Readers, please accept this invitation to communicate with “Soundings,” either to react to articles in this issue of In Trust or to comment on other issues of concern to leaders in theological education. Feel free to be provocative, but do limit your letters to a maximum of 350 words. All letters are subject to editing. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Thank you, In Trust, for raising the timely question of commitment in the January issue ("Virtue Beyond the Classroom"). Surely this topic needs more fruitful discussion than it receives in the popular press, where one gets the impression that fidelity consists of public conformity to a set of social prescriptions. Melinda Heppe makes a constructive beginning in indicating the many ways in which theological students and the schools that train them confront questions of commitment. This, in turn, implies that there are no simple answers, no one course, or role model, or set of prescriptions that will produce future ministers ready to keep their promises and to sensitize others to the complex demands of fidelity.
Does this mean that we trustees can do nothing to ensure that our seminaries address the debilitating failure of commitment in our society? Not at all. As governors of schools that foster future ministers, it is incumbent on us to expect constructive answers to questions about what our institution is doing to encourage students to become people who value dedication, people who enter into commitments prayerfully, who expect life to test their readiness to keep promises—in short, graduates who are ready to help others recognize that a commitment entails a process of growth with the ups and downs that usually accompany it. We can expect administrators to be sensitive to the varied formal and informal programs that nurture hearts and minds of future ministers who take their own commitments seriously. And we can keep raising the question until there is general acceptance of Wessie Spearman’s insight, quoted by Heppe, that fidelity “sounds so good when you talk about it ... but when you’re doing it, it just sounds like hard work.”
—Alice B. Skinner
St. George, Maine
Alice B. Skinner is a trustee of Swedenborg School of Religion in Newton, Massachusetts.
In response to the article by John Leith, “Whatever Happened to Heeding God’s Call?” it appears nostalgic romanticism concerning “the way things used to be” is creeping into his critique. While seminaries may use the language of business and marketing at times when it comes to recruiting students, my experience of seminary students is filled with people for whom call and commitment are central.
Leith’s statement that becoming a minister does not involve the sacrifice it did before World War II does not reflect the seminary students I know:
Former lawyers, educators, physicians, and engineers, some of whom are used to six-figure incomes and all of whom are well aware of financial and lifestyle sacrifices they are making to become pastors of hundred-member churches.
Single mothers struggling to pay bills, write exegesis, work in churches, and take care of their children.
Hispanic and African American students studying in a predominantly white, English-speaking environment who have sacrificed much cultural, family, and even church support in order to heed the call of God.
Young, bright, right-out-of-college folks who, by cultural standards, should be getting M.B.A. degrees, but are instead putting themselves deeper in debt to get M.Div. degrees.
Leith is correct that the sacrifice in pre-World War II America was different from what it is today. But today’s seminary students are no less in touch with the traumas and joys attendant upon heeding God’s call to ministry.
I have yet to meet a seminary student who would define the pastorate as glamorous and exciting in the ways our culture might use those words. Students I talk with are thrilled yet humbled by the task of preaching; awed and moved to tears when dealing with death and the resulting ministries involved; disheartened and discouraged when the local church or denomination engages in petty arguments or seems to lack a focus of proper priorities. Yet they are curiously optimistic about this institution to which they have been called. If anything, the seminary students I know have a very realistic, albeit cautiously hopeful vision of the church and ministry.
Leith disparages seminary education as not being as “serious as that of a first-rate medical or law school.” If Leith is comparing the M.Div. work to that of a research-oriented Ph.D., then he is correct—seminary is not as demanding. But for what seminaries seek to do, they are, in my experience, appropriately demanding. Our task is to enable students to become knowledgeable, effective local church pastors with one foot rooted in solid academics and the other planted in praxis. The “trick” is not to overemphasize one so as to downplay the other. Sometimes we fail to keep that balance, but where I work, we give out our share of D’s and F’s and I have never experienced or understood what we do as “nondemanding.”
I spent fourteen years as a local church pastor before returning to seminary as an administrator. While there are some things about seminary education that are different now from what they were when I was a student, I’m not sure I would change much of what we do today except to try to find ways in which the seminary and the church can, together, both confirm a person’s call and engage more effectively in the task of ministerial formation. On this point, Leith and I are in agreement and his article is provocative and challenging to this issue.
Newton Centre, Massachusetts
Richard Haley is dean of students and vice president for student services at Andover Newton Theological School.