Must Seminaries Change?

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Last week I spent two days interacting with ten pastors who served as peer group leaders for me last year as part of a Lilly Endowment grant program my Center is overseeing.  The grant is part of Lilly’s current “Initiative to Strengthen Preaching.” This week I will spend Monday evening through Wednesday morning interacting with representatives from the other fifteen or so seminaries who are running similar grant programs as funded by Lilly. I don’t know exactly what learning and insights will emerge this week but I suspect at least some of it–maybe quite a bit of it–will be consonant with what my peer leaders and I talked about last week. And a main upshot of a lot of those conversations boiled down to a basic, albeit radical, idea: seminaries in the early 21st century must change or quite possibly die.

Talk to anyone from the world of seminary admissions/recruitment today and you will hear the same story: enrollment numbers for seminaries are down across the board. Flat enrollment is referred to as “the new bubble.” Recently two ELCA seminaries in Pennsylvania announced they were completely disbanding and would then start over as a single institution. The reason: declining enrollment and thus revenues made it implausible for the two seminaries–in relative geographic proximity to each other as it was–to continue onward. We are likely to hear similar stories in the near future.

What’s more, a lot of would-be seminary students are questioning whether seminaries are really all that good at preparing them for ministry in an increasingly diverse culture. Yes, future pastors still need solid Bible preparation, systematic theology, history, and all the rest but more and more are asking that all those classes be geared much more overtly toward the practice of ministry and particularly toward vibrant preaching. If students graduate with a huge roster of courses behind them and an excellent GPA but still cannot hold people’s attention during the Sunday sermon, they will soon find themselves out of a job.

The 10 peer group leaders I met with last week represented over 100 pastors (about 10-12 per group) who met 4-5 times in 2015. These 100 pastors and their peer group leaders represent a variety of denominational traditions and they all graduated from a variety of seminaries in the past quarter century or so. But across all those differences, common themes emerged.  Among the more prominent:

— Seminaries train students to exegete Scripture and that’s necessary. But increasingly, being able to exegete context/culture is just as important (and seminaries have not paid as much attention to this).

— Preaching is a higher stakes game than it used to be. Too many YouTube comparisons can be drawn between the local preacher and high profile pastors whose sermons can be downloaded.

— Once upon a time people were more willing to sit through staid preaching so long as it was solid and orthodox and reasonably interesting. But that is less and less true. Yet too many seminaries spend far more time making sure that the theology of future preachers is solid than they do helping them communicate all that in vibrant, relevant ways. Seminaries may be training preachers for congregational audiences that no longer exist.

— The best learning for future preachers may now take place through apprenticeship models and mentoring so that all along the way–and not tacked on somewhere along the way–theological education is geared toward ministry practice in actual congregational settings.

— Many seminaries–across a 3-4 year education–have long lists of required courses in Bible, theology, and history but often require perhaps no more than 2 courses in preaching. Increasingly that seems to have the proportion close to backwards. If students can’t preach, the A- in Greek class won’t keep the congregation from parting ways with the preacher.

— Storytelling and the ability to craft sermons that both have an overall narrative arc and individual well-told stories within the message are vital today. But too many preachers are being seduced to quick and easy recourse to slides or film clips that often serve as a crutch for bad sermons or an unwillingness on the part of the preacher to do the harder work of creating word pictures in people’s minds by using language well and in narrative ways. (Check out the average 18-20 minute TED Talk and you won’t find lots of slideware or clips, just language used well.)

And there were other themes, too, about post-modernity, the authority (or lack thereof) of the preacher, biblical illiteracy (including a troubling trend of younger preachers who themselves seem to lack a sense for the biblical narrative). But a basic idea that emerged is that more and more, seminaries may need to re-fashion themselves. Instead of being the sole locus of learning for future preachers, seminaries may need to become the catalyst for learning that takes place primarily in remote sites of congregational apprenticeships as led by well-trained pastoral mentors. A given seminary may be the hub of the wheel but the spokes all go outward to other places so that preachers learn about exegeting context by actually exegeting a specific context throughout their preparation for ministry. They learn how to translate theology into vibrant preaching by doing so regularly under the watchful eye of a mentor (and of a congregation that listens to the preaching).

The changes that all of this may portend are not small. Most seminaries will find that rising to meet this challenge will not involve just tightening the bolts and shoring up the structure as it currently exists. Things may need to get torn down and then rebuilt.

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Scott, thanks much.  And I believe your last comment is right on, as well as this one: "Yet too many seminaries spend far more time making sure that the theology of future preachers is solid than they do helping them communicate all that in vibrant, relevant ways." I look forward to how the Lilly initiative to strengthen preaching impacts CTS.  Keep up the good work.

Great observations/article Scott. I'm now working with Ambrose Seminary (on a course on two-book preaching). They're asking all of the same questions you ask here. I'll be passing this article on to them. If CTS is ever interested...  ; )

Good thoughts -- and necessary re-evaluation of how we prepare future pastors. One thing not addressed is the power of positive models. We could talk about how to produce a great violin concerto for weeks, but one has to hear it to know what the goal is. If students never hear and observe a good sermon they may be frustrated in trying to produce one from a formula. One very effective and Reformed narrative sermon crafter (who also exegetes our culture well) is Alistair Begg in Cleveland, OH (daily podcast and sermon archive at truthforlife.com). I'm sure there are a few others who could serve as such models. If students were asked to listen to such models and evaluate what makes them effective I suspect they would learn more then they could acquire from many books and lectures.