Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education
Boston Ministers’ Club
With William Blake, I take as my text Numbers 11: 29. “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets”.
1. Exemplum Docet
A man in early retirement has decided to bicycle across the continent, starting with his rear tire in the Pacific, down in San Diego next to Coronado Island, and finishing with his front tire in the Atlantic by Provincetown. The trip he makes is in memory of his son who died two years earlier. Father and son did much cycling together, and after two years haunted by demons, Dad cycles with a hope of exorcism. He stops on a Sunday morning in the little town of Onega, Kansas. He is, in no particular order, tired, lonely, bereft, empty, needy, hopeful, utterly clear about his own mortality and his existential location, east of Eden. A Methodist, he goes for worship to the Methodist Church. A smallish congregation embraces him. The ordered service enchants him. The minister’s prayer restores him. An hour of worship:
To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God
To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God
To Open the Heart to the Love of God
To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God
In the heart of continent, his heart has been warmed. In form and content, the sermon is one of the finest he can recall. A brief note in the bulletin tells about the minister. The cyclist calls his wife from the road that evening. With a gratitude that sometimes replaces our more native human sense of entitlement, he describes the wonderful service, the preacher’s heart and mind and wisdom and concludes, as the cell phone fades: “Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at that, I mean the true excellence of her healthy, vocal leadership. I remember the Bishop saying at conference that seminaries, particularly those connected to the Boston Theological Institute, are developing healthy voices for a new age.” The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church by developing healthy, vocal, excellent spiritual leadership.
2. Divine Delight
I met for the winter semester with my Greek class a few years ago in March. I asked them about “the future of theological education and the renewal of the church”. This dozen students, resembling Galatians 3: 26-28, had much and much good to say. Black and white, female and male, Presbyterian and Baptist, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, right brain and left, intuitive and deductive, greek geeks and struggling c’s, the class is a hologram of the future. This is what Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite meant, recently, by describing theological schools as “places that preserve the important open space in which to integrate great issues”. As they mulled our question, I reminisced about the fall term, and the beginning grammar, and three points of discovery we enjoyed together.
Their issues I listed in the key of d: “diversity, debt, distance, degree, disciplines, debility, dialogue”. But my mind retraced their eager study of the autumn.
We read together Matthew 9:9ff. “Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. I cautioned my colleagues not to assume they already knew the meaning of the verse. After all Matthew did say, go and learn. Perhaps, just perhaps, more than Hosea is here. In this crucial passage Matthew describes what caused him to have been forgiven and what effect that had. The nature of the event itself he hides from us. The cause of his forgiveness is inclusion in a new movement, a new community, a new society. This brought Matthew—aha!—to the experience of mercy which delights God. We hear ‘I desire mercy’ as an imperative, a command to do. But Matthew meant something else. Go and learn he says. Θελω: I …desire, want, enjoy, take pleasure in---mercy. This is not first about what we do, but first about what God loves. Mercy. Do you know God to be a pardoning God?. If there is enough space and generative probity in our teaching, we will allow ourselves to discover and to be discovered by Another Reality. The Divine, who delights, who delights in mercy. I listen for voices that translate the tradition into insights for effective living. The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce the divine delight in mercy.
3. Christ at the Center
My students went around the table making their lists regarding theological education and the renewal of the church. They said things like this: “I looked up praxis in my dictionary and did not find it…integration is always a personal, though not individual project… who will address spiritual formation? The seminary, the church, the denomination, who?… there is too much separation between the church and the school…no, there is not enough: seminaries need churches like fish need bicycles, and vice-versa…who will attend to the nature of call?…Seminary is lonely. “
I admit my mind wandered a little, back to November when we came upon Galatians 2, and its remarkable announcement of the πιστιs χπριστου Ιησου.
I cautioned us not to assume that we already knew the meaning of the phrase. Such a phrase carries power and danger, particularly in a time like ours that slides, in some places, toward a unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. How are we to translate? An objective genitive, «faith in Jesus Christ»? Or a subjective, authorial genitive, «the faith of Jesus Christ»? What is the basis for salvation? Human faith in Christ or the faith of Jesus Christ, that is his faithful death? We divided about equally, no bad thing. But all left a little less certain, and, oddly, a little more confident.
I listen for voices that resound in the affirmation before the question, “Are we lovers anymore?” The future of theological education could bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.
