aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

So, what do we need seminary for?

In the 20th Century, Methodists invested in higher education in a big way, especially in seminaries for training future clergy. At the beginning of the century, we were still largely using an apprenticeship model for preparing clergy, along with the Course of Study. But then the desire to have fancy credentials took over, and much of the old system was outsourced to academia. The possession of an MDiv degree is all but required for ordination as an elder, and that means access to bigger appointments and other professional advancement. Meanwhile, many Licensed Local Pastors assert, sometimes defensively, the value of their participation in Course of Study.

Let’s stipulate from the beginning that earning degrees is not the same thing as learning what you need to know to do the job. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has prepared its clergy in various ways. Designing a system that will deliver what we want at a price we are prepared to pay is not beyond our ability. So, what is seminary good at doing – better at doing than the Course of Study and supervision under appointment? And what are those things better at than seminary?

In a healthy church (not that most of us have really been part of one these last three quarters of a century), the most critical parts of clergy preparation would be handled locally: one’s experience of salvation, and of call; one’s own spiritual formation; learning to lead others to the Lord. Seminary is not primarily for these purposes, though seminary should be another kind of local church – a community of believers in which we deal with the categories of salvation and call, live out our discipleship, and grow in our ability to deal with others. We don’t need seminary to do these things on the assumption that they aren’t already being done, but we do need seminary to be these things and not an academic environment where the faith of those teaching and learning is irrelevant to the mastery of their set texts.

Likewise, we don’t need seminary to help us master the job, for the mastery of the job comes from doing the job. Learning how to do the job requires supervision in the doing thereof more than taking classes in church administration. We need mentors/superintendents/exemplars more than credit hours. A distant denominational boss is not effective in helping one play oneself in and get better at the job. The old Presiding Elder did the job better, and there are probably better ways yet to provide for this need.

What seminary is good at is, well, academics. To be the principal teacher in a congregation – not just a rousing speaker, a wise guide, a worker in control of one’s time – requires that you know a certain body of knowledge that is not in everybody’s possession. It means, especially, that you know the Scriptures. And not just know “what the Bible means to me,” but what it actually means and has meant to the Church over many centuries. To do this really well requires an acquaintance with the languages the Scriptures were written in.

It means also that you know what the great teachers of the faith have said – about the Scriptures, about God, about living the life of Christ. We call this theology. And all your knowledge of the Scriptures and of theology (and all those names and dates and old books) hass to be tied to a fairly comprehensive understanding of history: ancient history, classical history, medieval history, modern history; religious history, political history, the history of human thought. In order to navigate the world you are going to serve in, it would also help to know something about the world of today and the peoples who inhabit it. How to communicate with people who aren’t like yourself, especially.

And while you can learn a lot about worship and the arts employed in church life by simply attending and leading worship, it helps to have an institution where these things are developed and taught. Learning about social and psychological problems you will encounter in ministry is important, too. Seminary can also help you sharpen your pastoral and preaching skills. These sorts of classes are helpful, but you can learn their content in other ways. But mastering the languages, the breadth of the Scriptures, the sheer amount of theology and history and missions theory required is a mammoth undertaking. You could “pick it up” as you go along – assuming you could find the teachers or resources – but nobody learns this stuff without a massive investment of time and effort. It’s a lot more economical to cram the most of it into a three-year degree program than to spend half one’s lifetime chipping away at it – and not very effectively, for the most part.

So, do we need 90 graduate hours to prepare someone for ministry? No. We could cut down seminary to a much more manageable number of classes. (For that matter, we don’t need to require a completed Bachelor’s degree before seminary.) By effectively employing the local church to form us, the Presiding Elder and other mentors to guide us, and the Course of Study to give us the basics, we could still prepare and deploy good clergy to lead the churches. But if you want to prepare people for the job of Principal Teacher of Congregations (as we expect of a fully-trained pastor) or Guardian of the Tradition (as we expect of bishops and Boards of Ministry), well, there ain’t no shortcuts there. And a class-based program is the most efficient way to convey this mass of knowledge into the heads of those who need it. If you like, we could provide a means of “testing out” of these classes, but we still need people who know the content.

Even today, when I prepare a Bible Study for a congregation, I spend time with my Greek New Testament. Rusty though my Greek may be, I still use it to make sure I’m teaching them what the Bible actually says (as opposed to what I might assume it said). Not only that, but in order to help them make sense of the Bible, I have to put it in the context of secular history, which means I wind up teaching them things about the Persian Empire (to explain the situation of the Jews trying to rebuild Jerusalem) or the legal system of ancient Rome (very important for navigating the Book of Acts) or even the bathroom customs of the ancient Near East (as when King Saul went into a cave to move his bowels and David snuck up behind him and cut off the hem of his garment). And of course, I have had to constantly explain the creeds and how they were developed, and when and how the Reformation took place, and what John Wesley actually taught and how that is different from what Calvinists believe, and so on.

I believe in life-long learning, but I also know that my time in seminary was time well-spent learning things I needed to know – not for the next sermon series, but to prepare me for the whole course of my career. And yeah, a fair amount of it was probably not necessary and could have been delivered in other ways – but not all of it.

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