By George Bullard
In recent times we have witnessed a dialogue around the role and function of seminaries. This dialogue has been generated primarily by people involved in seminaries, divinity schools and other forms of higher education. Thus, their perspective. Theirs is a valid perspective but perhaps also a myopic perspective that can come across as self-serving. In any case, seminaries ought to be praised for their historic role and function.
I am pro-seminary. I had a great seminary experience involving nine years and three degrees. I loved it. At the same time I was half-time to full-time engaged in ministry while experiencing seminary. I am not one who declares, “Why didn’t they teach that in seminary?” That is an unfair and ill-informed question.
There is nothing wrong with seminaries that a disruptive strategy couldn’t fix. Seminaries are primarily based on providing sound theological education with some ministry reflection. They are a classic model more than an innovative model. They are an institutional model more than a ministry model.
What the Church in North America and elsewhere needs in the post-Christendom era of the 21st century is a disruptive seminary strategy. Such a strategy would focus on molding within people the excellent practice of ministry. Rather than sound theological education with some ministry reflection, it would focus on ministry excellence with sound theological reflection.
That is not just a shifting or repositioning of words in a phrase; it is a reconceptualization of ministry preparation. It changes who the client is for seminary education to the persons who are the object of ministry or alongside whom ministry persons walk.
I believe the current client relationship is all wrong. The seminaries are not the client. The denominational partners are not the client. The faculty is not the client. The financial contributors are not the client. The accrediting agencies are not the client. Yet, these are the clients most people I encounter related to seminaries believe are the clients.
The clients are the people who are the object of the ministry by people who attend seminary. Therefore, seminaries need to be reverse engineered in collaboration with contextual ministries based on the excellence of ministry that needs to be faithfully, effectively and with innovation delivered to the ministry client. I believe seminaries need a new model that represents a disruptive strategy that changes the paradigm and takes the conceptualization of all seminaries back to zero.
Distance learning is certainly a game changer for delivering courses, but the jury is still out as to whether or not it adequately provides ministry preparation if it is the only model. It can deliver courses and perhaps deliver degrees, but can it deliver effective contextual ministry preparation? My answer is “no.” At the same time, distance learning can be a contributor to new models.
This does speak to one aspect of seminaries that needs to be changed. Seminaries should not be primarily about providing degrees. They should be about preparing people to minister with excellence and at some point recognizing their ministry excellence and granting them degrees. I know this brings up the whole area of competence-based education.
Seminaries need to focus on what the ministry context needs. If it is preaching in a local church then a paraphrase of John 12:21 is the goal — “Madam/Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Grassroots missionary/missional processes need to be the norm in the new Christianity wave. It needs to be life-long learning. Perhaps it is the people in ministry who ought to be given “tenure” rather than seminary faculty. As such they have to achieve “tenure” and take sabbaticals to demonstrate new learning to keep “tenure” or to remain credentialed.
What we currently do is send people through three to four years of seminary, and they engage during or after seminary in some type of internship, apprenticeship or “small church pastorate” for them to figure out if they can actually minister with excellence. Again it needs to be reversed. They need to engage in ministry and figure out the capacities they need, what sound theological reflection looks like for them, and what questions they need to ask. This is an action then reflection model.
Theology is indeed a verb and must be learned within contextual ministries with people experiencing real spiritual struggles more than in the classroom or in a webinar.