Bruce Reyes-Chow: If I Were Mayor of Seminarytownville

It's been a long time since I graduated from seminary, 1995 to be exact. Much has changed in the world: recent generations have lived a life that I can't fully comprehend, the landscape of American Christianity has changed and the church continues to play catch-up in finding ways to share its faith and tradition. No doubt, seminaries are not immune to this struggle, so when I was first asked to be part of Patheos' The Future of Seminary Education Symposium I took a quick read of some of the people who had already submitted their thoughts and wondered why the heck would I be part of this group? I am not a seminary professor, have no earned doctoral degree and have "allegiance" to any one seminary. Pretty much all I have is an opinion about what needs to be done and a deep yearning for our seminaries to educate and train effective leaders for the 21st century sometime before we have to start talking about the 22nd.

Like I said, I have no significant tie to a particular seminary so I fully admit that I am not privy to the intricacies of seminary life and governance, but, as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have had the privilege of traveling the country listening to and speaking with a variety of folks: students, pastors, staff, administrators and faculty about their experience of and views about the current condition of seminary education. A common thread that I have heard is, that while there is great intention about change and the future, there seems to be a lack of conviction when it comes to living these changes out: faculty often protects the guild of which they are a part, students come in with false expectations about future "job" prospects and fundraising drives to much of vision and direction.

If you read through the symposium contributors you will find plenty of folks who have no problem pointing out what a mess seminary education is these days. Sure, much is perception and there are many good things going on, but I think it is fair to say that when it comes to many seminaries, especially those from the mainline denominations, the rapid pace of change makes getting ahead of the curve difficult.

Below I offer just a few of the culture shifts that I would focus on . . . you know, if I were Mayor.

  • Harmonize Academic and Practical Disciplines:  Nothing drives me battier than those who think that the academic and practical seminary disciplines are mutually exclusive. Everyone does it at some point: ivory tower professors scoff at congregational relevance questions and exasperated students cry out, "Why does this matter?" during every church history exam. Those who perpetuate this dichotomy must be the first to be challenged about their place in any theological institution. Sure, you can be passionate about your discipline, but not at the expense of another and not at the expense of the student who has entrusted their education to you. The finest pastors that I know exude a harmony between the academic and the practical and each is made stronger because of the other. Anyone who is able to make the academic/practical connection provides leadership in ministry that is not only emotionally compelling, but curates space where minds are stimulated and perspectives broadened.
  • Embrace Technology and Digital Media:  This does not mean simply having a good website and slapping up a facebook page, rather seminaries need to integrate a digital strategy into all aspects of its life: recruitment, development, distance learning, campus life, and more. It is important to not only have traditional IT support, but it's also important for a school to understand the foundations of social media, digital arts and other facets of digital media. Removing some of the mystery behind technology and grounding them in the theoretical foundations of social networking will help people better use the medium in order to bridge the digital and generational divides, build a great sense of community and stay engaged in the rapidly changing landscape of the public square.
  • Value a Multiplicity of Ministries:  I am one of those who buys into the idea that we now live in a niche world. With fewer people taking part in a growing variety of communities, our seminaries much find a way to teach to a multiplicity of contexts and aspirations. For a long time, the strategy of "pick one thing and do it well" meant that seminaries would choose what kind of person they would focus on: congregational pastor, spiritual director, urban minister, academic, etc. If a student doesn't fit into one of these areas, he/she can still attend, but translating what was taught into their particular call is up to that individual. Seminaries need to take one step back and be able to focus on core understandings of what it means to serve, no matter what the context is: understanding social setting, adapting to change, articulating faith, etc all important aspects of ministry, but not confined by the specifics of any one form.
  • Re-engage the Public Square:  In no way do I yearn for "the good old days" when the church meant something in this here country, but what I think is missing from too many institutions is a commitment to help folks figure out how to bring their faith into public square. Too many church folks have abdicated their voice in the political discourse so American Christianity has been flattened into a one-dimensional caricature of reactionaries and zealots. The location of ones ministry matters not when it comes to what I believe is Gospel work, speaking the truth to power and watching out for the poor and marginalized in all aspects of society. If seminaries are to train people to serve in the world and be effective partners in the betterment of the common good, they must see the public square engagement as a vital part of the education experience.

Now depending on the geographic and social location of a seminary, these postures will manifest themselves in different ways. A few ways these shifts might play out:

  • night classes, weekend intensives and alternative teaching sites in order to train lay leadership;
  • distance learning and online community building;
  • focus on bi-vocational ministry skills;
  • partnerships with not-for-profits and community organizations;
  • alternative development strategies and approached to student debt;
  • adjunct facility who can provide a wider breadth of practical and contextual ministry perspectives;
  • field education that matters and is valued by the entire seminary community;

Now I know that many folks reading this will think, "these are not new ideas" and I totally agree, but I would also say that many seminaries are nickel and diming these efforts in order to appease those who still hold their power and influence in outdated approaches to church, culture and seminary education. If there is going to be a future that is worth committing to, this must change.

Respectful yours,

The Mayor or Seminarytownville

[Taken with permission from Bruce Reyes-Chow's blog.Originally posted 10/26/2011]