Friday, March 25, 2011

the death of the seminary - and thus the church

Popping up on fellow seminarians' and pastors' blogs and Facebook feeds right now is an article by the Rev. Dr. Frederick Schmidt, called "Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education."  In it, he argues that seminaries are preparing students for a world and a church that no longer exists, and that both churches and seminaries have really no idea what they want from their clergy.

He asserts that the world of theological education needs to be remade with the following convictions:

"One, rigorous academic preparation is absolutely essential to creative, competent, servants of Christ who are deeply formed and capable of forming others.

"Two, that kind of preparation is more important than ever before. We live in a complex and fast-changing world that will require a generation of leaders who are as well trained and educated as are the people in any other profession. It is a crime and miscarriage to require anything less. ... Churches that fearfully cast around for quick fixes to the training of clergy, give it scant attention, and then abandon their priests and pastors to the vagaries of forming themselves cannot expect to be a spiritual force in the world. Nor can they expect their clergy to be positive spiritual forces in the lives of others.

"Three, I am also convinced that as many new creative approaches to education as there might be, a residential model of focused, face-to-face education and formation in the faith is the best means of preparing a generation of thoughtful, faithful servants of the Gospel. This is not to denigrate those who have been encouraged by the church to pursue alternative means of completing the requirements for ordination. It is to say that the church should instead make resources available for all those who do pursue the church's ministry to avail themselves of that face-to-face formation."

This is very, very good.  (Also very scary if you consider that he's arguing that the church and seminaries are presently not doing this.)

He goes on to provide concrete examples of his three points in action, some of which really jumped out at me - not because they are necessarily accurate, but because of how clearly the church is failing in light of them.
  • "Candidates for ordination would be required to:  ... perform at the top of their ability."
Luther, at least for the past several years, has defaulted to grading students on a pass/fail basis.  And all the time, I hear:  "All I have to do is pass."  In a sort of dismissal way.  "This is a stupid course -- but all I have to do is pass."  I've said it myself.  And it's a terrible, terrible mentality.  The truth is that Luther is very intentional about what they're teaching us; they remake the curriculum and required classes constantly.  They really, really do want us to succeed.  The problem is not in the seminary.  The problem is in our (excuse me) shitty attitudes.

I am joined at seminary by many, many amazing fellow students, who are very gifted (in beautiful and various ways) and clearly called by the Spirit.

I am also joined at seminary by fellow students in whom I struggle to see the Spirit's call.

They have no trouble sacrificing the success of a group project if they do not consider it worth their while to do their part well (or to do it at all!).

They would rather find the correct answer or assert uncompromising positions than explore different options or listen to their colleagues' stories.

They see seminary not as a time of formation and education but as a bar to simply clear on their way to ordination.

In short - they know everything already.

I humbly put myself in this category.  There are certainly times and situations when I have been so bored, so irritated by class discussion that I have asked my friends:  "Why can't we just test out of this?"  And that, yes, is that "I know everything already" mentality.

Guess what?  Doesn't matter if I do.

It doesn't matter if I already perfectly know how to explain the LORD's actions in the near-sacrifice of Isaac, or the endings of Greek verb tenses, or the meaning of the Deus Absconditus, or the clear distinction between law and gospel.  First of all - I don't actually know everything.  I know just enough to be snide about people that know just a little less.  And secondly - I am going into a world that doesn'tknow these things.  I will need every single possible explanation at my disposal three years from now.  So I need to be paying rapt attention to every question - whether a professor's or a fellow student's - so that when a layperson comes to me and says, "Hey.  I'm struggling," I have trained myself to listen to them and not to the question, to give the response that will give them grace and not just tick off the "Right answer!" box in my mind.

So the question becomes:  is it the seminary's job to convince us of our need for education and formation?  Or is it the candidacy committee's job to say, "I'm sorry, your attitude is crap.  Please go away and come back when you're ready to lead by learning."
  • "In exchange, the church would:  ... Provide close, caring, thoughtful, formative companionship along the way."
I'm deeply jealous of my Episcopal brothers and sisters, because they have a year (or is it two?) of intimate discernment before they can apply for seminary.  A committee is assigned to them and meets with them repeatedly, helping them discern their call.

In the ELCA, I got approval from my pastor, wrote an essay, had one interview and was on my way.
  • "... Provide their candidates with an early, honest, responsible evaluation of their candidacy."

See above re: crappy attitudes.

