What's Tony Thinking

Report from Seminary Land


I’ve been up in Vancouver B.C. this week at The Vancouver School of Theology. As readers may recall I am helping in a project of redesigning theological field education (think student-teaching in the world of teachers and education as a parallel) for their students.

One of the interesting tensions in my work, and in seminaries today (at least those of the liberal or progressive church), is some disconnect between what churches and denominations prioritize in seminary grads and in what interests seminary students.

In a nutshell, the churches and denoms are crying, “urgent: send us capable pastoral leaders.” While a significant number of seminary students aren’t all that interested in congregational leadership. It would be, to follow the teaching parallel, as if students who were getting a degree in education and a teaching certificate, said, “Yes, I want to teach, but I don’t really want to be a traditional school.”

A lot of students come to seminary not exactly sure where they are headed vocationally, which isn’t really a new thing. I wasn’t that sure about pastoral ministry/ congregational leadership when I first headed off to seminary. So my instinct was to try it on early and often to see if it felt like a fit with field work in years one and two.

But the world — and the church — have changed since then. The big arc for the mainline churches has bent toward aging and shrinking. We have spoken of these things before. Such trends tend to make churches anxious environments and tough gigs for clergy. Many seminarians would prefer to give their time and energy to something innovative, fresh and edgy and not to churches that are struggling and not infrequently stuck.

Can’t blame them.

But there is a deeper theme here, one I’ve mentioned before. It is the role of institutions in our lives and society and how that has changed. Yuval Levin, in his recent book¬†A Time To Build¬†familiarized me with a useful distinction. Used to be that institutions had a “formative” role in people’s lives. You entered an institution like church, law, medicine as well as many other kinds of jobs, and you learned the norms and expectations of whatever institution/ business/ trade you were in, be it preaching or black smithery. Institutions and guilds formed you.

These days, according to Levin, our orientation to institutions is different. We see them as “performative” platforms. The individual doesn’t get formed by an institution and its norms, so much as makes us of an institution as a platform for their personal brand. Think Majorie Taylor Green or AOC. Of course, the most egregious recent example is Donald Trump. Trump was not formed or normed by the institution of the American Presidency. It was, for him, his personal platform for “performative” uses.

Invoking Trump reveals my bias and experience. I was formed by institutions. And am not wild, to say the least, about the shift to the performative in elective politics.

That said, it’s not simple. Institutions at their best form us in worthy values and practices. At their worst they crush individuals, bury their passions and, at the end of the day, cast them aside. And yes this happens in the church too. So a generation or two of young people who have been encouraged to be risk-takers, discovering their own special gifts and making a difference in the world (all while maintaining excellent boundaries and practicing good self-care) are not often eager to enter a fraught or not-cool institution.

Another factor in this is the now cliched, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Translation, I’m into things spiritual, but not church or that hoary thing we refer to as the “institutional church.” The two, spirituality and organized religion, have been detached in the thinking of the SBNR’s, including a fair number of seminary students. And not entirely without reason.

But of course it is a vicious cycle. The more gifted and competent seminarians eschew church leadership, the more the churches flail and flounder in search of leadership and direction.

My, or our, effort in this project is get more students into flourishing congregations (there are some!) where they may glimpse possibilities that excite and engage them, and cause them to give church a chance.


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