|Single copies of Auburn Studies, No. 6, Missing Connections: Public Perceptions of Theological Education and Religious Leadership, are available for free. Contact Darla Field at The Auburn Center, Auburn Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.This and other Auburn Studies are also available on the web at www.auburnsem.org.
Auburn Seminary established a Center for the Study of Theological Education in 1991 to foster research about current issues in theological education.
Centuries have passed since the days when “The Church” was as powerful as many secular rulers and its centers of learning had a dynamic impact on public affairs. Few would wish them back. The troubling question that now arises, however, is whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction—moving from forceful and pervasive to secularly ineffective and nearly invisible. A new report from Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education is taking the first steps toward addressing that question. It begins:
These are the words of a president of a mainline Protestant denominational seminary that has occupied its large and beautiful campus in a small city for the better part of this century. The names have been changed to protect the candid:
Greenhurst Seminary is still not as well known in this city as...we could ... and should be known. A woman asked me what I did and I told her I was president of Greenhurst Seminary and she said, “Where is that?” and I told her, “On Greenhurst Drive,” and she said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Well, yes, I’m sure.” And she said, “Well, I’ve driven by it twice a day for twenty years and never knew it was there.”
In a similar vein, from the rector of a Roman Catholic seminary that is the only one in its state:
I once ran into...our Congressman.... I was in the airport in Washington, D.C., and I bumped into him.... I introduced myself and he said, “Oh yes, St. Swithin’s. You have a great nursing home.”
What does the public know about and think of theological education? If, as these comments suggest, many people do not know anything about seminaries, even those in their own front yards, what do they think of the so-called products of seminary education—religious leaders—and the training those leaders seem to have received?
The report goes on to say that the Center found “probing questions about public perceptions of theological education” a topic of interest among its constituency since its inception. Unfortunately, it took a decade to find a manageable research model that would generate meaningful data. The report—Missing Connections: Public Perceptions of Theological Education and Religious Leadership by Elizabeth Lynn and Barbara G. Wheeler—describes the manner in which the survey was designed and the often disturbing results of the research. Highlights of the report’s findings are presented here, along with commentaries from several individuals expressing their response to those findings which are part of the complete monograph.
As anecdotal evidence suggested, the study identified a general invisibility of seminaries and discovered that other, denominational-specific research had produced similar findings:
The suppositions of those seminary leaders who stimulated this project in the first place, the hypotheses of the consultants who helped us design it, and our own hunches all proved to be true: Seminaries are virtually invisible to leaders of secular organizations and institutions, even those in the seminary’s own city and region. “The seminaries don’t appear often on people’s radar screens,” a community activist in a city with several seminaries told us. “I don’t know that anyone in this town knows that [the seminaries] are there,” said a businessman in the same city....
Twice the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a seminary-saturated denomination, has tried to survey its randomly-selected panel of church members about theological education, only to have over half the questionnaires returned with the indication that respondents don’t know enough about the subject to participate.
Although the “what” of invisibility seems to be universally acknowledged, if not approved, the “why” appears rather to be a variety of “whys.” For some a low profile is intentional; others are not unwilling to have a greater public presence, but do not seem to know how to achieve it:
A faculty member at...[one] school put the...thought...gently, saying, “The outreach we do involves people coming here, rather than us going to them.” The trustees of a seminary in another city described the school’s “quiet posture” and reported the continuing influence of a previous president who believed that it is unbiblical for a Christian institution to call attention to itself. At yet another seminary, the president meditated at length on why his institution is so obscure in its city and region. There are few invitations to be part of public life, he reported, but neither he nor others from the seminary volunteer their efforts either. He added, “I don’t feel good about that.”
“Whatever the reasons, seminaries are not viewed as civic assets in their communities or beyond. They are not part of the civic mix,” the report states. It adds, “Nor are seminaries widely viewed as educational assets. We asked a number of our informants whether, if we were to stop people on the street and ask them what are the educational institutions in town, they would name the seminaries. We were told that that would be highly unlikely.”
Equally disturbing is the suggestion that the “invisibility of these institutions extends to their inhabitants. Seminary leaders are seldom seen in civic life, and they themselves report rarely going there.” Even personal civic participation appears to be limited. “Except for a few young parents who participate in the PTA or the soccer league, almost no faculty members are involved in community or civic life,” the report notes. “Seminary presidents are not much different: a few hold membership in groups like Rotary, but generally they are not visible beyond the school and its church constituency.”
The most notable exception to the general invisibility seems to be the African-American community, where religious leaders have historically been in the forefront on civil rights issues. The report observes that African-American seminary presidents “seem to consider it part of their job descriptions to be active and visible on the public scene. As a result, both they and their institutions are well recognized in the black community, and the presidents themselves are known and respected more widely still.”
