Spiritual Development in the Seminary

A friend’s blog post got me thinking about pastors and what they’re learning in seminaries.  First, let me start off by stating that I don’t want this to come out as a call to stop going or sending people to seminary.  Good things can come out of a seminary education, and bad things can come of it as well.  There’s no shortage of statistics demonstrating the problems and negative outcomes, but there aren’t many positive alternatives, and I’d still rather have someone with a grounded theology pastoring a church than without it.  We have enough bad or even heretical church leaders out there already; producing more is foolhardy.

But I just looked up three seminaries from across the country and took a casual gander at their Divinity programs (those that are generally accepted for pastoral ministries).  Here’s what I find as broken down by course units (which may be a bit misleading, but it’s the best view I’ve got from a quick gander):

15-20% – Language and textual analysis
10-15% – Biblical knowledge
5-10% – History or historical theology
20%-25% – Preaching, evangelism/discipleship, and ministry technique
10-15% – Straight up theology
0-10% – Ministry practicum
5-10% – Missions work and cross-cultural studies
2-10% – Personal and spiritual development
10-30% – Other

A look at this makes me feel a bit like we’re creating pastors and teachers with a significant amount of analytical background and procedural knowledge, but not a whole lot of understanding of growth, either in terms of its goal (intent) or its process.  Why?  I think if one asked pastors what Christianity is about or leads to, I would think that “Christlikeness” would at least show up on the radar, but I wonder how much of what we teach our pastors actually leads them towards this either in knowledge or in practice.  The section on personal and spiritual development is a good step in that direction, but they’re often high on technique and process (which are critical) and not necessarily so high on definition, formalizing, or analysis of concept or theology, and they can take up a minuscule portion of the curriculum.

My friend’s question was what is spiritual maturity.  Where would that be covered in those categories?  Possibly in theology, but there’s a whole lot of other theology that has to get covered, so it would be a small part if there.  Personal and spiritual development is another likely choice, but I know those classes (I’ve taken some of them and am familiar with most of the professors at these three schools), and while I find them inordinately valuable, like I said before, they’re generally more practical than theological.

Are we assuming that people are entering into seminary education with an understanding already of what it means to grow, to reach maturity, to attain Christlikeness, or what the goal of the Christian life is?  If we’re starting with this assumption, I suspect we’re launching from a faulty position.  Pastors are dying and killing themselves because they don’t know where they or their congregations are going or even supposed to go.  Congregations are floundering because they don’t have a clear purpose or an understanding of what to do when their intentions are challenged or fail.  Those that we put in leadership, I would think, would be in need of an understanding of how we become and do what God calls and invites us to be and do, but the understanding of this is disparate and vague, and we generally are not teaching them what is necessary to formulate solid ideas and plans with this in mind.  Do we need to reexamine what seminaries are teaching and formulate a better plan for producing knowledgeable pastors who are capable of caring for people well and leading them towards growth more than just towards knowledge?

And now, a rebuttal from … me.

  1. Education is not the solution to all of life’s problems.  That would be alcohol (at least according to Homer Simpson).  Just kidding; it was too tempting to skip putting that in.
    It’s tempting to say that what we need to do is teach people better and give them the right information, and everything will come up roses.  It’s a trick that we use all the time.  Get a ticket or into an accident?  Send them to traffic school.  Blow up at somebody at work?  Send them to anger management class.  But does this actually work?  People are more complicated than this.  Better or correct teaching may help, but it might not, too, and it’s rarely the only thing necessary.  Heart change is necessary, not just head change.
  2. Divinity programs are already three or more years.  Adding more might just give students broken backs and reduce enrollment, thus reducing trained church leadership on the whole.  If you go with change instead of addition, I’m not sure what you would rip out to make room.  That might take some serious analysis and consideration.
  3. It’s often dangerous to mess with a system that’s been time-tested.  The temptation to frequently run towards change or to something new and exciting is one that our culture is addicted to and needs to be careful of.
  4. When you’re talking about definitions of the goal of the spiritual life or Christianity, you’re messing with deep beliefs, and those deep beliefs are usually set solidly.  Messing with them is not only difficult, but it can create conflict, sometimes pretty serious, as people often defend their beliefs vigorously.  People may not want what you’re suggesting.

Well, I may be right, but I still can’t help but feel like most pastors simply don’t understand how their congregations are supposed to grow in ways that aren’t numerically or in activity.  Despite these valid points above, I can’t help but feel like the seminary, being the place that generally trains and vets pastors, is a primary place to help people make more sense of these things, and then those things get passed on to the church.  Maybe it’s a bad idea to reshape MDiv programs too much, but wold it be wise to do consider some kind of change in this direction?


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