I’ve seen it and experienced it myself. Advanced theological training often leaves students and future ministers cynical. I think there are several reasons for this. First, seminary training tends to be deconstructive. There’s almost no way around this to some extent because a lot of the views you bring to seminary simply won’t survive scrutiny. You really do need to be disabused of some notions. Deconstruction is a negating pedagogy and naturally brings with it some residual cynicism.
I also think that most seminary curriculum design treats ministry and the church in particular as a problem to be solved. This creates a deficit culture where you focus on all the things that are wrong and that need to be fixed. Add to that the almost built-in sense of superiority that advanced training brings, and you’ve got a recipe for cynicism. The church is full of trouble and you’re full of answers. Good thing the church has you.
When we designed the master’s in missional leadership at Rochester College, we were committed to a learning experience that would not result in cynicism. How does one do that?
The biggest thing, I believe, is that we require our students to participate in the writing and keeping of a rule of life. A rule of life is a description of spiritual practices that constitute a way of life in the presence of God. Randy Harris, from ACU, comes to spend time with our entering first year students to teach them about rule of life and to help them compose one. They write it as a group, and then personalize it to fit their circumstances. Natalie Magnusson then serves as a group spiritual director, reminding them of their commitments and checking in periodically. Our focus is on developing a God-centered identity, rather than a role-centered identity, which we hope will cut down on the tendency to lead out of anxiety and defensiveness.
All of this, I believe, works against cynicism. It’s not that we don’t deconstruct our students a bit. We do. This week I have students telling me that they’re not sure they’ve ever really known what the gospel is. (They have, just not all the gospel). They’re struggling a bit. And I know they will in our Salvation and Human Identity course and our OT courses. But we combine that experience with intentional, consistent, spiritual formation. We tell them that rule of life is our number one priority and we check in on that every time we are together. And there’s no better hedge against the cynicism that comes with deconstruction than a vital sense of the presence of God.
We also try to take an appreciative stance in relation to the congregation. We do this in two or three deliberate ways. Part of it is built into our notion of “missional.” The church is not an abstract list of marks, but rather a living organism in time and space. It is the particularity of the congregation that helps us discern what God’s calling might be for any given congregation. Each congregation, therefore, is brimming with the possibilities of God’s enlivening presence. God is not simply the ideas present in the minister’s head, but is more likely to be seen in the lives and concerns of God’s people. So, the congregation is not simply a place where the minister dumps his or her theology. Instead, the congregation is a source of theology as the Spirit moves among people.
Because of this, we use appreciative tools to attend to the congregation. The congregation is not a problem to be solved, but an imagination to be released. And this is done best by inquiring into the life-giving stories of the congregation. We build Appreciative Inquiry into the design of many of our courses.
Given that we don’t think of the congregation only as a place to dump our theology, and given that we are committed to inquiring about life-giving sources already present in the congregation, all of our courses have projects that begin in the congregation. In other words, we don’t just give lectures and write papers and then expect our students to figure out how to apply these things. Rather, there learning sometimes starts with journaling or interviewing or forming a group within the congregation. Instead of thinking about learning as information–>application, we think about learning as action–>communal reflection–>articulation.
In these ways, we treat the congregation as a positive and indispensable source for our learning. We are training ministers, hopefully, who don’t see themselves as experts fixing congregations, but as theologians who are helping the congregation see and live into what God is uniquely calling them to be and to do. And I think this is a huge hedge against cynicism.
I think the rule of life and the way we see the congregation is working in producing ministers who don’t lead with cynicism. We have a time of blessing with each cohort when they graduate. It is a time of laughter and tears and thankfulness for our journey together. Several have said things like, “I came for an education, but received a life-changing experience.” One woman commented that she was so done with church when she started our program, but that the program had brought her back to life and given her hope for ministry. Together, we had beaten back cynicism. That makes a program director proud.