Seminaries and denominations harbor certain stereotypes of each other. Seminaries, I’ve been told by denominational leaders, don’t adequately prepare students for the practice of ministry. Their faculty members live in ivory towers, and their ties to the church are loose at best, so their teaching fails to connect students to the places these students will eventually serve.
Denominations, say seminary faculty and administrators, are controlling. Their leaders too often have adopted worldly measures of success — money, members, and management — that threaten the church’s faithfulness. When students enter professional ministry, say the seminaries, these values too often infect them too.
These mutual criticisms by now have become standardized. We voice them almost reflexively. I wonder, though, whether they reflect what we really think. Beneath the platitudes, I suspect, there lies not disdain but secret admiration tinged with envy. Denominational leaders recognize that some seminaries are the strongest institutions in the church systems, attracting top talent and sizeable gifts. On the other hand, seminary leaders can see the ease with which denominations reshape the views of graduates who enter the ministry.
I think that at the deepest level, seminaries and denominations, worried about the future, want each other’s help. Neither kind of institution can save itself. Seminaries want denominations to invest in the schools’ futures, sending more funds and students, not fewer. Denominations want seminaries, with all their prestige, to voice explicit support for their allied denominations, not to badmouth them.
These moves would help to repair an often fraught relationship in times that are tough for all church institutions. We should take up each other’s cause and do the best we can to promote each other’s interests. We can do a great deal to help each other make an impact on the future of the church and the wider society.
At the same time, however, Isaiah 63 reminds us that ultimately we are not saviors of ourselves or anyone else. No messenger, no angel, no intermediary, says Isaiah, can save us. Important as they are, institutional alliances do not guarantee that we will achieve our largest purpose, which is to live as God’s people, as people who do not deal falsely with each other or anyone else — as people who meet the derision of the proud and the powerful with steadfast love.
The source of this kind of saving love, says Isaiah, is the presence of God. Psalm 123 strikes the same theme: To you, O Lord, we lift up our eyes. And that is the source of the deep bond that should exist, that does exist, between seminaries and churches. Together we seek the presence of God; together we lift up our eyes to the same gracious, saving Lord, known to us in Jesus Christ, who lifts us up together, as he did in days of old, as he will in days to come.