4. Spiritual Sensibility
We had gone over the 90 minutes, but the discussion rolled on. I noted that a friend of mine had listed 8 issues for leaders of Schools of Theology: the burden of taking initiative, the weight of accumulated grievances and inappropriate expectations, telling the story and knowing the mission, competing constituencies and contradictory expectations, building a board that cares (but not too much) and caring for a board (but not too much), MONEY, cooperating with others, finding the time for self-care.
My mind, though, careened back toward December, when we translated Matthew 25. The students were by that time reciting their own warning not to assume but to learn and grow. They paused before the word for “least”. As you have done it to the least of these my brethren…ελαχιστοs. It means the littlest, the most diminutive, the smallest of the brothers and sisters. Could this be a baptismal moment? Is the reference, at least in part, to children? As you have done it to the littlest of these in my family, you have done it to me? These infants—hungry, thirsty, powerless, imprisoned in infancy. We wondered. The world does not lack for wonders, as Chesterton said, but only for a sense of wonder. Delores Williams had been with us the week before, bringing a wondrous womanist reflection on the least, and on need, and on the wildnerness. I listen for voices that remember the least, last, lost.
The future of theological education may bring renewal to the church through healthy voices that announce a spiritual, preferential option for the poor means renewal for the church.
The divine delight in mercy. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ. A spiritual, preferential option for the poor. Three theological thoughts about the future of theological education.
5. Three Practical Footnotes
Education is about people, and 90% of what happens in any school is related to the people present. Let us say something, briefly, about the people involved in theological education.
1.A healthy, vocal leadership, clergy and lay, depends on a regard for faculty. Faculty provide height. I remember visiting Lou Martyn, 10 years out of seminary. He offered me a noon libation, and said, among other things: “We have tried here to keep heaven a little higher”. Frost’s poem on the Star comes to mind:
It asks of us a certain height
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far
We may take something like a s tar
To stay our minds on and be staid
All Frost’s star says, you remember, is “I burn”. So, faculty need the freedom to burn, to produce the spiritual blaze Solzhenitsyn said the world expects, to generate, to be creative, to take the full responsibility for creative freedom and to “burn”. (Douglas John Hall’s 12/02 article in Theology Today winsomely underscores this point.) Party of rigor, party of responsibility, all. Burn. In my view, such lofty freedom to burn serves one central lordly goal: to live as examples for vocal leaders, healthy preachers, who themselves, Sunday by Sunday, will become common as sagebrush, and then be set on fire by the Holy Spirit: 1. To earn a Ph.D. in Theology is very difficult. 2. To struggle to publish, through all the disappointments, necessary early on, is more than hard. 3. To endure the burden of community, the inevitable clash of views in a “small town”, takes courage. (Isaiah Berlin’s motto is mine, to live in a liberal openness of spirit, but in a way that “softens the collisions”.) In short, for faculty I hope for more “space”.
2.A future, healthy, vocal leadership in the church needs students who are debt free. One of the saddest patterns to have developed in our Canadian and American churches in the last 20 years is the pattern of joking reference to the Wesley question at ordination, “are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself?” This is hardly a laughing matter anymore. We need to produce debt free graduates who are then free in ministry to boldly go where no one has gone before. Some responsibility for this lies with our students, but more lies with our systems. Out of debt such graduates are free to provide the depth that the soul seeks in the ground of being.
Who are the students today. My longtime friend, and my clergy and teaching colleague Chris Evans has a new article out about today’s students. Here is its paragraph abstract:
Discussions on teaching and learning within theological seminaries often center on the question of student diversity, focused primarily upon issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time that seminaries are challenged to deal with a multitude of pedagogical suppositions emerging from increasingly diverse learning goals, seminaries must also pay attention to the ways their students challenge an institution’s core mission to train ministers for service in churches/denominations. Based upon the author’s experience teaching in a mainline Protestant seminary, the essay discusses three student cultures that often overlap among today’s seminarians. These three student cultures, what I call the “church seminarian,” “new paradigm seminarian,” and “vocational seminarian,” carry very different understandings of the seminary’s role to prepare students for ministry. A critical discernment of these cultures might challenge seminary faculty to reevaluate their educational and missional suppositions, amidst divergent student career objectives.
