No one has invested more in the way we have been training ministers for the past 200 years than I have. I have a BA in biblical studies, an MA in Christian history, an MDiv (the gold standard ministry degree), a DMin (for those who just can’t quit), and am even now in the final stages of a PhD in a ministry related field. If ministry is primarily about reading books and writing papers, I’m your guy. (I’m sure there is some kind of psychological disorder that corresponds to this paragraph). And I am thankful for this training. It has provided me a fertile imagination for the work I have had before me.
Ministers weren’t always trained this way. I was given instruction in four primary areas–biblical studies, systematic theology, historical studies, and practical theology (though my training was more interested in the “how to’s” of ministry than what is indicated by practical theology). This way of conceiving theological education emerged in the 18th and 19th centures in relation to two realities.
First, theological education during this time had to account for itself in relation to the rise of the modern university and the increasing dominance of scientific method in legitimizing what counted as knowledge. To do this, theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher at the University of Berlin, proposed that ministry should be thought of in the same way medicine or law or other professions were. Theology belonged in the university as professional training for ministry. The four-fold divisions in theological education I enumerated above are largely the ones that Schleiermacher proposed 200 years ago. And these fields of study developed standards for scholarship that allowed them to be accepted within the larger academic world.
Second, Schleiermacher envisioned ministry preparation within the historical and cultural context of Christendom. Ministry preparation assumed a certain relationship between the church and reigning cultural realities. Ministry could assume a stable relationship with its context and devote its attention to serving the needs of members. Baptizing, marrying, burying, and the administration of the rites and practices of the church became the focus of ministry.
I am thankful that someone as brilliant as Schleiermacher was thinking about how to train ministers for the challenges of his day. Nor do I think that this way of conceiving ministry training should be completely abandoned. But I do think the world has shifted enough away from the assumptions that guided Schleiermacher to demand that we rethink how we train ministers for the world our congregations encounter today.
In some respects, I think we are training ministers for situations that simply no longer exist. Christendom may be emerging in other places in the world (though I wouldn’t use this word for what is happening in the Southern hemisphere), but it is certainly over in most places in the West. Even the assumptions related to what counts as knowledge in the modern university has changed, and in ways I think that are potentially more congenial to theology. Given the significant shifts represented here, we must re-conceive the training of ministers.
This conversation is well under way in many places. “Unpacking Berlin” is a common phrase among seminary leaders these days as they imagine new ways of training ministers. And it is certainly what I’m trying to do with our master’s degree in missional leadership at Rochester College. Let me give you some of my assumptions about what this new training needs to embody.
First, the tasks of ministry need to be imagined within a new cultural reality. We live in what many are referring to as a “new missional era.” We simply cannot assume that if we build it they will come. The church, and its leaders, must recover more of a sense that the church is a sent community and develop the skills and capacities that go along with that.
Second, a one-size-fits-all approach to ministry will no longer be adequate. Congregations, their contexts, and the tasks of ministry will not be the same from place-to-place. Ministry training will have to focus on the ability to read and engage local cultures in creative ways more than they have in the past (I received no such training anywhere along the way).
Third, the congregation and its immediate context will need to be more central to the training of ministers. The primary classroom for the training of ministers simply cannot be the four walls of a seminary, but must increasingly be the local contexts in which we live. The congregation and its context cannot be only the place where we dump (apply?) our learning. It must be the place where we learn. And if God is active in the world, then the congregation must be a place where theology is generated, not just retailed.
Fourth, learning will have to move beyond the boundaries of the theological disciplines conceived by Schleiermacher. We cannot afford to think of some courses as theoretical and others as practical. We have to imagine theory and practice as interrelated and mutually informing. We have to conceive of thinking as practical (at least as a practice) and doing as critical. Learning has to be more integrative.
Fifth, training needs to take place in learning communities. This is one of the things that recent seminary training has fostered in good ways. The “cloistered” world of the seminary brings people together for learning for a period of time. It is possible now, however, to create meaningful learning communities without removing people from their local ministry environments. In fact, through cohort learning, the same 12 courses in the same sequence with the same 12 people, online learning communities can be richer than programs where people are choosing from a cafeteria of courses and only occasionally learning with the same people. I had my doubts about this going in, but I have no doubt now that this is true.
Sixth, there needs to be greater focus on the formation of the minister as a person participating in the life of God. Ministry preparation conceived in the ways described above necessitates a vital understanding of an active God. The tasks of ministry have to be conceived of in relation to discerning God’s activity in the world. And this can only be done by emphasizing an actual participation in the life of God.
OK, thanks for patiently thinking with me here. I hope to blog some over the next few weeks about how this approach is impacting both my world and the world of our students at Rochester College.