Is Intellect a Liability in Ministry?

November 13th, 2012
Christ Church College, Oxford University

Some years ago I served on a regional credentialing board of my denomination. Our primary task was interviewing candidates for ordained ministry, and I actually had the audacity to think we were interested in theologically astute talent. Yet when one exceedingly bright young seminary graduate presented herself, the board responded in an odd manner. Instead of expressing appreciation for her gifts, veterans wondered aloud if we could keep someone so well qualified! In fact, her intellect was considered a liability.

Another time, I participated in a conference at one of our nation’s premier seminaries. The gathering was devoted to the history of theology during America’s founding. Academic papers revolved around the ideas of past church leaders. I assumed that at least some of the presenters would identify with the traditions examined. Instead, very few practitioners of faith attended the conference. I presented a paper but was met with suspicion. One colleague hinted that my church affiliation diminished the quality of my scholarship. He saw no irony in the fact that his secularized guild was all but obsessed with the church’s academic legacy.

How did we get to this point – where a penchant for theological rigor is discouraged among the church and scholars with little interest in church life appoint themselves stewards of theological ideas? This problem will not be resolved by convening gatherings of church bureaucrats and university administrators. That has already been tried. The kind of alienation I am addressing is deeper. The church needs a more robust intellectual life, and the academy needs to get over its hostility toward the church.

With this in mind, let me offer three challenges to the academy and three challenges to the church. I realize that one size does not fit all. My remarks for the academy are primarily offered to mainline church-related colleges, universities, and seminaries. My remarks for the church are primarily offered to mainline communities of faith.

Three Challenges for the Academy

(Including Theological Seminaries)

1.  Take the church’s truth claims seriously.

By “truth claims” I mean convictions regarding reality, as well as right and wrong. This is not an appeal for simplistic answers or dogmatic formulas. It is a challenge to the prevailing notion that subjectivism is somehow synonymous with intellectual excellence. Those who tear down established points of view must make compelling arguments for new angles of vision. Simply rejecting tradition because it has been identified with ecclesiastical power is not good enough. Those who deconstruct the church typically have no problem asserting other certainties, especially the genius of their critical stance. For the sake of academic integrity, colleges, universities, and seminaries are obligated to exercise intellectual consistency.

2.  Encourage the best students to consider a full-time church vocation.

That’s right. Serving God and God’s people should not be considered a consolation prize for those who cannot read, think, write, and speak deeply. The phrase “helping professions” has often been applied to church vocations, with the accompanying notion that such work requires little brain power. This assumption is misguided (as well as offensive). There is wisdom in our seminaries welcoming students of all ages and undergraduate experiences; yet service in the church—clergy and lay—would be strengthened by traditionally-aged young adults with gifts in the humanities. This is no snobbery, and it calls for the most diverse community of people imaginable. Academic environments that respect the church’s intellectual heritage should support exceptional students who want to give their lives to God.

3.  Stop equating academic quality with increasingly specialized and secularized priorities.

Check out the departmental websites of church-related colleges and even seminaries. Some host biographies of scholars who love to make their intellect available for the church. Others contain arrogant jargon regarding eminence in esoteric fields. Scholarship is not the problem. However, self-absorbed priorities do not inspire. Intellectual leaders help us all become deeper people, and they are not afraid to engage in broader conversation. Many teaching (certainly not all) in the academy are expatriates, people burned out by church politics. While their criticism deserves a hearing, it does not justify disdain for spiritual substance. Moreover, an increasingly smaller circle of detached insiders who fail to see beyond the latest academic fad has little to offer the world.

How about the church? If one is in ministry, it is easy to spot flaws among the academy, but church culture has its own assumptions.

Three Challenges for the Church

1.  Realize that you are in the truth business.

It makes no sense to critique academic institutions if the church has given up on truth. I do not mean narrow-minded conceptions of the truth but rather, the pursuit of God’s truth in all of its forms. To church officials, perhaps even more than the folk in the pews, this may sound like airy speculation. That is not so. Church leaders have become very savvy about what works and what does not work, but they have not been very reflective about more profound questions of purpose, of ultimate truth. I say that as a die-hard church person. The church should be all about the meaning of life, and this is no cliché. The church is not at risk of losing the world because it fails to resemble trendy business models or cultural ideas of success. The church is at risk of losing the world because it has all but given up on the gift entrusted to its care. People come to church because the values that surround them have taken a toll, because they hope against hope that God has something deeper in mind for their lives.

2.  Encourage scholarship among candidates for ministry.

Why does this even need to be stated? Not everything from days of old was good. I get that. But at one time our society’s best thinkers were church people, teachers and doers. Now the “big idea” people are pop psychologists and so-called “leadership” gurus. Those who put ideas into accessible form are not necessarily shallow, but they are not automatically insightful, either. I’ll come right out and say it. The church needs substantive theology – yes, theology. Real historical, theological, philosophical reflection must be taken seriously in church sanctuaries, basements, fellowship halls – and especially beyond the walls. There is no such thing as being too well read regarding the Scriptures and the history of our best and worst behaviors.

When I served my first pastoral appointment, I was newly minted from a highfalutin' seminary. My academic emphasis was in historical theology and ethics. Then I found myself leading people from three small, rural churches that had recently decided to merge. Not once did I wish I had studied some slick model of church merger or proven method for numerical growth, but I was immensely grateful that I had studied the gospel of love. Without good theology, we would have torn ourselves apart. I am reminded again and again that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a scholar of philosophical theology before he took to the streets. El Salvador’s Oscar Romero was derided as a bookworm before he became a brave witness amidst civil war. Lee Anna Starr was an early Adrian College professor. She was also one of the first ordained women in America. Perhaps most notably, Dr. Starr applied her expertise in biblical Hebrew and Greek to advance human rights. Scholarship matters.

3.  Stop criticizing colleges, universities, and seminaries for failing to produce results-driven graduates.

This point follows the last closely. Deep students of theology can become incredibly effective leaders, but the church will have to stop celebrating a certain type of means and ends ideology. The academy has not fallen short because it somehow fails to produce church workers who get results. If that were the case, then we might as well close all of the colleges, universities, and seminaries and send future leaders of the church to secularized training camps. Astute programs in practical theology know this and do an excellent job of integrating theoretical and day-to-day concerns.

Part of the church’s theological heritage asks profound questions about the relationship between means and ends. What things have value, in the end? What should we do or refrain from doing to accomplish worthy ends? Are there some truths that possess their own value, without contributing to an agenda? These questions will receive a variety of plausible answers, but they deserve more than a simplistic pitch about getting results. The church should engage its head before worshiping at the altar of outcomes.

Let’s start a substantive conversation around such issues and help make both the academy and the church stronger.

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