Much digital ink has been spilled in the past couple of weeks about the role of seminaries and the ways they are inadequate for the task of training ministers. The impetus for this round of the conversation is a new collection of essays on the topic by 15 well respected folks in Christian circles, timed perfectly with the graduation ceremonies of said institutions. I must admit that I have not read all the blogs (who could?) nor have I read the book yet. Still, I thought it would be good to say a few words on the subject.
I graduated from seminary in 2014 so the topic is still fresh and I have much to gain by taking some time and considering the relationship of my education to my office. I was a member of the board of governors and on the search committee for a new principal at my seminary; I was deeply immersed in seminary and loved most of it.
The first thing to say about the issue is that seminaries do not work in a vacuum and they too face all the challenges the church faces. The same challenges to faith that see many baptized folks leave either the congregation, the faith, or both. It is not easy to be a seminary and we shouldn’t pretend it is. We need to honor the challenge faced by the women and men who are seeking out answers as to how best equip the servants of the church.
The second thing to say is that I have not heard of a church that expects a minister to arrive fully formed, no matter what stage of ministry they happen to be in. Churches in the early career of a minister play a vital role in molding the minister. The experienced folks in our churches have a great deal of wisdom to offer and more often than not they have the grace to impart such wisdom. Elders, retired elders, retired clergy, active clergy, lay leaders, all have a role in the formation of the minister.
The third thing to say is that, at least in our Presbyterian tradition, we have built in the expectation that while our leaders are educated they will seek to become more so over time. We have at least two weeks off annually to pursue educational goals and some funds to do so. No one has yet complained that I reserve Wednesday afternoons for personal education time. I study preaching, pastoral care, leadership, and whatever else I judge pertinent. Sometimes I do so in a bit of a panic as a glaring need on my part has been revealed, other times I am building on strengths. So we ought, again, to be kind and have fair expectations of our seminaries.
The seminary I attended permitted students to choose 2-3 goals for their final year, this subtly prepared us for the self-directed studies we would be doing when we graduated. This also meant that the seminary itself would be flexible and listening as it sought to prepare us. Some needed to learn greater organizational (personal admin style) skills, some worried about how to preach broadly, others how to preach particular types of texts, some wanted to learn how to excel at Christian education, I wanted to learn how to keep Christ at the centre of my life. The seminary, and its wonderful staff heard what we felt we needed to prepare, offered suggestions to really make the goals tangible and helpful, and guided us as we pursued them. This was an important way for the seminary to adjust to the self-perceived changing needs of its students. I am deeply grateful for some of the patterns I established in seminary that continue to keep me fed today.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the seminary faces is the reality that often what a congregation wants, to stay the same or go back to an earlier era, is simply impossible. This means that new leaders need to be able to set a vision, however that will happen, and build momentum. This is easier in some congregations than in others. I constantly struggle with this, and I am in a comparatively flexible congregation that it committed to seeing the Gospel carried forward to another generation. It is a struggle to realize and then act upon the reality that different people, this is not purely a generational or age thing, will benefit from different styles of coming before God. A hymn that makes one heart sing leaves another flat, a game that inspires one leaves one deflated and confused. It is hard to imagine what the seminary is supposed to teach one in order to be prepared for this dilemma.
Another challenge many congregations face is that the volunteers are tired and there are fewer and fewer young hands to take on the tasks. Younger families are often feel more broke (or house-poor) and more busy than ever before. We can blame their decision-making for this but blame is not helpful and won’t move the needle forward. Often times newer families are less certain about the faith, less committed to it and to raising their children in it. That is just true. I have noticed at times something bordering on animosity towards these truths from older marathon type congregants. Again, that is not an attitude that will prove helpful. Many of our older folks are legitimately tired, they have done the heavy lifting a church for a long time, many are supporting parents or children and grandchildren. I have found that often both groups can be excited about a given challenge for a short while. I am not certain how a seminary ought to address this type of issue. My hunch is that the answers are as plentiful as there are churches, that God is not done with the congregations he has called together and that the leadership (including the minister) need to find local solutions to these problems. I can tell you for sure what would not have worked, if I arrived with all the answers and simply sought to implement a bunch of programs top down!
Perhaps seminaries need to be able to train us to be comfortable in mystery, in tension, in not having strategic answers. They must not diminish theological certainty, don’t misunderstand me, but they needn’t have certainty as to exactly what solutions are needed in any given congregation. I need to be able to say, “I don’t know” more often, and the congregations need to be able to say, “we don’t know either and we don’t think less of you for being among us in the confusion.” We all need to take a deep breath and listen for God’s voice amidst all of this.
I wish the seminary could find a better way to encourage conversational skills, deep listening, both to God and to others. The ability to hear what someone is saying without formulating and immediate response or feeling like you are obligated or expected to have the solution. To hear the wisdom a group can bring to a topic.
One very large challenge that faces seminaries is the quality of the people in them. Both the leadership (attracting top flight educators) and the students (attracting top flight students). This challenge must not be left to the schools! The congregations must encourage bright people to go into the ministry, must treat ministers in such a way that those considering ministry might actually want to go in to it, must encourage the on-going education of their pastors and fan the flames should they be interested/skilled in teaching, mentoring, or researching.
Are the seminaries perfect? No. Nor are the churches supporting them and being served by the graduates. I am grateful to both. We are all in this together, it is a learning process and it will involve many growing pains. May God bless us as we work together as a movement to proclaim the good news of Christ.