They weren't supposed to teach you that in seminary

April 21st, 2015

Every Sunday I hook up our church trailer and pull it to our venue. I back it up. (To make the trailer disappear in your side mirror, turn the wheel in that direction). I’ve gotten pretty good at backing up a trailer.

They didn’t teach me that in seminary.

I meet with our music director on Tuesday. I’m not a proficient musician myself, but I took piano from the time I was 7 until I was 16. I also played in a garage band. I have a decent understanding of what it takes to make good music, and what it takes to lead people in singing. It really helps in planning worship.

They didn’t teach me that in seminary.

More than once I’ve found myself pulling cat-5 wire through ceilings, running video cables for projection systems, studying sound board electrical diagrams, and doing photocopier repair.

They didn’t teach me any of that in seminary.

Oh, and then there’s money and accounting. Debits and credits, tax codes for nonprofits, running a stewardship campaign, making a budget, setting up church accounting software.

You get the picture.

Sometimes when I’m hanging out with clergy colleagues, we ask, “They didn’t teach you that in seminary?” in a half-serious, half-mocking way. All of the diverse stuff that we call “ministry” is as varied as life. Preachers have have to be jacks of all trades. Any available skill can become a tool for ministry. There is no way an M.Div can prepare you for all possible contingencies.

We also have to be autodidacts — those who are self-taught. Thrown into ministry, we have to learn how to learn. We study how to lead a committee, raise funds, buy church buses or sound systems, work with at-risk kids or navigate local ordinances in running a food program.

I’m on our Board of Ordained Ministry, and we often have conversations about how candidates for ministry come out of seminary without the necessary skills for church leadership. We debate questions like, “How much of leadership can be taught?” and “Is it our business to provide this remedial work?”

Seminary education, like the church that resources and requires it, is in crisis. But I believe part of the tension between the church and the academy is that we are not always clear from the church’s side about the value of a seminary education and what we believe that education should produce. Why do we ask ordained clergy to get an M.Div instead of an MBA?

Research in Natural Church Development shows that church growth is inversely proportional to the educational level of the pastor. In other words, the more educated the pastor, the slower the church will grow (in general). As a church planter with a Ph.D, that research makes me sweat.

So, if we’re going to require seminary education for ordination, we need to be clear about a) what value that education is and b) what value ordination is. There are many ways to serve and lead the church without ordination and without a seminary education.

It is not the case that less-educated people are simply more full of the Holy Spirit, or that theological education robs us of our faith. It is not true that education liberalizes people and that liberals don’t love Jesus. But it is certainly the case that economic class, social values and education are correlated. Churches that employ well-educated professionals may have a bias that prevents them from evangelizing effectively.

It is also the case that entrepreneurial people may not have the patience to go through cumbersome ordination and education requirements. People with the fire to start new things often don’t want to wait three years for a seminary degree and eight years to be officially ordained by a mainline denomination. Our requirements may weed out leaders who are less tolerant of waiting and less tolerant of bureaucracy.

But my seminary education taught me that my Christian faith did not come straight from Jesus, through the early church, to the way we practice it today. There were 2,000 years of evolution and development, 2000 years full of specific people, events and doctrines that shape how we talk about God. I can’t stand up in front of people and honestly claim that we do church “like the early church,” as some pastors claim. I can’t lie to people by telling them that “We believe every word of the Bible is literally true.”

My education also taught me humility. Anti-intellectual rhetoric often refers to “elites” and “elitism,” but every scholar and mentor I’ve ever known has been humble about what they don’t know. The paradox of intense study is that you become more and more aware of the holes in your knowledge. I’ve found that professors, much more so than preachers, are likely to admit “I don’t know” in front of others. By contrast, it’s often folks who are insecure about their knowledge who claim to know a lot. I’m not a Greek or Hebrew scholar, so I’m not going to pose as one in the pulpit just because I looked up a word definition. I’m not going to claim I’m smarter, better or more Christian than someone else just because I disagree with them.

It’s important for the church to acknowledge that seminary education is not necessary for every form of leadership in the church. For too long we’ve labored under the implicit belief that ordained clergy were the most important leaders. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the purpose of seminary is not church growth. It is not to teach accounting, or plumbing, or real estate law, or even, frankly, leadership. It’s to teach practical theology.

What we do with that education, and how we let is shape us, is up to us.

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