I write this week’s Dean entry from New Orleans at the annual Society of Biblical Literature convention. It roams to a different place each year, but it is a place where the best research scholars in the world share their research, where students try out their wings and interview for teaching jobs, where professors stock up on books at 50% off, and where you have great fellowship with a small handful of people who are actually interested in the same little piece of the knowledge pie as you are.
This year I’ve also met with some rumors about the new seminary. Most of these can be dismissed out of hand. “IWU is just out to make as much money as they can,” says one. Absurd! “… and they’re ‘dumbing down’ seminary education to do it.” Again, we believe in what we’re doing as a matter of principle and as a matter of where we think the future lies, NOT because we are trying to take some easy way.
We believe we are righting the priorities of ministerial education. You may disagree with our philosophy of ministerial education. Let’s discuss the pros and cons. Maybe WesSem@IWU could host a conference on the future of ministerial education, and those who disagree can present along side us. But it comes down to differences in educational philosophy, not to greed or anti-intellectualism.
1. We believe the vast majority of pastors in America will never don the doors of the traditional seminary.
It’s easy to forget that there are over 20,000 different American denominations who do not have their own seminary. Most of these pastors will never go to a traditional seminary. They will not move somewhere for three years. They will not move somewhere for even one year. And I wonder–and this is a hypothesis that needs tested–if most of the churches that are growing right now in America are this sort of church for whom seminary has never been a priority.
To get to them, you will have to use online education and satellite campuses. It speaks of one week intensive courses. What are the drawbacks? Some will say you cannot have community online or spiritual formation online. I believe this is incorrect. Is it easier to have community onsite or spiritual formation onsite? It probably is–although I venture to say it often doesn’t actually happen anyway at many seminaries. With the mixture of intensives and online we’re doing, our students knew each other before they met online. Is it as easy? Probably not. But it can be done well if it is a priority, and it is for us.
There will always be a place for onsite seminary education, and we have that option too. But we will not reach the vast majority of individuals who are actually pastoring right now in America unless we get off campus and teach in a few cemeteries (cf. John Wesley).
2. Adults learn best when knowledge is self-generated and learned in the context of doing.
That means lecturing should be minimized. It should be about what students need–what they need to know and be able to do–rather than about professors and their interests. We require students to be at least 20 hours a week in a local church ministry so that the learning is real. We design assignments to be done prior to coming to class so that class time is about unpacking, deepening, and correcting what they have already started to learn.
Are there potential trade offs to requiring them to be in ministry? Yes, sure. If you are working 40 hours a week pastoring and trying to do seminary at the same time, it’s going to be tough. We have wrestled this semester with trying to find the right balance of assignments recognizing that we are requiring them to be working in a local church as well. If you ask our students from this past semester, you’ll hear that it was tough to do full time ministry and keep up. But of course, I believe that learning something in the context of ministry is double your money. You get more learning on less assignments.
3. Ministers most need to know how to do the work of the ministry.
By this statement I do not at all mean to diminish the need for pastors to know the Bible, theology, and church history. What I am saying is that they most need to know things like how to lead a worship service or how to counsel someone who is discouraged or how to lead a church board meeting. “You mean you don’t believe knowing theology is important?” Nonsense. But you could have the entire Bible memorized and you will fail in ministry if you do not know how to lead, manage conflict, care for, etc.
We are interested in theory! But you can hobble through ministry without much knowledge of theory. By contrast, you will certainly fail in ministry if you mess up practice. All Christians need to know the Bible and theology to some level–but you cannot minister effectively unless you are good at the practice of ministry. We believe the practice of ministry should be the priority.
4. Ministers most need to know how to utilize Bible, theology, and Church history in the context of ministry.
Again, ministers should be trained to read Romans from beginning to end and to know the flow of Church history from beginning to end and the relationships of theology systematically. But in ministry, they most need to know how to bring Bible, theology, and Church history to bear on ministry situations. And the traditional seminary approach is very bad at this sort of thing. It has been fascinating to ask how to teach students to access theology or Church history in this way! It has been fascinating because even our theology and Church history experts have struggled with how to teach someone how to do this–even though it is the thing that pastors most have to be able to do in ministry with theology and Church history!
I’ve concluded that this is a fundamental statement of the inadequacy of ministerial education as it has long been practiced. We teach theology and Church history from front to end and then expect a person to be able to access it thereafter. Most, I believe, end up just not using it at all. Is it hard? Yes. Can faculty experts team teach courses together? Tough prospect and it requires great care in hiring. It can be done.
5. The classical disciplines are valid objects of study, and knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is a good thing.
Finally we have arrived at the least urgent priority of ministry and at the same time what typically takes up the most space in most seminary curricula. But we do believe that studying Genesis from beginning to end or studying the Cappadocian Fathers or being able to read the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic is significant and a worthy object of study. It’s just that these skills are the ones a minister needs the least in the day to day work of the ministry.
Most seminary students use Greek and Hebrew zilcho, even after semesters of study. Is it valuable? Absolutely. Your use of the Bible will always be dependent on Christian tradition if you cannot work with the original texts at all. To use the Bible with depth you will need to know quite a bit about its original meaning.
But the first order of business–and here we are really turning the tables upside down–is to know how common Christianity reads Scripture. That’s how Christians really read the the Bible, how they should the most. You can be an incredible, powerful minister of the gospel and never know exactly what the original meaning of these texts was (SBL, by the way, is a great place to point out that even the experts don’t agree on what so many biblical texts mean). We value the depth understanding that only can come from serious understanding of the Bible in its original meaning. But this is a fairly new focus in Christian history, being neither the way the New Testament interprets the Old or the way most Christians throughout the ages have read the Bible.
These are some of the differences in philosophy we have. Are we about making money? It would be nice but seminaries generally don’t make money, and we are frankly aiming to support ourselves. Are we trying to dumb things down? Absolutely not! We are trying to get the priorities straight and give the students what we think they most need rather than what we professors most enjoy. Disagree with our philosophy–time will tell. But get the facts straight.