Seminary Teachers as Scholars for the Church

What would be the most expected question when you have a job interview for a faculty position in the theological school? The question woul be, accrdong to Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Ted A. Smith who teach at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, “How would your introductory course in your field help prepare students for ministry?” Or “What do you think ministers really need to know about your subject in order to lead people in lives of faith and action?” These questions are not new at all, but many scholars stumbled when they were asked, Miller-McLemore and Smith said in The Christian Century (Feb. 26, 2008). They introduced a survey, which has done by a Vanderbilt study group in 2003, how academic deans and presidents disappointed by the candidates coming out of top graduate programs:

One dean said that ‘at least two-thirds of applicants’ for positions in his school ‘give not evidence of understanding what it takes to prepare people for ministry.’ . . . Too many candidates in the so-called classical disciplines – like biblical studies and church history – demonstrate neither the desire nor the ability to connect their scholarship to the work of ministry and the lived religion of existing communities.

Vanderbilt launched a Program in Theology and Practice in the fall of 2006 that brings faculty members together and advanced Ph.D. students for conversations. As I am a doctoral student at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in biblical studies, I also realize the gap between seminary and ministry. How can I be better conneted to the work of ministry and the life of congregations? It would be good to have a monthly teaching and research colloquy as Vanderbilt Divinity School does.

Last weeks I heard that Seabury-Western Theological Seminary will immediately suspend recruitment and admissions to all degree and certificate programs in this time of discernment. My current roommate Kevin Wilson, as an Episcopalian and a scholar, was very sad by the decisions. I got an email from the Academic Dean Kadi Billman at LSTC and shared a letter of SWTS President Gary Hall. President Hall pointed out that one of the reasons of their decisions is a lack of communication between seminaries and churches as follows:

We believe that the church does not need Seabury in its present form; there are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do. But we also believe that the church very much needs a semianry animated by and organized around a new vision of theological education-one that is centered in a vision of Baptism and its implications for the whole church, one which is flexible and adaptive and collaborative in nature (SWTS President Gary Hall’s Letter, “To the Seabury Community,” February 20, 2008).

This is a significant challenge to the semianry educational system; seminaries need to think of thier vocation in relation to the church. An expert warns in The Christian Century of this week that twenty seminaries will be out of business in the next five to seven years.

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3 Responses

  1. Wow, the most shocking thing about this article is its authorship. I’m a Vandy divinity alum and I can tell you that both of these professors were so far removed from the practical that I can think of nothing that I learned in their classes that I have used in my ministry. I am certainly not an anti-intellectual, but I do believe that seminary classes should have something to do with the actual ministry of the church. Some professors at Vandy got that; others didn’t. These two were certainly among the latter. And, as far as teaching, Miller-McLemore in particular was abominable. It was a joke around the seminary that her pastoral care class was absolutely worthless as practical preparation, and that she was unapproachable. Of course, she’s tenured, so no hopes of that changing. If I had it to do over again I’d choose a good denominational seminary any day of the week.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience in the divinity school of Vandervilt.

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