August 21, 2009

to degree or not to degree

I've mentioned in the past that we've had an ongoing conversation about what role theological training ought to have in our future. I had the privilege of talking with Mark Lau Branson and Alan Roxburgh last night about such things. But I have–what seem to me–some very practical questions about this. It is clear that a lot of the higher education opportunities available for those seeking to become professional clergy focus in great part upon institutional sustainability. With some exceptions, the fact of the matter is that most Christian institutions and churches are running out of money. This isn't so much about bad business practice (although that is often true) but mostly about the growing irrelevance of how the Gospel is commonly communicated within our culture (ie. no one's interested). It seems obvious to many that we need to find better ways to educate both paid and unpaid leadership in how to guide local faith communities in North America in the 21st Century. But how? And where does a professional clergy fit in? Here are some scatter-brained thoughts that I would love to get your feedback on...

How important is it to get a degree in something focused on Christianity in some manner? Don't get me wrong, I feel as though we need to train people in theology. But what does the future hold for those that have a specific degree in such things? When a handful of us left professional ministry to start Matthew's House, those with degrees in ministry or biblical studies found it very hard to find a job outside of ministry. Yet, there was not a Christian institution that would have funded such a calling as ours. Is a degree important for those called to such work? Or should we get educated in other fields that can support us?

My friend Jamie is a pastor at heart and a theologian to boot. But he is also a sociologist so he can pay the bills. I wish I had been as smart as Jamie... regarding both forethought and intellect. My good friend Kevyn and I got certificates in areas of construction, Rick got his contractor's license. (Yeah, bad "alternative" for us in this economy... like I said, not the best at forethought) Is this the direction that Christian leaders should follow? In an economy such as ours, how many people can afford degrees that may not pay themselves off?

There are some that would read this and feel that I am simply some embittered individual trying to raise trouble. I actually ask these questions out of my deep love for the Church. I recognize that our institutions are not going to change over night. And I still plan to work with them as best as I can. In fact, if I could I would love to walk into a seminary classroom and share what I have learned and I know many others just in San Diego who would do the same. One of the challenges in this scenario is that those of us that have been working at finding new forms of church life do not hold the qualifications to walk into that seminary classroom to share what we've learned (Even if I someday finish an MA it still won't be enough–I need a DMin at minimum).

Lastly, there are schools that are trying to address this. One of the reasons why I met with Alan and Mark was because of this. But a concern of mine is that it will still be the same kind of person that gets educated and I wonder if we should be a bit more deliberate about changing that. What I mean is that it still seems as though we are mostly educating white, middle to upper class males. Yet, those doing some of the most selfless, risky amazing ministry amongst people are not those kinds of people. This has a lot to do with broader social issues. But these others are often the voices we need desperately to hear from. White, middle to upper class white men have been the recipients and shapers of theological education for a long time. Yet, as we stand at the tomb of Christendom, how do we empower those that have actually–for a long time–found ways of doing ministry without the resources of the Christian institution? Especially since more and more of us are doing just that today.

There isn't one answer to this. But I am curious to hear about your experiences and thoughts. Please share.


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Jason Evans said...

Hey TC,
I'm with you. The training I've received has been so helpful... in fact, I wish I could afford to my education and even do more. Let's keep asking God for ways to connect with counterparts on the margins... I think it's up to folks like us to can help span the gap... even if simply over mugs and pint glasses. Speaking of which, we need to do that again, you and I.


Anonymous said...

Jason: Great questions and a good conversation. You are right that (to paraphrase) the seminaries nurture a group of upwardly-mobile institutional church workers who prolong the dying establishment. It is a very expensive undertaking, attaining an M.Div or M.A. degree. The theology and biblical studies is 20th Century, as are the practical theologies (church government, preaching, pastoral care, etc.). And I particularly agree with you on the aspect of diversity: We need ways to integrate our Western system with the emerging voices from Mexico and elsewhere.

All that said, I am certainly grateful for the experience of seminary, and the things I learned. How would I replace? While much of what I learned was "wasted" and I do not even have a paid ministry position ... I feel very well equipped. Even on the pure basis of having emerged on the other side as a missional-incarnational revolutionary ... it was during my seminary days that I obtained such perspective.

If I have any suggestions they are on the lines of what you are doing: having conversations with educators. We need to help reform the system, encourage diversity and more affordable programs, and help the institutional teachers re-boot their curriculum. It might be idealist to think we can make a difference, or even be hired on as consultants somewhere or speak into new programs - or even establish our own school. But the very least we can do is enter into conversations such as this. Thank you for getting it started. - TC Porter

Mike Bishop said...

J...excellent questions as usual. My thinking has shifted recently towards what makes sense locally (here in South Florida) for both my own benefit and among those involved in our community. The concept of starting a "school" seems overwhelming and presumptive, but what if we thought of it as "just-in-time" training? What would it look like to provide educational opportunities to people as learning becomes necessary in the course of their process as disciples? I've been going back to a lot of early Church of the Saviour stuff - Elizabeth O'Connor's book "Cry Pain, Cry Hope" is a good example. They established an environment where people were naturally discovering call in the midst of their "normal lives" and then acting on those callings. Education in the midst of that process is intensely contextual - do all need to learn Greek / Hebrew? Do all need to understand organizational theory? Etc. Etc.

Interestingly enough, the last time I was at COS they were bemoaning the fact that their educational process had largely only been beneficial to the white or economically advantaged part of their congregation. The people who had been the recipients of their ministry had, for the most part, not engaged in the educational process. That's something we need to address from the beginning and I think you allude to it above - these questions cannot be answered from an exclusively white, male perspective. That's what's been on my mind moving forward...

Pam Farrel said...

Degree. The person in the preaching pulpit needs to know Hebrew and Greek. Some of the problems today of not reaching more for Jesus are becuase not enough leaders really have all the tools to rightly divide the word. They are tweaking the gospel-- and that is not good.
Other staff type positions in church ministry can have lesser degrees if at least the person at the top has paid the price. When my husband went to seminary, a professeor told him, "Take the languages" , life and ministry will force you to learn on the job most of the other things you need but handling God's Word accurately, that is why you are here now," We've never regretted that decision.
However, we also agree that clergy are wise to be bi-vocational, not just to pay the bills but it earns credibility with the other people in yoiur congregation if they know you have other options, and are choosing instead to preach/lead the church. You also gain respect if they know you have worked in "a regualr career" so they know you have felt that same pressure as they carry.

Jason Evans said...

Mike, that's interesting to hear about CoS concerns. As always, we'll watch to see how they continue to approach this.

Pam, thanks for chiming in. I hear what you are saying.

I would push back on the issue of Hebrew and Greek to you both. I'm not sure only one or not at all is the right answer. Does this potentially lead towards either theological dictatorship (HT: TallSkinnyKiwi) or inability to study more deeply the meaning of Scripture? Should only one person in local congregation have this capacity? Maybe it is more necessary than Mike assumes?

Mike Bishop said...

Actually, I wasn't advocating for less understanding of Greek / Hebrew or that it wasn't necessary. My point was that within a community of disciples, we can't put one learning objective at the top of the heap and say "everyone needs to learn this before you can do anything productive". Actually, I'd love to learn more Greek and Hebrew myself and have others in our community do the same. But I'd also like people to receive the the appropriate training to enable them to keep pursuing the dreams God gives them and to grow as disciples. There is a timing and integration to this that is difficult to reproduce in a seminary environment. (Again...I'm not saying seminary is just might not be for everyone.)

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