  • In return the seminaries would promise to: ... Educate and spiritually form the students sent to them.
Luther tries to do this.  Every incoming student is randomly sorted into a discipleship group, which meets once a week with an advising professor.

It sounds nice.

It can be a disaster.

First, without guidance, students can be damned mean to each other.  One friend was told by a student in their discipleship group, "You're too young to have experienced a call to ministry."  Friend wept.  Other student?  Never apologized.  Faculty advisor?  Let it go.  How can my friend trust that group now?  How can she ever feel free to be open with them, especially about her struggles, when he call was openly rejected and the rejection was not refuted?  There need to be clear outlines for discussion and fellowship (drawing from Parker Palmer, perhaps) and they need to be enforced.

Second, without structure, the groups can go in any direction.  My discipleship group primarily did Bible study for the first semester, guided by a different student each week.  This is neat, but it's not really discipleship.  I don't feel that I know my fellow "disciples" any better than I did during the first week, except for being able to make some very broad assumptions about their hermeneutics.  And I don't feel that our faculty advisor (who will speak on my behalf to my candidacy committee!) knows me any better through discipleship than what he learned of me in the class I took from him.

Third, students are free to move from group to group.  This serves well for instances of total personality conflict between group members or a member and an advisor.  Or does it?  The ELCA has a very rigid hierarchical structure for calls.  In three years, I will have very little control over my relationship with my bishop or the nature of my first call.  Shouldn't I learn good tools for dealing with that now?

Fourth, discipleship groups can interrupt or supersede real discipleship.  Why is this random group of students considered a discipleship group, but our frequently deeply intimate conversations over lunch just considered talk?  Why do I get way more out of my spiritual direction group, but that's a voluntary option while discipleship is (somewhat) mandatory?  The discipleship groups cover every student - ensuring that we all have a chance to develop intimate friendships - but we aren't developing intimate friendships within them, and we're ignoring other options.

Schmidt goes on to talk about other responsibilities of the seminary, none of which jump out at me as contradictory to the present trajectory of Luther Seminary.  My quarrels with the seminary are honestly few.  I have had a very good year.

But Schmidt, as an observer of mainline denominations, misses a very big problem in my specific denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I can't speak to other denominations (because I haven't plumbed the depths of their assignment process) but I'll be honest:  first call in the ELCA can really, really, really suck.
Personal preferences can be totally ignored (both of the churches and the seminarian) when we are dropped into congregations who need a pastor.  The problem is rooted in the formation of the ELCA twenty years ago; the new church wanted to ensure that pastors from the Lutheran Church of America and pastors from the American Lutheran Church were actually serving other churches, not just returning to their preferred contexts.  This is a good thing.  But now that we're twenty years in, and the majority of my classmates have never known anything but the ELCA, does this work?


For first call, we are assigned to a specific region (sometimes in complete neglect to our families' needs and our personal preferences) and then to a synod (again, sometimes in neglect of personal preference).  Churches in need of a pastor are then presented with our name, along with others, on a non-comprehensive list of available pastors in the synod.

If we desire to move from a church, or (heaven forbid) from a synod, we are given very limited options.  Pastors and pastors-to-be do not get a list of all open pulpits and apply to those that are meaningful; we have to select a geographic area and then work within that.

This is stupid.  Honestly, it is.  It treats us all like we're single twenty-six year olds who can just go anywhere, or have a homemaker wife, and very very very few of us are.  Most of us have spouses, who, guess what? have jobs.  They can't just follow us willy-nilly round the USA; they have to have income.  Some of us have kids, who guess what?  don't do well when their roots are ripped up randomly.

The ELCA needs to make serious changes in the first-call and assignment process. The restructuring going on at the offices in Chicago is a hopeful sign, but the likelihood that I'll get out of seminary before this antiquated and crippling process is remade is very low.  And it is going to kill the church.  It's going to mean that instead of serving the Spirit, I'm serving a broken system.

Schmidt concludes by saying:

"The result would be fewer ordinands and students. There already are. But if churches and seminaries focus on the rigorous formation of clergy we could produce a generation of leaders who, God willing, might change the world and save mainline Christianity. The alternative is to limp and wander into the future, trusting Darwin with the lives of our clergy, seminaries, and churches. If we do, others will preach the Gospel, but God will not compensate us for faithless, feckless, unimaginative neglect."

Yep.  Pretty much.


  1. Emm - cool thoughts, even cooler that you are thinking and unafraid to share! I graduated four years ago from Luther and found, as you have, community and dissonance. Please stay sharp, in love, dissatisfied and hungry!