[The following is a column that will run on the United Methodist Reporter website on August 5, 2011.]
The other day I was doing my semi-normal practice of browsing the Web for news and blog sites that would tickle my theological fancy. I came to the United Methodist Portal (a regular source of enjoyment for me) and found an essay by the Rev. Sky McCraken titled, “District superintendent sees failure of theological schools.” In the column, he thoughtfully speaks on the recent failure of theological schools in forming pastors into disciples before they go on to serve local churches.
Rev. McCracken argues that “the most sobering thing [he has] learned is that there is no correlation between education of clergy and clergy effectiveness.” He goes on yo point out that many pastors educated in theological institutions “have little or no spiritual depth, yet are appointed to churches to serve as spiritual guides and leaders.”
All of this leads Rev. McCracken to express his malaise, arguing that a seminary education may not be the best training for pastors anymore, or even necessary at all.
I will admit from the outset that I am more educated than I am experienced, seeing that I graduated from a United Methodist seminary in May 2011 and am serving a second year in my very first appointment in the local church. You can imagine my surprise that after three very difficult years of seminary training, I read that there is a very credible perception that my education was not formative spiritually. To that end, I would like to offer a counter argument.
Starts in local church
Before United Methodist candidates for ministry enter seminary, they are members of a United Methodist congregation. The candidacy process requires that one have a close relationship with a local church. Inevitably, a candidate for ministry is encouraged to be involved in a local church, at least insofar as it advances them towards ordination.
I am the product of growing up in a United Methodist Church. I also set out to find my own church to be involved in when I moved for seminary.
Before I learned about the various theories on when the Gospels were written, I encountered them in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Before I was taught Methodist history and theology, I sang the hymns of Charles Wesley. And before I learned various doctrines of atonement, I knew all too well the taste of bread laced with the flavor of grape juice
In other words, my academic learning in seminary was always undergirded by the experiences I had in the local church that served as an existential foundation. The joining of the two provided, for me, three years of spiritual formation that words cannot even begin to express.
The problem may not be in the seminaries themselves as much as it’s with pastors who stop their educational experience when they graduate from seminary. This choice is fed by many factors including the demands of life and a heavy work load. And let’s not forget the ever-present expectations of annual conference leaders who value pastors more for the work they produce than the personal growth they achieve.
Resentment of seminaries is not a new thing in our denomination. I can’t tell you how many seasoned pastors lovingly told me “not to take that stuff too seriously” before I began seminary. It was made clear to me early on that the “real knowledge” was to be found in the practice of ministry and not in the academic setting of seminary.
We’re all to blame
The United Methodist Church is not in decline because of its seminaries. It’s in decline because of itself. We’re all to blame for the fact that we, as the church, have not lived up to God’s call to bind up the brokenness in our communities and be beacons of love and justice for all people. It’s our fault if we’ve been more absorbed with creating good consumers and responsible citizens than we have in making disciples, formed by the words of Holy Scripture, and committed in following the radical ways of Jesus.
If we lack spiritual depth, then it’s because our church culture as a whole has forfeited the value of true commitment in discipleship in favor of a high-numerical-yield, low-spiritual-depth version of church membership as a substitute for discipleship. This isn’t only the fault of our seminaries—it’s the collective fault of our denomination as a whole!
It makes me wonder sometimes, where did we create the divide between the academy and the local church? When did it become such a taboo thing to be so educated? When did we invent the notion that a graduate school education naturally causes one to lose the ability to relate in meaningful ways to others?
If seminary is the place where we’re trained in thinking theologically, and the local church is where we practice such thinking, being and doing, then the two worlds naturally depend on each other. You can’t have one without the other! As a friend of mine (who’s also a recent graduate of seminary) put it recently, “I am tired of hearing that education and discipleship aren’t connected . . . We need more of both, and more of one should increase the other.”
As a young clergyperson, I have to admit that much of the language of dashboards, metrics and “numbers do actually matter” does not resonate with me as it might with those in positions of institutional leadership. If we’re called to be disciples who disciple one another, then surely there are more important matters than measuring every little thing we do and obsessing over the preservation of our institution. And we can’t get too consumed in heaping blame on one another.
Maybe we should worry more about losing our lives for the sake of the One who called us into the ministry of loving, teaching and serving all people everywhere. Growth of the kingdom does not always correlate to numerical and material growth in the denomination. And we can’t always track where the Holy Spirit will lead us.
But maybe I’m wrong about all of that. After all, it’s just a silly lesson I probably picked up in seminary.