Willimon on Seminaries

Willimon writes:

Seminaries, at least those in our church, labor under a growing disconnect between the graduates they are producing and the leadership needs of the churches these graduates are serving. This disjunction causes friction in and sometimes defeat of the transition between seminary and church for new pastors. For example, most protestant seminaries have organized themselves on the basis of modern, Western ways of knowing. The epistemology that still holds theological education captive is that which was borrowed from the modern university – detached objectively, the fact/value dichotomy, the separation of emotion and reason with the exaltation of reason as the superior means of knowing, the sovereignty of subjectivity, the loss of any authority other than the isolated, sovereign self pared with subservience to the social, cultural, and political needs of the modern nation state. (The best history of what happened in our seminaries in the Twentieth Century is by Conrad Cherry, Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools and American Protestantism, Indiana University Press, 1995.)

That’s saying a mouthful but it is an attempt to depict the intellectual “world” of the theological school that has a tough time honoring the intellectual restrictions of academia and the peculiarly sweeping mandate of the church of Jesus Christ.

The word “seminary” means literally “seed bed.” Seminary was meant to be the nursery where budding theologians are cultivated and seeds are planted that will bear good fruit, God willing, in the future. Trouble is, seminaries thought they could simply overlay those governmentally patronized, culturally confirmed ways of academic thinking over the church’s ways of thought, and proceed right along as if nothing had happened between the seminary as the church created it to be (a place to equip and form new pastoral leaders for the church) and the seminary as it became (another graduate/professional school).

In the world of the contemporary theological school, faculty talk mostly to one another (As Nietzsche noted, long ago, no one reads theologians except for other theologians.), faculty accredit and tenure other faculty using criteria derived mainly from the modern, secular research university. While the seminary desperately needs faculty who are adept at negotiating the tension between ecclesia and academia, faculty tend to be best at bedding down in academia. The AAR (American Academy of Religion) owns theological education.

One last disconnect I’ll mention: The seminary, by its nature, is a selective, elitist institution, selecting and evaluating its students with criteria that are derived from educational institutions rather than the ecclesia. In one sense, a theological school should be selective, astutely selecting these students who can most benefit Christ’s future work with the church. Trouble is, when criteria are applied that arise from sources other than the Body of Christ, we have the phenomenon of the church’s leadership schools cranking out people who have little interest in equipment for service to the church as it is called to be. If college departments of Religious Studies were not in decline, there would be something to do with the best of these seminary graduates. If the U S Post Office were not holding its employees more accountable for their performance, the rest of them would have promising careers.