While there are divergent ideas and suggestions, the general theme of this conversation is that (a) seminaries have not done enough to provide the practical training necessary for effective ministry leadership and (b) seminaries should change to meet the shifting needs of the 21st century church.
I certainly believe that good seminaries must be innovative and flexible, with a grasp on the pulse of the church, but I struggle with the idea that the problem lies with seminaries, and suggest that both the problem and solution actually exists within the local church congregation.
The real questions center not on the actual teaching of theology, but on the teaching and training of practical skills needed to effectively lead and minister in today’s world. This is a task that churches have outsourced to seminaries, sending those “called to ministry” off to seminary with the expectation that in three years, a seasoned and skilled pastor will emerge. But it’s impractical to expect seminaries to be solely (or even mostly) responsible for the practical training pastors and leaders need to serve effectively in the church.
For those who are adamant that seminaries provide practical training to prepare pastors for ministry, I wonder whose ministry and which practices should they be trained for? A suburban megachurch? A house church? An international expression of church? A multiethnic urban church? A hipster church plant? A liturgically-driven denominational church? An aging rural congregation?
There are, of course, some general principles that are practical and true across the spectrum of churches, but general principles shouldn’t require an expensive three-year graduate degree to learn. It doesn’t make sense for the practical, on-the-ground training needed in a specific kind of church to take place anywhere but that specific kind of church. Watering down the teaching of those specific skills so they can be applicable to a broad array of churches can’t be the best answer unless our goal is watered-down pastors.
Churches taking responsibility for training and raising up leaders with the practical skills needed to minister effectively doesn’t let seminaries off the hook. I choose to go to seminary because I wanted to learn theology in a classroom with a professor – a kind of learning that couldn’t happen in the church I was serving at, but a kind of learning I decided, with counsel from my church, would be beneficial to my pastoral calling.
Even if it isn’t always immensely and directly practical, studying the history of the church, the development of theology, and the conjugation of ancient languages can be grounding, humbling, and patience-building exercises in discipleship that lead to healthier pastors and healthier churches. Seminaries who care about training pastors need to do everything they can to offer the best theological education geared towards the formation of pastors and for the benefit of the church.
Rethinking theological education is terribly important and it’s critical that churches – not just seminaries – be willing to take their share of responsibility for the formation of the next generation of leaders and pastors. It’s my hope that through this conversation churches step up to the plate, recognizing that the formation of pastors is too great a task, and one too integral to the mission of the church, to ignore or outsource to other organizations and institutions.