Seminary as trade school: parish-based theological education?

As a leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and an ordained Presbyterian minister, I spend my life sandwiched between the university and the church. InterVarsity is both a para-church and a para-university movement–we work within and beside both institutions to advance their respective missions as well as our own.

InterVarsity contributes to the mission of the church by making disciples of students and faculty and sending them into the world as agents of Gospel-change. We contribute to the mission of the university by creating diverse, center-set believing communities that seek the welfare of the university and value respectful dialog and a common life with those who also call the university home.

One of the places where church and university encounter one another, in addition to campus ministry, is in the training of pastors and religious leaders. Historically this task has been performed by theological seminaries (usually stand-alone institutions) and divinity schools (of universities) related to the a church (as in denomination).

Regardless of whether there is a legal relationship between a theological institution and a denomination, there is the functional relationship that exists in that most denominations required their ordained clergy to receive a theological education from an accredited institution of higher education. It may be their first, second, or tenth priority, but all institutions of theological education train pastors.

These relationships often create tensions between the academy and the church:

  • How does academic freedom relate to theological and confessional integrity?
  • Can pastors be trained to perform their calling by those who have little to no parish experience?
  • How effective are seminaries in connecting academic learning with the practice of ministry?
  • Is the cost of seminary burdensome to future clergy whose earning potential is depressed?

Leadership Network reports that in light of the above issues (and more) some churches are stepping into the task of preparing ministers for parish service:

In 2011, the church [Sojourn Community Church] launched a one-year “Pastor’s School” as part of a residency where potential church planters attend intensive classes and serve as ministry leaders. Pastor’s School meets weekly, and the primary teacher is always a Sojourn pastor. The other training components focus on service in the local church. Each student must volunteer at least 5 hours a week in church ministry. The program will soon become a fully accredited, church-based theological education. Until then, Sojourn has negotiated with nearby Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY for 30 hours of Master of Divinity credits to be completed while serving in the church.

The church believes that this initiative can provide greater theological integrity among those called to plant church as well as pastor existing congregations. Says the pastor, Daniel Montgomery,

Too many pastors and church planters practice a ‘mutt theology’ of gleaning here and there—a bit of Tim Keller, of Francis Chan, of David Platt, of Mark Driscoll…. We recognized that one of the things missing in training church leaders is a community of practical and intellectual virtue. Sure there’s a place for the classroom, but learning is best done in residence in the church.

There is much to applaud about a project like this. Many para-church organizations (like InterVarsity, CRU, YoungLife) provide experience-based training in ministry that is complemented by classroom instruction during the summer. It seems to me that this model serves us reasonably well. By way of confession, my theological training took place full-time in a residential Master of Divinity program rather than a church- or ministry-based experience.

There are some things that concern me about this model as well. Chief among them is the risk of provincialism. A program like this could well lead to pastors with a stunted vision and philosophy of ministry overly limited to a single school of thought. It’s one thing to be rooted in a theological tradition, it’s another to be largely ignorant of anything beyond your own branch of the church.

Seminary isn’t a trade school. Instead it is a community in which we learn to think and live theologically, to practice ministry and deepen in the life of Christ. It is a specific, time-limited experience that forms the basis of a life devoted to theological reflection and practice now experienced in the context of parish rather than seminary. 

What do you think?

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