Ultimately, the report summarized the situation by saying: “Whether or not this [invisibility] strategy is intentional, it effectively characterizes the seminaries in each of the four cities we visited. Seminaries are quiet to the point of absence in their local communities. But then so...are the religious leaders they train.”
Anticipating that most interviewees would not be knowledgeable about “theological education, per se” and prefer not to venture opinions about the work of seminaries, the study approached the subject of religious leaders and institutions “obliquely, asking questions about the quality of local religious leadership and the roles that religious institutions seem to play in community life. What are faith-based institutions contributing to the larger community? How effective are their leaders? The answers we received to these questions strongly suggest that civic quietness is the rule rather than the exception for religious institutions of all kinds these days.”
Beyond their association with institutions that provide emergency aid to those in need, religious leaders were not seen to have a noticeable impact in their communities, nor apparently were they expected to.
As the dean of a public university bluntly put it,
Clergy are not public leaders. They don’t convene the forums for public conversations, and they’re not in the forefront of articulating issues.... Religious leaders in this town helped lead the civil rights movement.... I don’t know what the issue is, but if it came up today, those religious leaders do not appear to be at the table, and they certainly are not leading the conversation.
In another city, a retired ambassador told us: “I can’t recall a time when the church and the clergy are so little considered. I’m not sure they are disrespected; they just don’t seem to matter.”
Why does this situation exist? According to the report, “Some observers suggested that religious leaders and institutions are victims of a social climate that is largely indifferent to religion. Religious leaders may not volunteer to participate, but neither are they invited to participate.”
Others voice the view that these leaders are themselves responsible:
Most Roman Catholics and most evangelicals keep to themselves, and no mainline Protestants were on those lists of people to call, of leaders whose voices make a difference beyond their own organizations. We heard memorable stories of religious leaders and groups declining to enter the fray even when invited to support efforts they strongly approve or fight evils they traditionally deplore.
Again, there are exceptions:
African-American clergy carry clout, and liberal rabbis speak out in some civic arenas. When we asked secular leaders to imagine a list of people who would have to be called to get some major new civic project or policy change underway and to tell us whether any religious leaders were on the list and, if so, who. The responses were remarkably similar from city to city. Always mentioned first were two or three African-American clergy, and that is where most of the responses stopped. A few speakers mentioned liberal rabbis who...were said to be articulate about public issues. Once or twice an outspoken Catholic bishop was mentioned.
No matter where the responsibility lies, the lack of a religious presence is being felt. According to the report, “Many of the secular leaders we interviewed think that the lack of involvement of religious leaders and institutions in civic affairs is a missed opportunity. One foundation executive lamented the loss of ‘soul’ in civic life.” However, the report points out that no consensus exists on the nature or scope desirable for such leadership.
Secular leaders, the report notes, are not the only ones to notice and deplore the absence of religious leadership in civic concerns. “...church members give religious leaders and institutions mixed ratings. All know some stellar clergy. Most appreciate the hard work and good intentions of their own church leaders. Yet inside the church, as out, we heard a tone of disappointment in the quality and reach of religious leaders today.”
The report’s section sadly concludes: “In short, inside church walls and out, we heard a story of missed connections.”
One point which the study made clear was that few people have any notion of how clergy are trained. Their interviews demonstrated that “....social leaders and laity alike have given little thought to what ‘goes on behind the doors’ of theological schools—or even where the doors are. ‘We don’t know anything about the training,’ admitted a social leader in Atlanta. ‘We just know that they go to seminary school, and that they have to do internships, but we don’t know how the process works.’”
Citing their lack of knowledge, many respondents initially expressed their unwillingness to “interfere” in the education of religious leaders. “I mean, it’s not my place to tell them how to run their seminary,” was the frequent refrain of one government official. Patience and persistence, however, often elicited “extensive comments about the importance of orienting future clergy to community and public issues.”
Broadening the scope of theological education to bring seminarians into contact with the real world was a recurring theme:
Lay members generally assume the academic education of clergy is adequate—if anything, more than adequate. The academic portion of seminary training was often summarized in a single phrase (one that, remarkably, was the same across the Catholic/Protestant and mainline/evangelical divides): the phrase is “Greek,” or “Greek and all that.” But something else is missing, something that brings “Greek and all that” to life, and to the level of lay comprehension and interest.
What is missing? Laity suggested that perhaps it is life experience or communications and interpersonal skills (“Networking 101,” as one Methodist church member put it). Some church executives emphatically agree: clergy get enough, or too much, theology and need more practical training.
