Developing Ecclesiologists

One time I asked Russ Gunsalus — one of the founding wizards of our new seminary — how he describes himself. He said that he was an ecclesiologist. Although it was a new term for me, I’ve come to appreciate it greatly and use it extensively. I’ve realized that “ecclesiologist” is not just a way of speaking about the peculiarities of Russ Gunsalus–though he certainly is peculiar! Rather, it is way of describing all of us at Wesley Seminary @ IWU, professors and students alike. We are all aspiring ecclesiologists. I’ve come to see that developing ecclesiologists is a core curricular aim of a seminary. The aim of this post is to develop the meaning and significance of this claim.

What does it mean to be an ecclesiologist? At first glance, it simply means an expert in ecclesiology, i.e., the study of the church. But that way of defining it implies a narrowness that couldn’t be further from the truth. An ecclesiologist is one who is competent in the disciplines necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. One could be a church leader without also being an ecclesiologist. In fact, each student at Wesley is already at church leader. But by choosing to enroll in seminary they are implicitly asserting that there’s more to ministry that just doing. They are expressing their desire to reflect on what they do–to make sense of the complexities of their practice by questioning it, developing it, expanding it and integrating it. They are stepping out in the hope that such reflection will strengthen, deepen and lengthen their ministries. They aspire to be not only effective but also reflective church leaders.

Now there are all sorts of ministry resources out there, and they can be found at all sorts institutions. What’s unique about a seminary is its commitment to bring academic disciplines to bear on the practice of ministry. Be not afraid of the term “academic.” A seminary is by definition a practical institution of learning. Yet what makes it practical is not its avoidance of academic disciplines, but rather its selection and use of academic disciplines. A seminary’s selection and use of academic disciplines is guided by its calling to develop ecclesiologists.

A seminary curriculum selects the academic disciplines that are necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. This includes first and foremost the study of various domains the church’s ministry, i.e., mission, leadership, worship, preaching, formation, care, etc. But it also includes various traditional theological disciplines, i.e., biblical exegesis, church history, systematic theology, etc. Furthermore, it draws on many supporting disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, history, etc. Finally, it must include a disciplined approach to one’s own spiritual formation.

One could make a case for all sorts of disciplines, for any discipline that one might use while reflecting on the life of the church is fair game. And we could argue about the best way to arrange them. For instance, at Wesley we’ve decided to integrate the traditional and supporting disciplines within six core courses organized around practical domains. But which disciplines are included and how they are arranged are matters of secondary concern. The primary concern is the principle of selection: only those disciplines that are necessary for reflecting on the practice of church leadership.

But simply studying the relevant subjects does not an ecclesiologists make. One must use these disciplines in a unique way. An ecclesiologist annexes these various disciplines, transposing them into sub-disciplines of ecclesiology. Although each discipline continues to have its own traditions, texts, norms, and aims, they are bent towards the unifying aim of developing living ecclesiologists. Seminary professors and students must repeatedly ask, “How does this bit of knowledge or that particular skill help us to reflect on the practice of church leadership?” This doesn’t mean that every single thought needs to be immediately useful. But it does mean that every line of inquiry must take place within the loop than runs from church practice to disciplined reflection and back again.

In oder to successfully annex so many disciplines, the ecclesiologist seeks after competency rather than expertise. Of course, the pursuit of expertise is permissible. It just isn’t required of the ecclesiologist, whose expertise is interdisciplinary reflection on church practice. What is not permissible for the aspiring ecclesiologist is to pursue expertise in one discipline at the expense of developing competency in all of the disciplines necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. In other words, you can’t say, “I don’t need to study worship because I’m not a worship leader,” or “I’m not into theology cause I’m just a youth pastor,” or “I don’t need to study proclamation cause I’m just here to study the bible,” etc. One does not become a reflective minister without at least a basic competency in the relevant disciplines. An ecclesiologist needn’t have a passion for every relevant discipline. But she must have such a powerful passion for the church that she is willing to acquire whatever knowledge and skills are necessary to aid her reflection on its practices.

When I went to college, the first few weeks people would ask you three questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? and What’s your major? When I went to seminary, the first two questions stayed the same, but the third one no longer applied since there were no majors. So it changed to: What’s your denomination? It used to really bug me that you couldn’t declare a major in seminary. Now I know better. Every seminarian has the same major: ecclesiology. Every seminary professor teaches ecclesiology. We are all aspiring ecclesiologists! And so every course at seminary is a course in ecclesiology! At least this is how we think of it at Wesley Seminary at IWU.

I hope that these thoughts of mine on the aims of a seminary curriculum will serve to make sense of what seminary is and/or ought to be. Making these claims explicit should help both faculty and students stay focused on why we are all here.

Any thoughts?

  • B Whitesel

    Good insights John. I wonder though if I see a unintentional though potential movement here in our seminary ethos. I’ve always appreciated the IWU goal (and I assume by extension a seminary goal) of making “world changers.” It seems to encompass both the goal (change) and the medium (changers). Moving an empahasis to ecclesiologists (or leadership) seems to emphasize the medium over the missio Dei. For example, I wonder if other seminaries started out focused on fulfilling the missio Dei, only to over time begin to focus on nurturing leaders (because the missio Dei is so esoteric and difficult to measure?). This may or may not be a concern at Wesley, but all of us (myself included) keeping this in mind might be a good preventative. I know this is not the intention of your well conceived post. I just want to plant a seed of consideration that though we nurture ecclesiologists, our main emphasis always remains how effective those ecclesiologists are in partnering with the missio Dei.

  • David Drury

    If our seminaries work hard at turning future pastors into the ecclesiologists you outline, and if our churches work hard at turning ordinary people into folk theologians… why, I think that would be a beautiful synergy. 🙂

    I’m attempting to do my part on the back end. Thanks for doing yours on the front end.