What Seminary Education Ought To Be [Part Three]

What Seminary Education Ought To Be [Part Three] June 20, 2012

Seminary education as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only at the Council of Trent, called by the Catholic magesterium primarily to fight nascent Protestantism, that the seminary was invented. In the 23rd session, on July 15, 1546, the Council decreed that seminaries be established and start admitting boys as young as 12:

Besides the elements of a liberal education, the students are to be given professional knowledge to enable them to preach, to conduct Divine worship, and to administer the sacraments.

Not long after, the young Protestants followed suit, and since then we’ve had residential seminaries — not unlike other universities and graduate schools.

But for the 15 centuries prior to the Council of Trent, clergy were trained otherwise. How?, you ask. I’ll tell you:

The pre-Tridentine church trained its leaders via mentoring and internship.

Augustine is a great example. When he was bishop of Hippo, invited potential priests into his house; he lived with them, and they with him. Here’s how the Catholic Encyclopedia describes it:

St. Augustine established near the cathedral, in his own house (in domo ecclesiœ), a monasterium clericorum in which his clergy lived together. He would raise to Holy orders only such as were willing to unite the community life with the exercise of the ministry. In a few years this institution gave ten bishops to various sees in Africa. It was, however, rather a clergy house than a seminary.

I spent three years at seminary, and I was invited to eat in the houses of exactly three professors: Bob Guelich, Nancey Murphy, and Jim McClendon. I played intramural softball with a couple other professors. But none — other than Guelich, with whom my parents had been friends for years — did I establish a deep relationship.

The only seminary professor I’ve ever seen in his pajamas is Miroslav Volf, who invited me to stay with him when he taught in Croatia in 1993. (That’s a story for another day.)

In the past week, all ten DMin students in Christian Spirituality cohort have seen me in my pajamas. They’ve thrown sticks for my dog, and they’ve broken bread with my spouse. They’ve gotten to know me, and I them. The professor-student relationship has been recast, and the barriers inherent in those roles have — I hope — been at least partially torn down.

Leading an ecclesial community is not like leading a business or teaching in a public school or being a social worker or marriage therapist. Being a pastor is, I daresay, a unique vocation, and it demands a unique training.

It demands, I think, a shared life between “student” and “teacher.” And, I daresay, that doesn’t usually happen in the forensic environment of the traditional classroom.

What has been your experience with shared life in education?

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  • Joe

    Tony, I always follow closely and take seriously what you have to say about seminary education. You have a prophetic voice here. I hope others are hearing it.

  • One of the benefits of Union (in NYC) is all the faculty have to live in the same building with the students who live on campus (with varying degrees of accommodations and luxury, of course). Even with this structure in place, there are only a handful of professors it seems who go out of their way to make sure to have students over or even make themselves available outside of class (and those, of course, are the best professors- shout out to Paul Knitter). So even with the structure in place, there is something about the ethos or common sense of educators that seems to work against this kind of intimate, interpersonal, hospitable, pajamas teaching style. Which is only to say I wish there was a way to recast the professor-student relationship, but enacting such change culturally within academia is quite a task. I hope that the worries professors may have over personal privacy or whatever can be assuaged with a sincere desire to influence students on a deeper level. Personally I hope this happens within the year so I can start having pancakes with Cornel West ; )

  • I’ve been dying to hear somebody write like this!

  • Jeremy

    Loren and Mary-Ruth Wilkinson have been doing this for years. A trip to their place is a pure delight.


  • Larry Barber

    The problem with Augustine’s method is that it produces more Augustinians.

  • The Japanese martial arts tradition relies on “uchi deshi” “inner students” who live in the master’s house and participate in household life: doing dishes, running errands, gardening, whatnot. These are the advanced (or becoming advanced) students. The idea is to “steal his technique” by constant close observation. Didn’t the old rabbinical method involve the same: the twelve constantly close to Jesus. Teaching verbal theory is one thing and a good thing, but I don’t know how you can instruct in a life-altering morality with only classroom instruction.
    ….The traditional Japanese martial arts tradition, that is … these days it is much overrun by modernity, like everything else. My teacher benefited from it (in Japan) and practiced it (in San Diego), and he brought as many of the class who would come home to dinner.

    • Chris

      The MA tradition is not all that it’s cracked up to be. It was extremely hierarchical. Often it was a way for the “master” to exploit his disciples for free labor. Then if the students curried enough favor (kissed a**) they might stand to benefit from his pearls of wisdom.

      This was/is not anything approaching a more egalitarian system of passing on knowledge. Your teacher may have been more generous in his approach, but it is a system that is rife with abuse and not the kind, I think, that Tony is trying to get at.

      • “Passing on knowledge” is not an egalitarian task, and anyway the point is to form a moral body. And I’m sorry for your bad experience.

  • Bob Ritchie

    I have thought about the lack of lunch with professors during my almost ten years of seminary. I have been at Gordon Conwell for about half of the time and Andover Newton where I will finish up. Never imagined I would see a professor in their pajamas! While I like the idea of more one on one communion, I am a commuter. I find as such that is hard to commune with students let alone professors. But is all my fault. I am always in a hurry to get back to the business at hand. Real life for me is pastor/chaplain in NH. I solute you on your Boundary Waters way of communion.

  • Pingback: Kudos to Tony Jones. What Seminary Education Ought To Be [Part Three] | Theoblogy « hoping for redemption()

  • Chris

    “St. Augustine established near the cathedral, in his own house (in domo ecclesiœ), a monasterium clericorum in which his clergy lived together.”

    Hmmm! Kind of sounds like L’abri.

  • Very important words on the future of the Seminary. It’s encouraging to see this conversation pick up so much steam in and around the inter’webs.’ I think the relationship between students and profs you write would help us move beyond the disconnect between the classroom, sanctuary and the street. A big reason why I am strongly considering not attending a seminary.

    To save a long comment here, this is my post on ‘why I may not go to seminary’, I found the conversation below to be quite interesting. http://anabaptistly.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/why-i-may-not-go-to-seminary/

  • Scott

    Let me put in a plug for Perkins School of Theology at SMU. The students and professors eat together, worship together, and play kickball together. Honestly, there are more opportunities to be involved in each other’s lives than I have taken. Yet, I am quite close to several of my professors and learn as much outside the classroom as in.

  • Timothy J. Stone

    Amen and Amen.

  • Andrew Kar


    I had no idea! That is amazing! I am just starting on Volume 3 of his systematic theology, Witness. His first and second volumes have altered the way I understand theology.