The making of pastors in seminary

The making of pastors in seminary: Pastors aren’t born into the role. Sure, of course, there’s often a family business of sorts, where son follows father, who followed his father, with assorted uncles and cousins added to the mix. Increasingly we find sisters and mothers and aunts in the lists too.

Even still, it’s not hereditary. It’s not like the priests of Israel who were priests because they were born into a tribe of priests, each one having a turn of service.

Pastors are trained. Where does this happen?

Seminary.

That’s what a seminary is at its core: a place to train pastors for ministry. There’s more that happens, of course, all sorts of accompanying projects and activities.

But if a seminary isn’t training pastors, it’s not really a seminary.

Not every education about theology has the same goal. Which is likewise where the various models run into problems. The Berlin model may be entirely appropriate for one goal where the Athens model another, etc. and so on. If the goal is to train pastors but all that is happening is training people to fit into the academy, that’s a problem.

If the goal is to train pastors, but you’re only training people to discover and use their own gifts, then that’s a problem. If the goal is to train pastors, but you’re only training people to be good citizens, then that’s a problem. I could go on, but you get the point.

If the goal is clear and singular, then an institution can easily focus its time and energy in that direction.

With its primary goal of training pastors, however, a seminary has a much more complex mission. Especially in contemporary understanding of a pastor. There’s a lot to being a pastor.

Let’s take, for instance, the role of a vocational minister, the pastor of a church. They are to teach and preach, so need to understand the content of Christianity. They are to offer counseling and support. They are to help encourage, shepherd, train those within their church in their faith and expression of this faith. They are to help people understand how to best translate their faith within the context of their culture and society. They are to keep up with their own life of prayer and personal study and expressions of holy living.

This is why seminary education is a subset of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Training ministers is a function of the church. It flows out of catechesis, raising up those in the faith to become among those who train and shepherd others. We train pastors so as to help edify those who edify others within every church communities.

The very name of pastor (shepherd) suggests a leadership role for a community of Christians, a role that requires a fair mix of different responsibilities. Indeed, all the various separate emphases have their place in a well-rounded seminary education. A pastor has to live in Berlin, Athens, Azusa, generally Geneva, hopefully Jerusalem, and ideally Skete. Each city grabs for attention–for tourist dollars–and so we see pastors becoming unbalanced, overwhelmed, under-trained if they are pulled one direction too far away from others.

In older models, as a citadel designed for a single purpose, theological education could deposit the requisite information and then send students out to do something with it.

In continuing service for the church, however, a seminary is doing more than sending out graduates to sink or swim. The church invests in these men and women in order to be contributing participants in the health and growth of the church. The seminary is given this charge and asked to take care that those who are called are able to carry on in this calling. It creates a deepening depth of wisdom that provides balance in light of competing demands.

If seminaries are not adapting to changing realities then they are not living up to their role and indeed their mission.

One of those changing realities is the fact that an increasing number, maybe even a majority, of seminary graduates will not be vocational ministers. This doesn’t mean they won’t be pastors, it just means they will be pastors and _______, with the blank filled with all manner of different jobs, callings, roles.

Gone are the days where we expect pastors to go into a parish ministry. Fuller, for instance, already broadened this early in its lifetime when it opened the School of Psychology. Graduates finish with a degree in psychology but take quite a number of Bible, theology, ministry classes, generally enough for even an additional masters degree.

Even in the School of Theology, a great many of my students are not interested in full time vocationally ministry, but are active in other vocations, in nonprofits, in missional communities, or in building their own understanding of their faith as a way of contributing to the lives of those around them. Fuller along with many other seminaries have long recognized this reality, even if the general structure of seminary education has stayed much the same.

I like the statement it posts at the bottom of its online course pages:

“With deep roots in orthodoxy and branches in innovation, we are committed to forming Christian women and men to be faithful, courageous, innovative, collaborative, and fruitful leaders who will make an exponential impact for Jesus in any context.”

That’s a big task. Which theological education “city” does all this fit into? We want a city in the mountains, by the coast, with good skiing and mild winters and nice restaurants and low prices, with ancient history and modern sensibilities.

We want it all, which sounds impossible.

And maybe in most places it its. But this is California. In California you can ski and surf on the same day. There’s a possibility of the impossible in California.

Which is why Fuller came into being to begin with and continued to innovate over the decades.

In his book on Fuller Seminary and the (then) New Evangelicalism, George Marsden has this to say on David Allan Hubbard, president of Fuller from 1963-1993:

“Probably also relevant to Hubbard’s broader view was that, unlike every other major figure in the seminary’s history excepting the Fullers, he was a native Californian. California seemed on the edge of Western civilization in that its institutional traditions were not firmly fixed. Hubbard clearly reflected this trait of the region. Like Charles Fuller before him, he saw that with the proper resources institutions could become almost anything one wanted. Unlike the easterners (and vastly more than the Britishers), both Fuller and Hubbard tended not to see traditional structures as inevitable.”

While times and settings have changed–Pasadena is a very different place than it was in the 20th century–so have opportunities. We are not stuck with the innovations of the past, locked in place as if that is our settled identity.

Traditional structures, conventional frameworks, are not the way things have to be, as if we have to fight over increasingly small amounts of the parish pastors pie. Both the context and innovation invites seminary education to broaden its perception of its ecclesial role in training ministers within a broad range of callings and vocations. Seminaries don’t have to keep the same model and then just add on elements of technology to stay alive, staying relevant as they try to keep being what they have always been.

Technology opens up opportunities to become something new, and break free of the boundaries and assumptions which create possibilities from formerly absolute limits. Such possibilities don’t detract from the overall mission, they can help us fulfill it even more thoroughly than ever before. Seminaries can engage the church with transformative networks of learning, training, and support.

As I continue with discussing the network model in my next post I’ll talk about how seminary education can better integrate both faith and context as it emphasizes orthopraxy and orthopathy alongside orthodoxy. Maybe it’s finally time to leave the city walls behind. We don’t need them anymore and they’ve never been quite as helpful as we assumed.

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