Seminary: Why now? Why ever? – by Andrew Thompson

img_andrew-thompson-homeLast week our fall semester began at Memphis Theological Seminary. It’s the start of my third year on the faculty here—but perhaps the first year I’ve been here that I felt confident enough about what I was teaching that I’ve been able to reflect on larger issues related to theological education (and not just scramble to get tomorrow’s lecture ready!).

We’re in an interesting time in theological education, to say the least. The financial pressure on seminaries everywhere is immense (as it is in many colleges and universities as well). New forms of instruction and learning are pressing us to adapt to a world for which graduate school (still) does not prepare new scholars. And even within the older forms of instruction and learning, new technologies have altered the landscape such that trying to master changing expectations for pedagogy in addition to the content of one’s own discipline is a daunting task.

I do think there are some enduring things about a seminary education, though. I think there are reasons students today choose to undergo the arduous journey of pursuing a seminary degree that are pretty similar to the reasons students did so in generations past; and I think these reasons are similar to the reasons students will go to seminary in the future as well (even if “seminary” itself looks different, as I suspect it will in some important respects).

These reasons are important. Let me mention a few:

1) Discernment about vocation—It surprised me during my first year here at MTS how much of my advising sessions with students centered around the discernment they were doing about their future in ministry. That has turned out to be a regular feature of advising in every semester since! In fact, it often takes up considerably more time than advising about the nuts and bolts of coursework. But then I remembered my own experience in divinity school, and how much of my energy was taken up with searching and wondering and praying about what it was that God was calling me to do. (How could I have forgotten so easily?) The truth of the matter is that discernment about one’s calling is a difficult and often lengthy process, and many seminary students know with greater certainty that they want to go to seminary than they do about what they will do once they have a master of divinity degree in hand. It’s true that most of our students at MTS are going to end up in pastoral ministry. But for many students, that destination is by no means certain when they get here (and indeed, we have many students who end up pursuing types of work in and out of the church that are something other than pastoral ministry).

Seminary is more than a series of lectures and seminar discussions stretched over the course of several semesters. It is a place where students come in response to the call of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that they can figure out how God desires to use them best. This, by the way, is one of the reasons it is so important for seminaries to be connected to the church. It is a place where students can come to find themselves embedded in God’s story, and that in a very particular way. It is a place where they can discover how God is calling them into the crucial work of shepherding, however that might work itself out in different contexts. This is a good thing, and it is one of the reasons I love teaching in this setting so much.

2) The intellectual content of the Christian faith—At the seminary where I teach, our motto is “Scholarship, Piety, Justice.” While practices of piety and the pursuit of justice are crucial parts of what it means to be a faithful Christian, it is also the case that the Christian faith has an intellectual content that must be taken seriously. This is particularly the case for the leaders of the church: the bishops, elders, and deacons responsible for the teaching, preaching, and pastoral care of Christ’s flock. The existence of theological seminaries like the one where I teach is evidence of the church, in her wisdom, recognizing the need for the intellectual content of the faith to be preserved, studied, engaged, and advanced in each succeeding generation. This is something that some pastors only come to realize after they’ve been out of school for awhile—when they get nostalgic for their seminary days and hungry for the kind of study they once complained about! But actually, the great majority of students I’ve had realize what a rare gift it is to be able to devote themselves to critical work in the theological disciplines of bible, church history, theology, and ministry. They recognize very quickly that a seminary education is one of the best ways to learn what it means to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.

3) Apprenticeship to mentors—The word “disciple” (from discipulus) refers to a student who is apprenticed to a master. The related verb in Latin (discere) means “to study” or “to learn.” But studying or learning in this way is different than just memorizing a set of facts or data. It means entering into a community of fellow learners that surrounds the feet of a master teacher. In a formal educational setting, the most natural image of that is of students and their teachers or professors. But in a seminary, I would suggest that the image only holds true to a very limited extent. Let me play a little bit with the language of proximate and ultimate causation: the seminary professor is a teacher of her students in the most proximate sense. I think of my own work in teaching as something like theological midwifery; I am always involved and making my contribution, but if I am doing my work well, my very presence fades into the background so that the real reason for the gathering can take center stage.

Another proximate cause within seminary education—and one that is both greater and more authoritative than the teacher—is the tradition which we have inherited and which it is our task to preserve and pass on. This is the biblical, historical, and theological material that together seeks a faithful witness to what God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Of course, the ultimate cause and rationale for any theological education at all is Jesus Christ. He is the master to whom we are apprenticed, and the Holy Spirit he has given us is the mentor whose work it is to teach and guide us along the way. Students come to seminary hoping to learn from great teachers. For those of us who teach, it is good to keep this in mind and to take our work very seriously as a result. But when both students and teachers are seeing things aright, they also keep in mind that we are all apprenticed to something much greater: a tradition that has been given to us, and a God revealed through it who meets us there and transforms us in the process.

4) Spiritual formation for ministry—I think that, finally, students come to seminary with a desire for their own sanctification. They want their faith to grow, and they want to learn what it means to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). A seminary education can help in this desire in certain kinds of ways—most particularly, the kinds of ways that help men and women prepare to serve as pastoral leaders. My experience has been that students know that this kind of preparation must take place elsewhere besides just between the ears. They want to have their hearts formed along with their minds. As John Wesley might say, they want to have “all holy and heavenly tempers” formed within their hearts so that they are truly prepared for the work of ministry to which God is calling them.

I think that there was a time when seminaries and divinity schools lost sight of the need for deeply formational work along with regular classroom instruction. And perhaps they shouldn’t be blamed for it. There was a time when a kind of cultural Christianity was assumed and when we all figured that participation in local church life had given future pastors all the spiritual formation they needed before they went to seminary. That is no longer the case, and I am happy to say that I think many seminaries are making great strides. At MTS, we have a program called Formation for Ministry that is mandatory for all students. In it, students learn to integrate their classroom experiences with their spiritual lives in a way that assists in everything from ongoing spiritual maturation to the better discernment of vocation. Moreover, our students do this in the context of a community of fellow students and under the leadership of a spiritual guide: both components of which I think are essential in spiritual formation generally. For my own part, I don’t think I am supposed to check my “pastor” hat at the door when I come to work. I am always both professor and pastor, and that means that I counsel with my students, pray with my students, sing with my students, and journey with my students along the way. Formation is something we all need, after all, and the need for it has no expiration date regardless of our age or experience.

In sum, we live in a world where many things are changing rapidly around us and where we do not know what the future will hold in just a few years’ time. That’s true for higher education on the whole, and it is certainly true for theological education. There are some things that endure, though, and the most important of those are also the most important reasons for the church to support seminaries at all. So long as we believe that pastors need to have an authentic calling for the work they do in the church, there will always be the need for a “seedbed” where they can be nurtured and prepared in the midst of working out that calling in their own lives. There are enduring reasons that students are attracted to what a seminary offers, in other words, and those reasons should define how it is that the seminary itself goes about the tasks of theological formation.

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Andrew C. Thompson is a pastor, teacher, and scholar in the United Methodist Church. He is an award-winning author and frequent speaker, focusing on the thought of John Wesley, the history of Methodism, and contemporary Wesleyan theology. Andrew is an ordained minister and has served pastoral appointments in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He currently teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN, and he serves as the Wesley Scholar to the Arkansas Conference of the UMC. For more information, visit http://www.andrewthompson.com/.