3.A future, healthy, vocal leadership in the church needs administrators in the schools of theology who by nature build community. The Bible is freedom’s book, the pulpit is freedom’s voice, the church is freedom’s defense. Faculty freedom and student freedom deserve and require the disciplined and responsible liberty of a village green, an open space for communal life that breathes with the spirit of liberty. We choose to work in a school of theology because we affirm its mission. Administration is a ministry all its own, and it has to do with the crucial work of building spaces for freedom. What faculty bring to height, and students to depth, an administration provides in breadth. The administration is not the enemy! As McCullough reports while writing about Truman, that great President, “While General Macarthur was fighting the Pentagon, General Ridgeway was fighting the enemy.” ( Truman,p. 834)
Faculty provide height. Students provide depth. Adminstrators provide breadth.
6. Voices for a New Age
In early September of 2001, Jan and I drove across New York State, on a Saturday afternoon, following the Army Navy game at West Point. To the right somewhere in the Catskills emerged this sign, black letters and white background: JOIN THE CLERGY. Who are we inviting into ministry?
Some of the work of invitation and recruitment (primarily the province of the church) does fall to the schools of theology. Some of the work of invitation and recruitment (primarily the province of the laity) does fall to you, the veteran clergy. To whom have you spoken of late?
Who will come forward, out of another generation? Who will step up to preach the Gospel, to administer the sacraments, to lead the church, to care for the hurt, to speak for the poor, to provide the “unity and continuity of the church through the ages”? Where are the best and the brightest, the wisest and most sensitive, women and men of imagination and who will stand sentinel and herald the dawn of a New Creation of love and light? The pulpits of our church are not safe, easy places, not happy refuges for weak, unbalanced or needy folks. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. We need the finest top 5% of another generation earnestly to listen, to consider whether God is calling you into the ministry. Where are those men who could do anything, from engineering to medicine to law to business, who will gladly consider all things loss that we may Jesus gain? Where are those women who could command excellent compensation, roles in more lucrative cultural leadership, and high places in public and private realms, who will gladly take up the cross that we the crown obtain?
The 21st century is spread out before us, full of potential for grace and also for disgrace. Where are those young voices that will submit to the maturation of two decades - minimum time to train for real preaching - in order to prepare to quicken the conscience of a new era? Where are those young hearts, still freshly covered with the morning dew of idealism and hope, who will turn away from competitive gain and turn toward the promise of community? Where are the lovers, the dreamers, the seekers, the pioneers who could take the old world of the church and make it young again? And what are we doing to imagine and construct an ethos in which the expectation is that, sooner or later, our best and brightest will fill our pulpits?
What kind of person do you want to see coming up the path, in the rain, while you sit waiting inside on the hour of your husband’s death? What kind of man do you hope to hear speaking from the chancel, on the Sunday after your bombshell diagnosis is given? What kind of woman do you truly desire to perform your daughter’s wedding, counsel your son after a moral failure, help your community assess a call to arms from Washington, listen as you change careers, or offer prayer at the last breath?
We may want to answer that set of questions a full generation before we need an embodied response.
Do we want a healthy pastor? Then perhaps the churches could consider a decent health plan, one with teeth in it. Speaking of teeth, one with dental care.
Do we want an educated pastor, one for whom education is a value along with love? Yes, we remember that Wesley said, “learning without vital piety is like a jewel in a swine’s snout.” But Wesley, an Oxford Don, was the greatest champion of education. An educated pastor, who values a real and good education, will want the same for her children and family. Are we ready as a denomination to compensate our clergy so that their children can attend college?
Speaking of children, do we want to make any space for children in our ministerial families? Children are costly and difficult. Are we willing to provide the housing, salary, pension, benefits that will make space for a young couple that loves their children?
Do we want an emotionally balanced pastor? Then perhaps we can see the value of support systems, denominational and therapeutic, to address this desire.
Do we want a pastor with a global outlook, an ecumenical perspective, for whom the whole world is a parish? Then, perhaps, allowance should be made for travel, for study, for sabbatical, for writing, for growth.
Would to God that all the Lord’s leaders were preachers! I listen for the voices for a new age!
