Learning to be a Minister

Whenever the subject is Theological Education I begin to think about, not only my own experience and how I learned to be a minister, but also a remarkable evening during the year I was traveling for my denomination. I have written about it before, but the memory remains vivid and, over time, more and more relevant. I was sent to South America to visit with mission partners. During our stay in Buenos Aires we were contacted by the president of a Pentecostal seminary who wished to talk with representatives of the Presbyterian Church(USA).

He sent a car to our hotel in the evening and we were driven through the city to a rough residential neighborhood. The driver apologized for the lateness of the hour and explained that the president and other professors had day jobs. We arrived at an automobile repair shop. The driver, now apologizing for the messy surroundings, led us through car lifts, transmission parts, axels and wheel rims, up a wooden stairway into a room with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a large table around which were seated 6 men in coats and ties, the president and his faculty. I asked a reasonable question: “where is the seminary?” They all laughed and explained that the room above the repair shop was it. We were sitting in their seminary. Against one wall were shelves containing hundreds of cassette tapes and a large piece of recording equipment. They explained that their students were Pentecostal pastors working throughout Argentina, some in remote, mountain villages. Every week the seminary faculty recorded Bible studies and sermon helps and mailed the tapes to their students.
“How many do you send? How many students do you have?”, I asked. I was astonished when the president explained that there were several thousand, most of whom had never been to Buenos Aires, all of whom had other jobs and some of whom could not read. What the students had, the president explained, was the Holy Spirit and a compelling sense of call to preach the Gospel. They wanted to talk to us because they knew Presbyterians had experience with theological education and preparation for ministry. They wondered if we had any suggestions for them as they attempted to equip their remote pastors for the ministries.. The conversation continued for a while, over cold pizza and warm Pepsi, but it was clear that what we knew, or thought we knew, about theological education was so shaped by European and North American culture and higher education as to be essentially useless in their unique context. I left wondering, and have wondered ever since, whether we should have been asking them their advice as we face our own set of new and daunting challenges.

Will Willimon observes that our seminaries have changed less in the past 100 years that vibrant congregations have changed in the past two decades. I don’t thin Willimon was expansive enough. In fact, theological education has not changed, at least in its basic assumptions and structures for centuries: a graduate school environment, complete with residential campus and students working toward proficiency in basically the same academic disciplines, languages, history, Bible and theology.

I am a grateful product of those assumptions and structures and I as resistant to the idea of change as anyone. But, clearly, it is time for new thinking, for bold, creative ideas and experiments in preparing women and men for the different and unique challengers of 21st century American culture. There are pressing issues that become more critical each year. The cost of the traditional residential school model continues to climb along with the sky-rocketing cost of all higher education, with the unhappy result that students graduate with a significant and sometime prohibitive debt, at the very time there are fewer full time posiions that pay enough to accommodate the debt.

The very idea of online theological education makes me cringe. But we simply must give it our best, creative thinking. Happily, it is happening in some schools.

Curriculum, in my estimation, must continue to provide the basic intellectual rigor that a thoughtful ministry requires, but it should make even more integral to the process hands on residencies and internships, observing experienced ministers, gaining concrete experience. The Lilly Endowment Residences in Pastoral Ministry is a good example of an approach that seems to be working well. Curriculum must also include something new and unique to our time, equipping leaders for something other than the traditional full time pastor of a congregation with its own real estate and buildings.

Seminary administrators and teachers are among the smartest people I know. I wish they would all gather in a room and take seriously the reality that the current model, mostly small, regional, residential schools, many struggling financially, is out of date and not sustainable long term, and come up with a new vision for theological education that equips ministers for the 21st Century and for the church than continues to change and emerge in front of our eyes.

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