Re-Defining the Purpose of Seminary

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.

There are great questions being raised in the other posts on this subject, as well as elsewhere. What is the purpose of seminary? Who should we recruit and by what criteria should we admit? Who pays? Do we have too many seminaries? What is the place, if any, of distance technologies in formation for ministry? In what follows, I focus on the purpose of seminary education. Taking Mark Roberts' comments about laity and theological education as a springboard, I will sketch a seminary with a re-defined purpose and a broader audience.

Seminaries have tried the clerical education paradigm for two centuries. It is time to offer another method of educating the laos to follow the way of Jesus.

The purpose of a Christian graduate seminary is not to create a class of educated clergy. Graduate seminaries educate future clergy leaders assuming they will then educate the laity. Educating clergy has been the method, not the purpose. The purpose of graduate theological education is to educate the laos to walk in Jesus' way in the world.

In my opinion, seminaries should both reform education for professional ministry and re-tool to offer deep education for deep change to laity. The following paragraphs reflect what I think this purpose would mean at the seminary I serve as president, Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK.

There should be three fundamental emphases in the seminary curriculum—one primary and two derivative.

  1. The primary emphasis for all seminary educational programs should be to understand the way of Jesus—understand him in his ancient context, in particular contemporary local contexts, and in the horizon of global contexts and voices.
  2. The first of two derivative emphases should be to develop disciplines of attention—how to attend to and discern the will of God. These disciplines are both personal and communal and include: prayer; worship; group Bible study; the arts of conversation and argument; presence with those who suffer and with one's own suffering; liberative learning; appreciation and gratitude; relinquishment.
  3. The second derivative emphasis should be evangelism understood as the practice of inviting and attracting persons to develop means of resistance and shalom. The means of resistance and shalom are rooted in the way of Jesus and involve the disciplines of attention. The question of "resistance to what" should be clear in the issues named below.

Together, these three emphases form the base of what a seminary can teach to equip the laos to live as Christians.

In seminary educational programs, the three curricular emphases should be brought into conversation with a set of critical issues. The PTS faculty is in the preliminary stage of curriculum revision. In retreat this Fall, one member suggested we state our pictures of the world we think is coming to be. The issues named below constitute my picture. None of these issues will be solved soon! A seminary community, faculty and students—learners together—should seek to understand the issues, to relate resources from Christian traditions and from the best of the sciences to the issues, and to develop creative and hopeful individual and communal strategies for how Christians could respond to the issues.

  1. How to live in an ecologically sustainable way. This issue is huge. Climate change. Insufficient clean air, clean water, and clean soil. Unstable food supply. Reusable and sustainable energy. This is the dilemma in which we live and move and have our being on planet earth.
  2. How to help families. Families are in trouble all over the world. Leaders and influencers have the opportunity to equip people with primary relational skills that they would learn almost nowhere else.
  3. Explore the meaning of work and ethics in the workplace. The meaning of work, the number of hours that those who have jobs must work and the consequences of those hours on family and the civic community, slow growth of good new jobs in the U.S., and the kinds of decisions that must be made in the workplace could all benefit from learning practices of attention, resistance, and shalom.
  4. The priority given to money and consumption. The high consumption lifestyle in the U.S. is dehumanizing us. Leaders and influencers have a tremendous opportunity to teach practices of stewardship, generosity, and simplicity.
  5. Can we humanize technology? We are in danger of being enslaved to our technologies, and we are right to be worried about narcissistic absorption into screens and the potential malformation of persons who were created to love God and their neighbors as themselves.
  6. Connecting between life and death, health and wellness, science and faith. Science and the demand for expensive forms of health care are raising more, and more complicated, issues regarding the beginning of life, the end of life, and disease and wellness.
  7. How to embrace diversity as gift. Diversity is not an option but a reality. Living well in a world of creative and sometimes even chaotic diversity is, however, a choice.
  8. Who proved to be neighbor? Jesus put this question to his interrogator at the end of the Good Samaritan parable. It is the question Christians should be asking in our homes and local communities, in our relationships with people of other faiths, in our state and national politics, and as we vote in national elections and take our VIM trips to other countries.

The above is not yet a proposal for how a curriculum would be structured or faculty deployed, for how to fund or what is the mix of on campus and online, or how a small school such as PTS can do right and do well both for clergy candidates and for laity (one of Dan Aleshire's concerns). Rather, here I have proposed a purpose for theological education that includes laity as well as future clergy candidates, and a curriculum centered on the work of the laos in the 21st century: understanding the way of Jesus; developing practices of attention, resistance, and shalom; and addressing the fundamental "choose life or choose death" issues.

10/23/2011 4:00:00 AM
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