David Mamet had some interesting things to say, a while back, to actors, dreamworkers in the theater:
“Write for yourself…be an artist…Teach yourself some perspective so that you are not at the mercy of the current fad…study voice and movement…learn the difference between the beautiful and the attractive…Make yourself the expert…love the theater and learn about it and strive to improve it and create a new profession for yourselves…Train yourself for a profession that does not exist… That is the mark of an artist—to create something which formerly existed only in his or her heart”. (Writing in Restaurants, 141). Some of this could help budding preachers too.
The future of theological education will bring renewal to the church by developing healthy voices for a new age, excellent spiritual leaders who announce the divine delight in love, the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, the spiritual preference for the poor. The future of theological education will include height, depth and breadth—faculty, students and administrators. The future of theological education will depend upon the active invitation, church and academy, laity and clergy, to JOIN THE CLERGY.
7. Thoughts on Pastoral Excellence
In addition, let me also add a few thoughts about the pastoral excellence, a phrase currently in vogue.
The matter of pastoral excellence and personal health is crucial to present and future study and service. It matters for the church and for the school in equal measure. Particularly it matters for the laity of the church, who engage and are engaged by the ministry of the clergy. Unhealthy ministerial leadership hurts most the laity. The gospel of grace and freedom requires preachers who can exhibit grace and freedom, who can model dimensions of ‘spirituality’ (like excellence, undefined in much of our talking) that are freely gracious and gracefully liberating. How can we preach a gospel of grace and freedom without ministers who embody grace and freedom?
Let me next set out some complementary assumptions or perspectives with which I think I participate in this kind of conversation. These are angles of vision or points of view that are perhaps different from, though not contradictory to, the largely unspoken assumptions and perspectives we have used together. It is hard to change the carburetor while the vehicle is cruising down the turnpike, so we often leave systemic or perspectival discussions to rest stops like this one. That is as it should be.
First, the mission of the school of theology is to educate clergy. Two words is a good number for a mission statement, and ‘educate clergy’ are the two words I would choose. By educate I mean twenty things, among them the intention to form life-long learners who are self taught on the basis of a robust exposure to classical materials. By clergy I mean twenty one professionals, among them teachers, preachers, leaders, executives, and those who teach all these, who will bring dimensions of meaning, belonging and empowerment to the new creation, during their day in the Day of God. In saying this I do not deny or contradict the lengthy mission paragraph we have affirmed as a faculty. It is good, but not easily remembered. In saying this I do not deny the important ongoing discussion of theology as the core of theological study, largely because pastoral excellence absolutely requires, utterly depends on every shred of decent theological study available. (In the long run.) In any case, of the 5 funding streams I can dimly perceive which currently pay our rent and grocery bills, ALL 5 assume that our mission is to educate clergy. For this reason I think Foster’s book, Educating Clergy, has something to offer us.
Second, the faculty is the curriculum. 90% of curriculum choices and teaching enhancements are made at the point of permanent hire. Who teaches largely answers the questions about what is taught and how it is taught and when it is taught and so on. In the church, we talk in terms of ‘conference program’ or ‘denominational ministry’, but the dynamic is the same. The ministers of the conference are the conference program. Period. The faculty is the curriculum. Forgive a New Testament digression, but this is what the irascible Apostle to the Gentiles meant, I think, in 2 Corinthians 3: 1ff, a most difficult chapter to translate well. He contrasts print documents with the human being. “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your (our?) hearts to be known and read by all (men)…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”. Again, I do not here deny the importance of collegial conversation, learning with and perhaps teaching with each other, sharing best practices, and growing steadily ourselves. We, though, come, each one, with decades of commitments made, investments undertaken. We are the curriculum. But I seldom hear us acknowledge this.
Third, as just one person around the table, and speaking from 30 years of preaching twice each week, many visits each week, etc., I cannot think of one paragraph, sentence, phrase, word or syllable that I heard, read or learned in seminary that was not helpful in ministry. The issue is not that some of it is good and the rest is hooey. The issue is that we have 3 years (actually more like 18 months) in which to provide a sound basis for sound ministry. It is all essential, and all helpful, particularly what may seem most unhelpful at the time. The challenge is to provide enough excitement about the documentary hypothesis and the synoptic problem, enough intrigue about Chalcedon and the reformations, enough tensive enjoyment of Aquinas and Guttierez, enough admiration for Steimle and Chalmers, that a whole of life of learning in ministry ensues. Not one shred of Bible, History, Theology, and Rhetoric is superfluous to real ministry, let alone to ‘pastoral excellence’. In other words, I assume that the dichotomy, learning vs. piety, is a false one.
