Years ago, while I was serving as dean at another theological school, a controversy arose that clarified some core educational issues for me. A member of our board of trustees with a distinguished record in the military and corporate management pressed our administration and faculty to begin calling seminarians “customers” rather than “students.”

This suggestion reflected a cultural shift already evident at several hospitals and airlines. Overnight, patients and passengers had become “customers.” The new label was a reminder that customers expected that the “products” they bought were worth the price they paid. The metaphor was well intentioned, but it carried negative baggage when it moved from marketplace to campus. Adages such as “The customer is always right” and “You’ve got to keep the customer satisfied” didn’t fit, because theological education is more than the transmission of information from supplier to consumer. It is about the transformation of people. And transformation is often an uncomfortable process.

My first assignment in theological education was to develop and oversee programs that placed students in field situations where they practiced ministry under the supervision of pastors, chaplains, therapists, and social workers. The placement of students in the right settings required that we do careful assessments to discover areas where they needed to gain competency as ministers and leaders. This process often meant that I placed students in settings they would never choose for themselves.

One fall morning, I was jotting notes on the blackboard as I waited to welcome students from their summer ministry experiences. A female class member arrived early and seemed anxious to air her feelings. “Do you know that I have been angry at you all summer?” she asked when I put down the chalk.

“No,” I replied.

“Well, I have been. The program you assigned me was a nightmare.”

I knew it would be. The setting was a tough county hospital in Dallas that served a population unlike any this student had encountered. The program had a great reputation and a brilliant supervisory staff. I knew it was perfect for her when I reviewed her pre-placement assessment and interviewed her.

“Do you even care that I am angry at you?” she demanded.

“No.” I said. “I care more about your education as a minister than your feelings about me.”

That was not the response she expected, but as a teacher I meant every word. It took a full semester for this student to unpack her field experience.

She talked often to me, her classmates, other professors, and her pastor. And she learned and grew into a superb minister and congregational leader.

If I had treated her as a customer, I might have backed off on sending her to that program when she objected. If I had considered her a customer, I would have been duty-bound to make her happy, rather than place her in a situation guaranteed to make her uncomfortable. But she was not a customer; she was a student who deserved to be informed and transformed by her educational experience.

Recently we have read countless articles about financially stressed schools. In times of economic crisis, institutions are compelled to take action. Some actions make institutions more efficient, effective, flexible, and responsive to society’s needs. But some changes have nothing to do with a school’s core mission of educating people as well as it can. Among these changes, a simple word substitution—from “student” to “customer”— signals a profound change of role.

For the sake of their education and their call to ministry, seminarians deserve to be called what they are: students. Fads aside, we owe them that.

This article was adapted with permission from a post that originally appeared on Michael Jinkins's blog, "Thinking Out Loud."

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