Rarely is the question asked: Is our priests learning? Or, In defense of seminary education

What kind of priests does the church need in the 21st-century?

For the last two years, I’ve been a member of the Berkeley Divinity School Board of Trustees, where this question has consumed much attention and conversation. As well it should. Although lay people are the backbone of the church, it is priests in parishes across the country who are, in large measure, responsible for leading the people of God in their daily lives. We want to make sure we’re putting the right kind of people in those leadership roles at this point in the church’s life.

As this conversation takes place, it seems there’s this widely-held belief that the seminary system is broken and that most priests don’t go to seminary anymore. (This view wasn’t helped by the current Presiding Bishop, who once said something like “The three year M.Div. is dead.”) I see this online and hear it in conversation. Why do we people need to study Greek when there are so many more pressing issues for the church to confront? How will studying the early church help a priest fight injustice? The Episcopal Church has (sadly) always had a bit of an anti-intellectual streak so these comments are not terribly surprising. But they are disappointing. Here’s why.

I hope I don’t need to defend the value of education and education for its own sake. (As a former Classics major, however, I am well-practiced at making this case.) History repeats itself. I think the Donatist heresy of the fourth- and fifth centuries is hugely relevant to debates on a huge number of issues in the church today. The church today debates the nature of Jesus—son of God? really cool dude?—in the way early Christians did (with different language). I’m convinced that a huge division between camps in the church has to do with theological anthropology: are people basically good or are they bound by sin? This deserves another post but you see this division in a variety of issues. Doesn’t it make sense to know what folks in the past have said about who we are in the eyes of God?

(I’ve visited several seminaries in other parts of the Anglican Communion and am always impressed by how much students there want to learn everything they can about the faith. In South Sudan, for instance, where there are a huge array of complex and pressing problems that have nothing—ostensibly—to do with theology, I was blown away by the commitment of students to learning about the inheritance of faith. This article from Ellen Davis about teaching Hebrew to southern Sudanese makes this same point. In this context, it seems especially offensive to insist that theological education is somehow a waste of time.)

Moreover, I’m convinced that lay people in the church want to learn. There’s a lot of great research being put in practice at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL that concludes that people come to church because they want to grow spiritually, and that one of the best ways to help people grow spiritually is by teaching, particularly the Bible. I am stunned at how positive the response is when I conduct a Bible study or preach a sermon that helps give context, background, and meaning to the passage under consideration, rather than letting things meander off into conversation that may or may not be linked to the text. If you read the priestly ordination service, you’ll see just how many times some variation of the word “teach” is used. Doesn’t it make sense that our priests know something about the Bible (and lots of other stuff) so they can teach others about it?

The priesthood is a profession, like it or not. Priests are going to be ministering to congregations full of other professionals—doctors, lawyers, business people, etc.—and the fact that the priests are professionally-educated is, I think, important in the way it puts them on a level with these professionals. (Of course, many members of churches are not professionals and clergy need to relate to all members of their congregation. This is one of the joys and challenges of the ministry.) I don’t think we want church members to feel when they go to church that they somehow have to lower their intellectual and professional standards because it’s church.

True, much of this learning can happen by reading books, online, or other non-seminary forms of education. The key thing about seminary, however, is the way in which the education takes place in a community setting. The Gospel is fundamentally about community. The seminary environment is a place in which people not only learn facts and values but (try to) live them in their daily life. This is a hard case to make for folks who haven’t experienced the seminary environment but it is clear to me that there is simply nothing that compares to sustained, prolonged learning in community.

One of the recurring themes you see when you read mission history, as I have, is the push to “proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” There’s the kergyma or proclamation of good news that is at the centre of the Bible but the form it takes in each generation and culture needs to be discerned by people in that generation. In order to do that, we need to learn how the good news has been discerned by generations past. There’s no better place to do that than in a community of people from a range of backgrounds seeking to do the same thing.

This is the first post in what became a three-post series. Part II about more practical objections to the seminary system is here; and part III about redesigning The Process is here.

(And for a clip of the line referenced in the title of this post, look here.)

6 thoughts on “Rarely is the question asked: Is our priests learning? Or, In defense of seminary education

  1. Mary Sue

    I’m not sure if you’re going to cover it in your future posts, but one thing that annoys me is when I express interest in theology and/or Bible Study, most laity say, “Why don’t you go to Seminary?” And it really irks me that pretty much EVERY clergyperson says, “When are you going to Seminary?” Like a sister can’t get her Hebrew and Aramaic study on without a Discernment Committee.

    It irks me so much I’m seriously contemplating having t-shirts made up that say “Called to the Laity”.

    1. Jesse Zink

      Sadly, I think this is part of the anti-intellectual streak in the Episcopal Church I referenced in the post. It’s frustrating to hear this.

      And, yes, the church needs those shirts!


      1. Kit Wang YDS/B '84 DioMaine

        I’m certain that seminary and a call to the laity are not mutually exclusive. It’s one of the HUGE blessings of attending a university divinity school like YDS/B or Harvard, or Chicago, or BU, that there is a HUGE diversity of denominations and vocations, which makes for a much richer experience.

  2. Jesse, I could not agree with you more. I am not very happy with recent ordinations of people who have never gone to seminary. I don’t really undertand why they are ordained. I mean, are we Southern Baptists or Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake?” I don’t think this anti-intellectual streak” exists in the Church of England? Perhaps I’m wrong.

  3. Pingback: Rarely is the question asked: is our priests learning? Part II | Mission Minded

  4. Pingback: Thinking about changing The Process | Mission Minded

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