There’s a discussion about the “Future of Seminary Education” going on at Patheos. One of the responses to a post by Fred Schmidt led me to make a comment. It ran a bit long, so I thought I’d post it here also.
The evidence is longstanding that various annual conferences of the UMC have considered the seminary education received by incoming pastors to be inadequate in meeting the needs of their churches. I’ve seen this since the early 1990s.
Education is always more than the impartation of knowledge. It is enculturation into a community or a way of life. Given this, it is worth asking:
1. Into what community or way of life are seminaries enculturating their students?
2. To what end is this enculturation taking place?
The churches that send their candidates to seminary (at least sometimes with congregational money following) assume the enculturation is into a deeper connection with the church and into a way of life that results in more fruitful ministry. They take this act of enculturation to be in continuity with the enculturation found in the local church, the enculturation we call “discipleship.”
Some seminaries will look at this description and say, “Yes, that is what we do.” Others will look with scorn on such an understanding. With faculty and administration who have received primary enculturation into other communities and competing narratives (like the “religious studies” paradigm), they may see the church’s views as pernicious (at worst) or naive (at best). From the churches’ perspective, the seminaries are enculturating students into these other communities, stories and ways of life rather than into the Christian community, story, and way of life.
If only things were so simple, we could cheer the churches on as they sought to make the seminaries over into their own image. But the churches are never (or at least, very rarely) as purely Christian as they take themselves to be. The church that seeks to enculturate people into the kingdom of God (i.e., “make disciples of Jesus Christ”) is often unaware of its own participation in (and enculturation in) other communities and stories dominant in our broader culture. I think of consumerism and the market economy, particular stances of devotion toward our nation state and what we call “the American way of life.”
Seminaries, therefore, can be of service to churches not only in providing candidates for ministry, but also in helping churches see themselves, their communities and their mission fields more clearly. This will require a much deeper and intentional connection between churches and seminaries. The relationship will be more dialogical than monological. The relationship will also need to move beyond merely having higher level conversations between seminary officials and those at the top of the church hierarchies, or between seminary leaders and large churches.
As a dialogical conversation the seminaries will not be in the place of the senior partner. Since those who submit to their enculturation will, for the most part, be entering mission fields very different from the academic setting in which that enculturation takes place, it will be necessary for seminaries to take those other settings, those local church settings, into greater account.
A dimension I haven’t mentioned yet is that both seminaries and local churches will need to intentionally place themselves in the context of the ongoing Christian tradition, the ongoing story of God’s action in history and the world. The church cannot merely say to the seminary, “You are our servant. Give us the leaders we want!” The seminary cannot merely say to the church, “Give us students and the money we need to teach them!” Both must, in mutual subjection to God, learn to see themselves as partners. The seminaries are not subject first to some abstraction, whether Truth, Excellence, or Academia. Neither are the churches first subject to Survival or Growth. Primary subjection to any of these will result in idolatry. Rather, the primary subjection of both institutions needs to be to God and God’s kingdom. Only in the context of this primary subjection, can the other goods – and yes, I reckon each of these as goods – be truly achieved. This primary subjection is necessary because each of these goods never exists in abstraction, however much we might pretend otherwise, but in subjection to a particular community, story or way of life.
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I agree on the whole.
We do need to be careful though (in this conversation and others) not to conflate the local congregation with the church. It is to our annual conferences primarily, the covenant community of clergy and laity, and bishops secondarily that seminaries must be accountable. It isn’t (ideally) local congregations primarily that send people to seminary (or at least into formation as clergy), but annual conferences. The church is not simply an association of affiliated congregations. The enculturation of discipleship is one found in the church at large and instantiated locally in congregations.
We need to be precise here. Congregationalism in the UMC serves to further remove UM Christians from the body that has the capacity to rightly extend the word, sacrament, and order of Christ to all people. It isn’t local congregations that need to dialogue with seminaries, but annual conferences. By that I don’t mean denominational officials, but people who have covenanted to enact the mission of the church and embody the church in its local fullness in an particular area, persons engaged in congregational life as part of annual conferences.
I only feel like I can be critical on this point because I am currently at a seminary that I feel grants the church and discipleship priority in the way you describe.