What is a seminary? What is it for? What is its relation to the church?
I have been grappling with these questions a lot lately. They are prompted by my stage of life, of course. Obviously, I am currently a seminary student, with all the angst that that entails. I discern a call to ministry and long to serve God’s church in the regular pattern of teaching and preaching and praying for a particular community. And yet my current life in a season of preparation for ministry is far from this. I spend some time in my current local church as an intern, but with pastoral opportunities limited by my own limited time. I work a day job that I greatly enjoy, but that I also find tremendously frustrating at times. I attend classes that are stimulating, rigorous, and deeply edifying; but that are also frequently exhausting, tedious, and difficult to connect to the dreamed-of future in pastoral ministry. My seminary, while excellent, is also formally untethered from any local church body.
So I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of pastoral formation and seminary education, and I want to propose for consideration a move at least partly away from the university-model seminary as currently constituted and toward something like what I have been calling in my head “the local seminary” (to pair with the local church). The local seminary would, in short, be a cooperative of local churches who agree to train individuals called to ministry locally, at minimal possible cost, in communal life, practical ministry, biblical languages, and historical and biblical theology. So over the course of several posts, I want to develop this idea of “local seminaries” as distinct from the most common university model of seminary education. In this first post, I cover what I consider the four essential elements of theological and pastoral formation.
Theological and pastoral formation is fundamentally a communal endeavor.
This is true on two levels. First, the church community as the local expression of the body of Christ is the primary place where recognition of gifts and discernment of calling happens. I may “feel” called to ministry, but that “feeling” is only distinguished from indigestion by long-term living in the context of the local church where I can learn to serve, exercise my gifts, and discern how I fit into the larger body of Christ. Second, theological formation is best done in the company of other persons who are called to ministry. It is right for seminarians to be in community with one another, where they can wrestle with difficult doctrine and bear together the burden of memorizing Greek declensions, or make esoteric theological jokes without harming the general population.
The primary community of theological formation is the local church.
The locus of this community of theological and pastoral formation should be the same as that of theological and pastoral vocation, namely, the local church. As one of my professors is fond of saying, the proper place for theological reflection is “between the pulpit and the font,” rather than in the university study. The great majority of the most fruitful theologians and servants of the church throughout history have been pastor-theologians. We would not have Augustine’s Confessions without his being formed by the weekly use of Psalms in the liturgy. We would not have Gregory’s Pastoral Rule without his extensive experience of soul care. We would not have Calvin’s Institutes without his daily and weekly preaching and reflecting on the scriptures. Theological reflection is meant for the church and meant to be in the church.
Theological and pastoral formation is always more than academics.
Third, theological and pastoral formation must be more than academic preparation. If seminary graduates can speak carefully of the trinitarian formula of Nicaea, but cannot relate to and counsel their own parishioners, something has gone terribly wrong. There must be what Dwight Moody called a “school of practical ministry” that teaches students how to pastor, how to preach (rather than lecture) and how to establish patterns of life that help form their own souls and those of their congregations. Few things can be deadlier to the local church than a pastor who has mastered his Greek but not his own soul.
Theological and pastoral formation is never less than academics.
And fourth, conversely, theological and pastoral formation must be more than merely practical. Those discerning a call to ministry must be trained rigorously in biblical theology, the languages of scripture, and the historic doctrines and creeds of both the church catholic and their own tradition. They must be taught how to think logically, carefully, and deliberately, and how to write and speak with clarity and conviction in defense of the truth. They must be trained to discern the scent of false teaching and refute it to defend the souls in their care. They must learn how to craft a sermon so that their preaching is no mere dry lecture, but rather thrills the soul with the very power of the Word of God. (not, of course, that this can be done merely as a technique--but if we would be good servants of the Word, we must learn to communicate it winsomely and well.) And all this knowledge must be tempered to the end of building up the church of Christ in love.
These four then, are the essentials of seminary education. Next post: the strengths and weaknesses of a university-model seminary, and how a local seminary can address itself to them.