Re-forging a Broken Link: College and Seminary Curricula

For quite some time, I’ve been puzzled by the lack of attention the college years receive when UM church leaders talk about theological education. This comment, from Resurrecting Excellence, by Greg Jones and Kevin Armstrong, is on target with why I’m baffled: “Indeed, one of the problems of training contemporary clergy is that formal education often has to do so much with ‘remedial catechesis‘ (emphasis added) that it is unable to do the work it is actually best equipped to do.” You can find this remark on page 114.

I wholeheartedly agree. Seminaries should not waste time with remedial catechesis. Their curricula are graduate-level. They rightly assume an already-established foundation of faith and knowledge. Furthermore, “graduate-level” means more than academic skill. Seminary is not the place to find oneself spiritually or work out one’s problems. It’s certainly OK if people go to seminary for these reasons, but the main aim, like medical school or law school for those professions, is to prepare people called to lead the church. Therefore, seminary students ought to have an adequate degree of spiritual maturity, wisdom and theological understanding when they arrive. Their hearts should be already clearly shaped by the Gospel and they should be advancing toward Christian maturity.

The college years are the perfect time for what Billy Abraham calls “university level catechesis.” If we paid more attention to this period in students’ lives, there would be no need for remedial catechesis in seminary.

So, how do we improve the situation? As usual, the proposal is much harder than the critique. However, I think it would surely help to start a conversation between interested college and seminary faculty, along with Deans. For example, let’s talk about what college curricula should provide and what seminary curricula should not duplicate. And let’s agree to a plan that works toward this kind of curricular clarity.

To take any step in this direction will require some institutional and denominational courage. It would mean, perhaps, that seminaries will have to say no to more applicants. Many seminaries (most?) admit almost all applicants. The seminary for which Greg Jones is Dean is not one of them.

I realize that my suggestion has certain financially ominous implications. In the short run, it would adversely affect some seminaries’ revenues. It likely would shrink the pool of available clergy to supply parishes. I think it’s better to go this way, however – to tighten academic requirements and expect more from colleges – than to continue with the current broken system.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Steve, you’re mostly talking about seminary preparation for ordained ministers, right? Is there any bearing for local church pastors who do not attend seminary but attend license to preach school? What about for the Board of Ordained Ministry? In other words, does your critique have logical extensions into other areas?

  2. Steve Rankin says:

    You know me, I have an opinion about everything. I do think, seriously, that a fundamental issue is the delivery system of all levels of theological education: License to Preach schools, Course of Study and seminary. Boards of ordained ministry could help by paying attention and putting some positive pressure on these systems.

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