Rarely have I seen such a vigorous defense of academic theological study as the column Jason Byassee just wrote for the United Methodist Reporter. Byassee is an academic -- he most recently has been a fellow in theology and leadership at "Leadership Education at Duke Divinity," a program of Duke University Divinity School.
This summer Byassee was appointed pastor of a United Methodist church in Boone, North Carolina, and he was somewhat surprised by what he found: Regular people in a small Appalachian city were eager to ask the new pastor theological questions.
What were Byassee's new parishioners interested in? Not the proverbial color of the church carpeting. Rather, they asked whether God saves some people and damns others, whether non-Christian friends and neighbors are bound for heaven or hell, and why four-year-olds die of cancer. They wanted to know if divorced people can serve communion, if gay people can be Sunday school teachers, and if a church member's grandchild can be baptized in the church if the child's parents aren't members.
These are not simple questions for a new pastor's first few days at work. But for Byassee, they point to the importance of theological study.
Read Byassee's essay in its entirety here.
Byassee's article is a direct response to a commentary that appeared in the Reporter in July. In an article titled "District Superintendent Sees Failure of Theological Schools," author Sky McCracken laments that "there is no correlation between education of clergy and clergy effectiveness." He states that theological schools are failing the church. "I am not trying to be anti-seminary," McCracken says, but he nevertheless asserts that seminary education may not be the best preparation for ordained ministry.
I think that McCracken's editorial fosters the kind of discussion that's essential in the long run, even if it stings or seems unfair in the short run. But in my mind, the most fruitful questions are not black and white -- not "Is theological education failing?" Instead, they acknowledge the shades of gray that are inherent in our work. "Where is preparation for ministry being done well?" we should ask. "What skills and preparation are needed for clergy in different kinds of settings?" "What forms of alternate training work, and in what circumstances?" Even the questions themselves need to be adjusted on a case-by-case basis.
Christian leaders and theological educators must continue to wrestle with these issues. That's why I'm pleased that Byassee has responded with his essay. And he's not the only one: Dwight Judy, professor of spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, has also posted a response on his school's blog.
Do you know of other published responses to this topic? If so, let us know.