With so much Facebook coverage — much of it negative — dominating the news lately it is good to be reminded that social media platforms can occasionally facilitate helpful conversations that would otherwise be impossible. I started one such conversation recently with the question: “If you were starting a seminary program from scratch, what would you keep, what would you add, what would you toss from your M.Div. experience?”

What followed was a conversational thread with more than 200 replies from more than 100 individuals: pastors at all stages of their careers (with a large number who had graduated from seminary within the last five years), current and emeritus seminary professors, laity, and former pastors who had left church leadership in favor of other careers. The question clearly hit a nerve. 

In an age where just about every seminary, freestanding or embedded, is reinventing its curriculum or experimenting with new kinds of formation, it turns out that a low-stakes online brainstorming session drew forth some basic questions: What is ministry? What are the models for pastors as “educated educators” in the 21st-century North American church? How do the seminary’s teaching of pastors and the pastors’ teaching of congregations intersect? 

As might be expected, a number of recent graduates and current students simply listed as essential the courses in which they happened to excel — matched, as expected, by several faculty who listed their own subject areas as the single essential component of the M.Div. curriculum. However, as the thread went on, more creative possibilities emerged. 

“Constant looping back”

One of the more striking things that took shape in the conversation was a sort of radical reenvisioning of the purpose of education. For example, a New Testament professor at a mainline seminary argued that content is less crucial than formation of ongoing learning habits: 

I think our ability to access lots of data and information requires a pedagogical shift. We can access all that data and information, but we need the wisdom to discern more than ever. So, I think an M.Div. would do well to focus on nurturing such practices of wisdom. To me, that takes us back to the various disciplines of theological study but with a focus on not learning content so much as learning content for the sake of discernment and lifelong learning. That is, an introductory New Testament course would not need to be comprehensive. How could it be? But it could help start forming a set of reading practices that enable students to return to the living word for years of ministry. 

A recent seminary graduate echoed these sentiments: 

My intro to preaching class consisted largely of an individual preaching and the rest of the class giving feedback. We didn’t ever talk about what giving good feedback looks like, nor reflect on how receiving feedback on sermons does or doesn’t shape our preaching practice. There was only one class I took in seminary where we talked about what it means to give good feedback; it’s one of the most useful skills out there for ministry, for leadership development, for administration/management; and that class no longer exists at the seminary. But that skill, and that conversation, could easily be incorporated across a whole curriculum without necessarily making major content changes. 

A longtime pastor now serving in the ecclesial grantmaking world compared this shift to the certification and continuing education practices that happen in medical education: 

The finish line cannot be the attainment of the M.Div. degree. We need something more like the medical school model, where the scholar is given the authority to practice medicine at the completion of med school, but there is never the expectation that the scholar is done learning medicine. There needs to be a constant looping back to formation practices and theological thinking in our system, and a research study of when pastors are most ready to learn key topics along the vocational arc.

Weaving learning communities

What is particularly striking about these examples is that they point to a growing desire not for a “more practical M.Div.” but for an education that trains pastors to want to keep learning, to be intellectually curious with verve and discernment and skill. Ideally, this education should be offered within a seminary environment that promotes and facilitates lifelong learning. Interestingly, the conversations tended to describe the seminary’s role in lifelong learning less in terms of one-off seminars or courses and more in terms of networking: 

What I think leaders most need now is a framework, rather than trying to teach ALL of the content that one could eventually pour into that framework. Teach us to think, research, discern, sift through information, build a landscape of Christian and denominational theology and stoke a thirst for more — and create networks of colleagues who want to learn together. Teach us the tools to lead Bible study — not necessarily with an in-depth scholarly leap into each biblical book, but teach techniques for choosing great supplemental resources and learning alongside Bible study participants as we lead them in inquiry. 

Seminaries are in a unique position to train their M.Div. graduates to be weavers of networked learning among their congregation members, even as they provide continued resources for strengthening webs of peer learning and accountability among pastors in the field. While the strategies for doing this can be as diverse as seminary populations themselves, this conversation (however indicative of broader trends) clearly points to a hunger for it to happen. In an age when weak theology is readily apparent all around, responsible pastors want to create ongoing accountability for learning both for themselves and the people they serve, and the seminaries that rise to that challenge have exciting work ahead.

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