Pastors need to be challenged and disrupted

Patheos is running an online symposium on the future of seminary education. Like higher education in general, graduate education for clergy is in a crisis–rising tuition, rising debt for students, shrinking enrollments.

Reading the various entries brought home to me how inadequate my education at Harvard Divinity School was. We knew it was at the time; HDS offered very little in the way of courses in the practice of ministry. But it finally dawned on me that there was an even larger disconnect. I remember thinking at the time  I was doing my field ed in a struggling mainline parish in Boston’s Back Bay that it seemed that the only people attending church were elderly or so disfunctional because of mental illness, substance abuse, or other forms of abuse, that what we were learning at HDS had no relevance in the pews or on the streets.

Fifteen years in the south were somewhat deceptive. Attending church was still culturally acceptable, even expected. It was easy to imagine that the Church could survive, perhaps even thrive in the American landscape. I remember how surprised I was when I began teaching at Sewanee to find seminarians who had come from suburban churches and were expecting to return to similar congregations where they would face no greater challenge than making sure acolytes were wearing black shoes. It seemed like we were still in the 1950s. Sometimes I wonder how many of those students I taught are still in the priesthood and whether their education has prepared them well for the challenges facing the church in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

I wonder whether seminaries, by their very nature blind students and faculty to the reality of the outside world. For denominational seminaries, even those in the throes of survival struggle, there still may be a sense that if we can just get it right, the institution will survive. I know that for many who enter the ordination process in the Episcopal Church, think of it not as an ongoing challenge, but only as a series of hoops through which to jump on one’s way to the promised land of a a settled cure somewhere. The ordination is designed to create clergy invested in the denomination as it stands, because the promise of an well-paying job and a secure pension are the pot at the end of the rainbow.

The most recent entry in the symposium comes from Kurt Fredrickson of Fuller Theological Seminary, who advocates for those institutions “to serve and resource the whole church.” But the most compelling thing he said is the phrase that appears as the title of this blog post: “Pastors need to be challenged and disrupted.”

I think that’s exactly right, and more true for denominational seminaries than for non-denominational ones or for divinity schools. In the latter, students will be challenged and disrupted by the encounter with students from other religious traditions. In the former, the tendency is to do little more than indoctrinate students in the denominational culture, which by any measure, is in radical decline.

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