Seminary Preps Pastors for Laity's Big Questions

August 19th, 2011

Like many with a stake in both the church and the academy, I read the Rev. Sky McCracken’s commentary on the "failure of theological schools" with more than a little interest. Mr. McCracken offers a damning indictment of the failure of our seminaries to produce disciple-making pastors, with a hint that perhaps the local church can take back theological education without the seminaries. “There is no correlation between education of clergy and clergy effectiveness,” he writes, with special attention to the lack of spiritual depth of seminary graduates.

Mr. McCracken writes as a relatively new district superintendent in the Memphis Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I read his column as a relatively new pastor, having preached all of one time at this point at Boone United Methodist Church. The single most striking thing to me about my new appointment is the level of specifically intellectual demand that’s been placed on me from the word “go.”

I sat down to a men’s Bible study my first Saturday, expecting good biscuits, lots of hearty laughs, and a little discussion of Scripture. And I got this: “Jason! Explain predestination to our brother Henry here.” It was a joke, of course—who wants to talk about God’s choice of individuals for salvation or damnation at 7 o’clock in the morning?

Well, Henry did. The question drove him out of his former church, it keeps him up at nights, it worries him. Isn’t the nature of our God such that his Son’s death is for all? Or, as friends have insisted, is the saving effect of that death limited to a privileged few? If that’s true, the entire character of God’s saving work would be compromised—a thought that vexes Henry deeply.

So there, just after sunrise in a Sunday school room, I ran through the options, from Augustine to Pelagius to Calvin to Wesley to Barth, in a way that the accountants and retired business execs and manual laborers (and one former NFL football player!) could, I hope, grasp.

Let me suggest that took a bit of seminary education.

Inquiring minds

Another early day on the job started and ended with conversations about who goes to heaven. Both originated in my interlocutors’ Sunday school classes. A woman asked me, “Can you believe people in my class think everybody goes to heaven?” I nodded. “Doesn’t that take away Jesus’ importance?” I suggested that some inclusivists on salvation have not left Jesus behind, and noted that God is more merciful and creative than all of us creatures put together.

Later that day the issue came back up, with a man saying to me over brie and sweet tea that he couldn’t believe people in his class were saying people of other religions aren’t on their way to glory. “Don’t tell me the Muslim my daughter is dating is evil and bound for hell,” he insisted. I responded that God remains our just judge in addition to our merciful forgiver, and that both traits have to be held in tension. And I laughed internally—here I wanted to get to know personalities, enlist volunteer help, have people speak well of my visiting skills, and these lay people want to talk about God.

Who let these theological questions loose among these lay people?

Also in these first weeks I’ve gotten questions about moral theology: Can someone engaged in a serious sin serve in a leadership capacity? If so, in what capacity? Can a divorced person be a communion server? Can someone gay lead a Sunday school class?

I’ve had questions on theodicy: Why do such terrible things happen in a world in which a good God rules? More importantly, why do they happen to such innocent, good people—like the 4-year-old girl in the community who is dying of cancer?

I’ve had questions about spiritual practice and discipleship: What makes us different than any other generically evangelical church of a similar size? How do we steep ourselves in specifically Wesleyan practices?

Then there are the questions about sacramental practice: Can we baptize someone who won’t be a member here or elsewhere, but has grandparents here? Is Jesus really in that bread and wine or are we speaking symbolically, or both?

Heavy tasks

Mr. McCracken is right in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies, as is so often the case in polemics within the church or outside. He’s right that the church wants spiritually attentive pastors. I’ve prayed with each and every one of these people, wherever they are on the political or theological spectrum. They all expect me to bring the heat in preaching. If administration or the budget fall apart, it’s no one else’s fault but mine. And my talented staff deserves the very best supervisor and support I can be. They all expect nothing less of me.

They want this and they expect me to be an intellectual leader. Who else is going to answer knotty questions like these? The scriptures alone cannot answer them—they demand interpretation with help from the saints through the ages who have similarly wrestled, prayerfully, with God’s word and ways.

Someone equipped to handle those heavy tasks could come through other means than a seminary, no doubt. And seminaries sometimes produce failures, it pains me to say. What’s more, we have to do something about the funding model for our schools or none but the super-rich (or super-indebted) will be able to attend.

But just as we’d expect medical doctors to have gone through med school even as some people can heal with herbs; just as we’d expect lawyers to have hit the books even though some self-educated people do surprisingly well with legal matters, we probably want pastors to go to seminary. Eternal life is not less important than lawsuits or surgery.

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a research fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School. This article first appeared in the United Methodist Reporter.

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