything disrupting these feelings. I recently heard a person claim to have been part of four church plants with two of those churches closing. That statement best describes the consumerist mindset within churches. This person saw the churches as the problem. It did not occur to him that people like himself were the cause of closing churches. Church-shopping-and-hopping is a symptom of the disease that Christian connection, spirituality, and teaching should overcome. The seminaries are training candidates to do this. Unfortunately, the pastors do not get the support because they are not the commodities congregations hope to have.

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