In my last post I introduced something I’ve been kicking around in my head, the idea of a “local seminary” to pair with the local church and to complement existing models of theological and pastoral formation. In this post I want to look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of the most common current seminary training, the university-model seminary.
Let me begin with this caveat: the university-model seminary is not a bad thing. It is in many respects a good thing for the church, and when this type of seminary is done well it can be truly excellent. But it is a mistake to believe that the university model is the only option, or even the best option among many, to train pastors for the church. I see two major advantages for the university model seminary, and three big disadvantages or vulnerabilities.
The university model seminary provides an incredible concentration of resources for students and faculty. It is difficult to overstate the value of having dedicated facilities for seminary training--classrooms, study rooms, a chapel, common areas for dialogue and fellowship, dormitories, a library. It is no mean feat to build up a properly-equipped and managed library. A good one includes volumes upon volumes of commentaries, lexica, historic writings of the church, philosophy, history, and more. There may be books accessed by a single student only once every few years, but which provide immense value to that student. All this “infrastructure” of a university-model seminary must be built and maintained, and to do so requires resources that only a university-model seminary can muster.
Second, that same accretion of resources allows for a concentration of academic faculty at a seminary. Where a local seminary might only be able to have a handful at most of faculty (and most of these would be pastor-scholars) a more traditional seminary can have a full roster of dedicated scholars and professors, who focus on various areas of theology, biblical studies, church history, languages, and pastoral care. This has the effect of both widening the scope of seminary studies--giving seminarians broad exposure to various fields of theology--and of increasing the depth of those same studies--giving seminarians the best scholars and scholarship to sharpen and refine their thinking on a given topic.
For these two reasons then, I think the university model seminary is one helpful way of organizing pastoral training for the church, especially for training our most careful thinkers and teachers. However, I see three big disadvantages as well; one occasioned by our historical moment and two that are necessary implications of how a university model seminary is organized.
First, the problem occasioned by our historical moment in the west: the university-model seminary requires leveraging of vast resources. This is not in itself a bad thing, but in the current cultural and legal environment, it can be a vulnerability. The momentum of cultural power is shifting (and in many ways has already shifted) away from the “Christendom” of the last few centuries and back toward something that has been the norm for much of church history, which is that Christians are a minority, and to be a Christian carries social and economic penalties. One way this could rapidly become a reality is for seminaries and colleges that hold to historic Christian teaching--whether on sexual ethics, the dignity of the person, economic injustice, or anything else with which the majority culture takes issue--to be threatened through their tax-exempt status, their access to federal student loan money, and their accreditation. If such a day comes it will be necessary for local churches to carry out the majority of their pastoral formation and theological training out of their own resources. One way to prepare for this possibility is for networks of local churches to begin now to train their pastors locally, at minimal cost, within the walls of the local churches.
A second problem is that the university-model seminary is disconnected from the vast majority of local churches. Many seminaries of course have formal and informal connections with a denomination, and many have formal and informal connections with the churches nearby in their cities. But it is simply impossible for a university-model seminary to be connected in a meaningful way with most of the churches for whom it trains pastors. This means that the seminary, however excellent its curriculum, does not always train its graduates to minister in the contexts to which they will be called. For example, when I came to seminary, I came from South Louisiana, and after I graduate, I hope to minister there. South Louisiana culture is shaped on many levels by a large nominal Roman Catholic presence, and my seminary in north-central Alabama is ill-equipped to provide experiences relevant to ministering in that particular context, because it is simply too far away from it. Another more serious example is the challenge faced by black men and women attending majority-white seminaries. The majority culture of the seminary is far removed from the context in which many of them will be ministering, and is ill-equipped in many ways to even understand the challenge that that entails. Cooperatives of local churches--black and white together--training their pastors locally could begin to address some of these challenges.
Finally, and related to both of the previous two points: the university-model seminary is too far away, and too expensive, for many of the local churches to train their pastors there. This is true in under-resourced rural contexts, but is also true even in urban or suburban parts of the country where the churches are small and few in number. It simply isn’t practical to send a prospective pastor away to seminary, where he may accrue a certain amount of debt acquiring an education that may not prepare him as well for his ministry context as would local theological, practical, and biblical formation.
I think that a potential solution to these weaknesses of the university-model seminary is a partnership between local churches to train pastors at the grassroots level. This partnership would be grounded in a thick ecumenism--one that sees the deep agreement found in the creeds and historic doctrines of the church--and on a commitment to seeing God glorified in the local churches of a given city or small region. This is what I mean by “the local seminary”--pastors trained by the churches, in the churches, and for the churches, for the glory of God and the good of his people. The next post--the last in this three-post series--will sketch out what the day-to-day life of a local seminary might look like.