...Among social leaders and church respondents alike, the theme is one of making connections, helping people to see what difference religious values and commitments can make, whether in the lives of church members or in our life together as a society.
Although there may be consensus about the gap in theological training, opinions differ as to the cause of the gap and its remedy.
The quality of seminary candidates and lack of recruitment, coupled with a perceived low regard for the profession of clergy was also a focus of respondents’ comments. One dean of undergraduates at a church-related university commented, “I may be mistaken..., but it seems to me that [seminaries] act more as magnets for people who have a strong commitment than going out and searching for people to be a part of that [commitment].”
The report’s findings as a whole present “a conundrum of sorts” according to its authors. The question they pose in the end is whether civic quietness is a problem or a virtue for theological education today. The dilemma is real:
On the one hand, both leaders and laity seem to value the hiddenness and mystery of seminary education—an assurance that this one place remains otherworldly, uncorrupted, and a site of initiations that enable those who emerge to lead the rest of us spiritually.... On the other hand, social leaders and church respondents also express concern that seminary graduates are overly sequestered, out of touch with the real world, naive about the challenges of organizational leadership, and neglectful of community needs. The seminary may be a place apart, but its graduates labor in the real world. And much real-world work is expected of them by church members and community leaders alike.
While the report ends, in a sense, by posing questions that remain to be answered, Barbara Wheeler, one of its authors, addresses the “conundrum” in her own “response” to the report, leading off with the question: “Do the invisibility of seminaries and the disengagement of religious leaders and institutions constitute a problem?” In answering that question with a “yes,” she first hastens to point out the limited nature of the study:
...before making judgments about the data this study presents and deciding what theological schools ought to do in response to them, we should remind ourselves that in general seminaries need to do less, not more. In another study, I have denounced “program sprawl,” the frenetic attempts in which many schools are currently engaged to please more constituencies and open more markets by trying to cover every possible programmatic base. If “public presence” becomes just another topic or special interest that requires the invention of programs that strain the budget and overtax the faculty and administration, this study will have done a disservice.....
But after all the limitations, qualifications, and disclaimers about the study have been recorded, I still think that what we found...should trouble those of us who are responsible parties in theological education and leaders in Christian churches. At the very least, seminary leaders should recognize that their schools’ obscurity is not in their best institutional interest.
Her conclusion offers no mandate for curriculum change or panacea for apparent or actual civic indifference. It does, however, bring a focus to the purpose of asking the questions and seeking the answers:
The questions this study raises about public visibility and effectiveness are not ancillary or optional to the renewal of theological education and religious life in this country. They are not side issues. They are right at the heart of things. If we make progress on the tough question of why our institutions and their graduates should and how they can more powerfully tell and show the public, the people, what God intends for world, we will greatly benefit the core mission of theological education as well as the wider causes it serve.
In Response. . .
Prophecy and Presence
Harold Dean Trulear
Former Dean, New York Theological Seminary
If prophetic presence is part of the witness of faith communities, then that presence must be recognized and visible. The prophetic platform takes seriously the fact that this is the Lord’s world, and that God is rather well informed about how it is operating. Therefore, prophets must be similarly informed.
If one accepts prophetic witness as part and parcel of a seminary’s mission, Barbara Wheeler and her colleagues have spoken directly to the very real danger that theological seminaries could develop into non-prophet organizations.
In Response . . .
What Is Our Business?
Richard J. Mouw
Fuller Theological Seminary
While I was thinking about what to say concerning this report, I received a call from the local Rotary Club—although I am inclined to think it was really a call from the Lord. The Rotary people wanted me to speak at one of their meetings. The requested topic: what is Fuller Seminary? I had to face an important fact: Fuller Seminary is, on any given weekday a community of well over 1,500 souls carrying out our business at a two-block distance from City Hall, and not one person at a Rotary Club breakfast could give a decent account of what we are about. “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.”
My response is a pious one, but that does not count against it in my way of viewing things: if God is the one issuing the mandate, then we have no excuses for not obeying. And I cannot avoid the conviction that God is precisely the source of our obligation in the public arena.
In Response . . .
A Distinctive Voice
St. John’s Seminary
Theological schools face an inevitable tension. Graduates are expected to have developed the professional and personal qualifications necessary not only to serve as leaders of various churches, but also to function in the broader context of the world outside the theological academy. In a priest’s life—and a seminarian’s preparation—public responsibilities beyond the leadership of worship are not add-ons.
Action on behalf of justice and peace is understood as an imperative of the Gospel, with real implications for one’s witness and exercise of ministry. I believe this sustained conversation about theology’s public character invites us to envision a new paradigm of the role of theology and theological faculty in the marketplace of ideas and action.