Several weeks ago, I posed this question to my Facebook friends: What gifts, skills, virtues, or knowledge do you value in a spiritual leader that a seminary can help your pastor acquire? The survey wasn’t scientific, but it invited feedback from a sizable and thoughtful group of laypeople and clergy. Their responses were interesting.
One cluster of answers stressed the importance of clear, concise preaching by a pastor who has a deep understanding of liturgy and a firm grasp of Scripture. Others mentioned relational skills such as the ability to connect with people on a personal level by listening to them with respect and compassion. Still others emphasized a capacity to navigate conflict. “The best course I took along these lines was offered by the Harvard Business School,” wrote one friend.
Of the considerable number of people who cited the importance of handling day-to-day administrative duties and working with volunteers, my favorite response offered three benefits to knowing how to plunge a toilet and replace a light switch. First, do-it-yourselfers can complete mundane tasks without help; second, they can supervise contractors hired to do those mundane tasks; and third, in either case, they have a genuine respect for manual labor and those who perform it.
“I want a person who knows Jesus, is devoted to God’s work and to prayer,” was a frequent comment. Along these lines: “Constructive love of others, restorative justice, and compassion” are important. Interestingly, the gifts that received only a single mention included community organizing, theological understanding, and the intersection with other religions.
What do I make of this information, granted the informal and limited nature of my research? My observations: The responses indicate that after almost 50 years of transition and change in theological education, the needs of churches remain much the same. While seminaries embrace ever-shifting definitions of what should happen in the church, the churches continue to be preoccupied with perennial challenges:
They insist on clergy who can witness to their own experience of God.
They expect leaders to live lives marked by virtue and character consonant with that experience.
They want clergy who can preach, provide liturgical leadership, and connect with people pastorally.
They long for clergy who can deal with all issues—including but not limited to conflict—large and small.
As a theological educator, I’m sobered by these findings. I believe deeply in the value of theological education, but the responses to my Facebook question indicate that much of the subject matter we discuss in the classroom is not immediately relevant to the work of most clergy. For that reason, things need to happen in the seminary classroom that are unique to that setting:
To some degree, instruction must begin with the needs of the church and clergy.
Attention to those needs requires familiarity with the day-to-day life of the church.
The seminary classroom requires a solid respect for the work of the church, arising from a robust ecclesiology.
Seminary educators should demonstrate how “academic conversation” applies to the lived experience of the church.
This adds up to a challenging assignment. Because most research degrees devote little or no attention to the church or its ministry, we seminary faculty need to give careful and critical attention to the ways we ourselves have been shaped as teachers and scholars. The larger academic world generally rewards atomization and specialization, but seminary formation is synthetic and integrative. In embracing that task of forming whole persons who are both disciples and leaders, teaching in a seminary finds its place as a calling and not just a profession.
The Rev. Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt is director of the Rueben P. Job Institute for Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/.
A longer version of this essay originally appeared on his blog as “4 Ways Teaching in a Seminary Is Different.” This edited version is used with permission.