4 Ways Teaching in a Seminary is Different

4 Ways Teaching in a Seminary is Different April 12, 2016


ID-100152061Some weeks ago, I polled my Facebook friends, asking this question “What gifts, skills, values, or knowledge do you value in a priest, pastor, or minister that a seminary can help your clergy acquire?”

The survey was hardly scientific in nature, so I can’t claim any statistical validity for the responses. But it was a fairly large, committed, and thoughtful group of laypeople and clergy.

The responses were interesting.

One cluster of answers revolved around preaching and liturgical leadership and, with it, a grasp of Scripture:

Clear, concise, authentic preaching, and a deep understanding of and feeling for liturgy.

Grasp of and insight into scripture.

Others called for interpersonal and pastoral skills:

…more opportunities to learn how to be a skilled and compassionate pastor.

The kind of priest who can listen and relate to each person at their level and treat that person with the respect and compassion that is deserved by all.

And still others name the ability to navigate conflict:

dealing with conflict (best course I took was one offered by the Harvard Business School at HDS from their Negotiation courses.

And a considerable number of people cite the importance of administrative skills, work with volunteers, and the nuts and bolts day-to-day work in a church. Colorfully, one friend observed:

Knowing how to plunge a toilet and replace a light switch has a three-fold value: 1. it can get done in an emergency; 2. one can properly supervise and evaluate contractors; 3. this might be the most important; it gives one a respect for the value of manual labor and those who perform it.

Others called for two things that were much more elemental – an experience of God:

Belief in a personal God and willingness to communicate and coordinate with people directly without always going through an administrative assistant.

The ART of Spiritual Practices: both, how to teach/model them and how to live them in one’s own life.

I want a person who knows Jesus, not a pretender. I want a person who is devoted to God’s word and to prayer. I want a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit and has an anointing for ministry.

And what might be described as the cultivation of virtue:

Honesty, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, courage, and functional humility. Alas, those are the very traits that will get one in trouble with the powers that be.

Humility and a passionate commitment to the priesthood of all believers.

Constructive love of others, restorative justice, compassion – these are attitudes and behaviors that no longer come naturally to Americans.

The things that appeared on the periphery and received only a single mention included community organizing, theological understanding, and the intersection with other religions.

What do I make of this information, granted the limited nature of the window that it provides? These observations:

After almost fifty years of transition and change in theological education, the needs of churches remain much the same. While seminaries embrace ever-shifting definitions of what should happen in the church, churches themselves continue to be solidly preoccupied with perennial challenges:

  • They insist on clergy who can witness to their own experience of God.
  • They expect their leaders to live lives that are marked by virtue and character that is consonant with that experience.
  • They want clergy who can preach, provide liturgical leadership, and connect with people pastorally.
  • And, although there is more emphasis on conflict, churches continue to long for clergy who can provide effective leadership, dealing with issues both large and small.

That realization is a sobering reality check for me as a theological educator.

I believe deeply in the value of the academic study of theology and attention to the issues that arise from that conversation. But much of that subject matter is not immediately relevant to the work of most pastors, priests and ministers.

For that reason, things need to happen in the seminary classroom that are not typically as important in other settings:

One, to some degree instruction in a seminary classroom must necessarily begin with the needs of the church and her clergy.

Two, attention to those needs in the classroom requires familiarity with the day-to-day life of the church.

Three, the seminary classroom also requires a solid respect for the work of the church, arising out of a robust ecclesiology.

Four, to the extent that the academic conversation factors into the work done in a seminary classroom, the task of translation is unavoidable: Seminary educators – like pastors, priests, and ministers – must demonstrate how that conversation applies to the lived experience of the church.

That is a challenging assignment, because most research degrees devote little or no attention to the church or its ministry; and, as such, it requires that we, as seminary faculty, give careful and critical attention to the ways in which we have been socialized.

But in embracing that task, teaching in a seminary finds its place as a calling and not just a profession.


Image by artur84, used with permission from freedigitalphotos.net








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