New Student Profile
“Who will be our future priests?” asks Katarina Schuth in the 1999 New Year edition of In Trust ("A Study of Priests-To-Be"). Schuth raises several provocative issues about future leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.
As an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church, I appreciate Sister Schuth’s concerns. For seventeen years I have served as a trustee for the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. As district superintendent I visited seminaries and shared in the appointment of seminarians to local churches. From several perspectives I have observed significant changes in the profile of persons preparing for full-time professional ministry in our denomination.
The once “traditional student,” college graduate/seminary bound, declined in numbers during the last twenty years. The 1980s saw older, second-career persons enrolling in seminary on the cusp of a life change: a divorce, a job loss, a need for security, a religious awakening. A high proportion were “new Christians,” learning the elements of the Christian faith for the first time in their thirties and forties. The classroom could all too easily became a laboratory for solving personal life issues and problems. It was difficult to move beyond basic information to the depth of faith understanding necessary for the church leader.
I have witnessed the paranoia, rigidity, and fearfulness of which Katarina Schuth speaks. For most, this perspective is part of a developmental stage shed during the course of a seminary education.
An encouraging new student profile characterizes our current generation at MTSO. The average age (thirty-seven) of entering seminarians is lowering. The number of ethnic and female students is increasing. The average GPA (3.12) is rising. When asked, “Why did you decide to answer the call to ministry?” students responded:
“There was a restlessness.... When the door opened, it was not to be denied.... I am called by God’s mercy.”
Schuth says: “God’s purpose is to establish and extend the church of Jesus Christ.” I say, “Whom God calls, God equips: leaders full of grace and gifts for ministry. Thanks be to God!”
Judith A. Olin
North Canton, Ohio
Judith A. Olin is council director, East Ohio Conference, Council on Ministries, the United Methodist Church, and a trustee of the Methodist Theological School of Ohio, in Delaware, Ohio.
Roots and Wings
In his article “To Dwell or To Seek” (New Year 1999), Robert Wuthnow argues that a practice-oriented spirituality is a possible alternative to either dwelling or seeking spiritualities. Toward that end, religious institutions and organizations should adopt as their primary end the strengthening of the spiritual discipline of their members. This in turn requires that these communities also be practice-oriented, including such disciplines as prayer, lectio divina,and meditation, to name a few of the ascetical practices. Wuthnow argues that practice-oriented spiritualities require both roots (an anchor in a tradition) and wings (a way of transcending a traditionalism that precludes negotiating one’s way through new cultural and personal realities, without negating the tradition).
How might this proposal affect theological education? First, the Bible contains multiple narratives of seekers after a dwelling, individuals and nations. Within these narratives are narratives of people negotiating with God in prayer. These prayer texts deserve rigorous academic and spiritual reflection. Narrative prayers and the psalms of lament and anger actually show biblical people simultaneously doubting and believing the God with whom they are negotiating. When the total sum of biblical prayers is tallied, there is nothing in life that has to be bracketed. These texts provide both roots and wings for seekers no matter what their circumstances are.
Second, regarding the teaching of spiritual formation, the legacy of German Lutheran Pietism, and particularly the Bible study method fostered by August Herman Francke (1663-1727), is a practice worth considering. Francke said that three questions should be addressed to a text. What does it teach? What does it command? What does it promise? He linked teaching with faith, commandment with love, and promise with hope. Faith, love, and hope were the theological virtues so treasured by the medieval church as gifts of grace. As virtues, they structure the moral character of believing, hoping, and serving, all of which have their source and end in Jesus Christ. This joins history and hope, ethics and eschatology, story and dream, in the life of disciples so that they can both dwell and seek, thus being a pilgrim but not a vagabond, having both roots and wings.
One caveat. The personal resolve of a discipline can turn into a private religion. The “conversation” that Wuthnow lauds in the Benedictine tradition assumes a community where learning to be together is a tough conversion. Thus, while the Christian faith in particular may have a deeply personal and relational character to it, it is never private. The community is both a gift and a task.
C. John Weborg
C. John Weborg is professor of theology and coordinator of spiritual formation at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.