I enjoyed reflecting recently on short papers my colleagues wrote last year about pastoral excellence. Here are some seven of the high points, from my perspective, cited in italics without attribution, and then followed with brief remarks of my own. All of these contributions (and others as well) were meaningful to me, made me think, caused me to pause, so I cite them with affirmation and gratitude.
1. I also think that students who elect to attend a university-based school of theology must expect intellectual rigor and challenges in the classroom. Post-undergraduate, professional theological education is task-oriented to a significant degree, and it requires productivity. It cannot be purely a “pastoral” enterprise if, by “pastoral,” one means “comfortable” and “challenge free.” Of course, I don’t think that’s what “pastoral” means at all. Teaching, preaching, care giving, etc., are courageous enterprises; and those who prepare to undertake them require courage, insight, discipline, and knowledge. Not all of these attributes can be acquired in classrooms, of course, but all of them can at least be nurtured in classrooms and in various activities that comprise our life together.
Yes. Pastoral excellence assumes intellectual rigor, if it assumes anything. That doesn’t mean dull as beans bookish sermons, or ‘more educated than thou’ clerics. It does mean insight, imagination, curiosity, accuracy, truthfulness.
2. Finally, I think we should consciously set in place a program to mentor our international students. Faculty can play an important role in mentoring, but students can as well. Such outreach could go a long way not only in helping our international students succeed in their studies, but also help all of us further to develop an aspect of our communal life that lies at the heart of what is happening in churches and other religious institutions around the country and the globe.
Yes. Each one teach one.
3. Thinking of this in relationship to my students, I do think the free-standing seminaries are able to train ministers more fully and effectively to minister within the particular traditions and church communities as they are. Students in these settings are more prepared to, so to speak, hit the ground running. Students who graduate from STH have, I think, a steeper learning curve.
Yes. Richard Norris said to me, near graduation: ‘five years from now, your education here will seem unhelpful, or worse, but ten years from now it will be precious, invaluable’.
4. A case in point is chapel worship at STH, for which there are already two opportunities for “spiritual” Sabbath in the curriculum. Student attendance is poor and faculty attendance (or even faculty encouragement of student attendance) is sometimes non-existent.
Yes. Exemplum docet.
5. However, by the end of the two hours I began to ask “What conversation are we in?” Is this about the overall curriculum revision that is taking place at the School of Theology or more specifically about the formation of second year Master of Divinity students and the integration of spiritual practices and Sabbath habits into the Field Education program?
Yes. I guess it has been both. I believe that finally integration is a personal, though not individual, task.
6. Contextual assignments like case studies, verbatims, heuristic research, interviewing, team presentations, etc., might help us to create a “mentoring” milieu in our classrooms, thus creating training opportunities for critical reflection and strategizing. This kind of approach might help us overcome the impossible task of trying to mentor individually 40 students in each year’s class.
Yes. Learning skills inventories show that many learn better with these means and media.
7. I don’t think teaching students to nurture themselves (mind, spirit and body) is a matter of just being good stewards of our lives. I believe the integrity and effectiveness of our ministry depends on our example.
Yes. Our example.
8. Thoughts on Pastoral Imagination
To conclude, I would like to lift up the possibility of some sustained, communal conversation about Foster’s book, perhaps with Foster present. His overview of current theological education, has several distinctive advantages, only one of which I will lift up here. In this largely positive, even happy travel through various theological schools and seminaries, Foster regularly returns to the issue of pastoral imagination, as he terms it: How does a seminary education cultivate a pastoral, rabbinic or priestly imagination that integrates knowledge and skill with religious commitment and moral integrity for professional practice? (p.327) The exploration of his work is directed at those educators who have found ways to answer that question: Clergy educators innovate or adapt by drawing on resources of inherited religious and academic traditions to convey or model for students’ pastoral, priestly, or rabbinic imaginations. In our study, students often spoke of moments in their learning as awakening or discovering new meanings in sacred texts, alternative strategies for the conduct of some clergy practice, or new dimensions to their calling and vocation (23).
I hope that the next several years will allow us to consider the integration of theology and practice with regard to the pastoral imagination, as it is discussed by Foster, and sung by Blake:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.