Let’s do seminary differently (repost)

Note: This is a repost of an earlier post. Some folks have indicated that something screwy on the interwebs made it so they could read. I think this project is important enough that I want everyone to know about it. Sorry about the repetition.

I’ve started an experiment, and I wonder if you’d like to help.

No lie, I was keynoting a conference last weekend, struggling with getting to sleep as I often do my first night away from home an a trip, and decided to read Seth Godin’s new (free) book STOP STEALING DREAMS: What is school for? (the all caps are his, not mine, btw). That was a bad idea.

Seth Godin is one of my “People you’d want to have lunch with” (Malcolm Gladwell being the other), and I find anything he writes to be perfect. He has an uncanny ability to cut through the bullshit of a given topic and lock onto the aspect that needs considering/questioning/improving/reforming/etc. In his new book, he turns his sights on education, specifically higher education. Here’s the blurb:

The economy has changed, probably forever.

School hasn’t.

School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.

In this 30,000 word manifesto, I imagine a different set of goals and start (I hope) a discussion about how we can reach them. One thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.

Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.

Reading this book did not help me go to sleep. Quite the opposite. Given my professed love of in depth theological education, I automatically thought of seminary as I read.

I thought about the countless seminary graduates who bemoan that “seminary did not prepare them for this” or “I didn’t learn to be a pastor in seminary. I learned to quote Calvin/Luther/Wesley/[theologian of choice].”

I thought about the crisis (yes, crisis) we are currently having around seminarian debt load.

I thought about the fact that the pilgrimage model of obtaining a residential seminary education is no longer desirable or tenable for many would be pastors (I, also, don’t happen to think it is a necessary model). Even if a person graduates with no educational debt, they often incur significant consumer debt in order to live.

I thought about the fact that, even if we can get young adults to enter ministry, a disturbing number of them are gone after 5 years. My own denomination released a study in 2005 that indicated that the number of “ministry drop outs” has quadrupled from a similar study in the 1970s.

I thought about the increasingly powerful tools of digital, online collaboration.

I thought about Wikipedia.

I thought about YouTube.

I thought about TED.

I thought about Khan Academy.

After all of this, at around 2am, I had an idea. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a Divine Download. I was jazzed, and didn’t go to sleep until after 4am, and the idea I’m calling Theocademy was born.

Before I go too much farther, let me make a few things clear.

I love seminaries. Specifically, I love the seminaries of my own denomination (I serve on the national committee which seeks to serve these 10 amazing institutions). This is not about sticking it to seminaries. I know that a lot of people think that what’s wrong with the Mainline church today is our seminaries. I could not disagree more. These seminaries know what the Church is facing and they are working to respond. Cut them some slack that the change isn’t happening as fast as you want. Most of us can barely get our 100 member, $200K budget churches to change. Try turning the ship that is a seminary. It’s not easy or quick.

Yet, while the current slate of seminaries are working to address the coming future of the Church, we have an opportunity to dream new dreams and take advantage of the tools and ethos at our disposal. So, while this isn’t about hurting seminaries, it is about experimenting to see if there is a new and different way forward than the one we’ve assumed.

This is also not about trying to replace the process by which we form pastors. In fact, if I was being honest, I would say that denominations have wrongly abdicated their responsibility to form pastors to the seminaries. If the folks at the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project are to be believed (and I think they are), the only way to be formed as a pastor is to “practice pastoring.” Yes, we need a bit of information, but the way you become a pastor is by actually pastoring. And yet, we expect fully seasoned pastors once we hand them an MDiv. Sorry. That ain’t gonna happen.

And so, if the purpose of seminary can’t be – shouldn’t be – to “form pastors” then what are we left with? Learning theology, biblical interpretation, etc.

And here is where we have a problem. With the countless resources available to me online, what is to stop me from getting a theological education by taking advantage of those resources and working through them with my pastor? What? They aren’t qualified to reflect on that material deep enough to help someone reach a level of competence? Then why are they a pastor? We need to get those folks out of congregations quick before they screw up the people in Sunday School! 🙂

Here’s what I want to try: Can we figure out a way to generate a body of theological, biblical, and pastoral knowledge and make sure that everyone who wants it has access to it?

Yes, I’m proposing a theological Wikipedia of sorts. Yes, I’m asking if what has worked for Khan Academy can work for the Church.

We used to train pastors in apprenticeship situations all the time. For thousands of years, one pastor trained another. The centralized theological academy is not the end all and be all of theological education. When I have access to the teachings of Richard Rohr at my digital fingertips, why do I need to travel half way across the country to learn it from you? Why can’t I reflect on it with my pastor? Isn’t she equipped for that?

To that end, the experiment known as Theocademy.

I want to see if we can become our own instructors again. I want to see if the Church is able to reclaim its responsibility to train the leaders that she will need for the next phase of the Church’s life. I can give you a dozen names right now that already are stellar instructors and that I hope participate in this experiment. And that’s just from my Twitter following list. I know there are people out there that I don’t know that will blow our socks off. Would you come over and be a part of it?

10 thoughts on “Let’s do seminary differently (repost)

  1. Landon – I like this idea of the Theocademy. I spent time just today with several seminarians who expressed these comments:

    – “I have a business background and have experience in budgeting, conflict mediation, human resources management, etc. Other students around me who have none of this experience will – I fear – wither in the parish when they have to deal with these things.”

    – “I wonder if my future might involve being hired by several congregations to specialize in equipping people for the do’s and don’ts of mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, etc. The problem is that my seminary isn’t offering this as a possibility. There’s no conversation about collaborative ministry.”

    – “There are very few practical classes. We haven’t learned anything about missional ecclesiology, staff management, etc.”

    Some of us are talking not about wikipedia for church as much as a Craigslist for church.

    On another note: you can teach people to do Greek and Hebrew word studies online. It’s something we did in Holy Grounds and seriously curious people liked it.

    • Do you envision HR management, budgeting, etc. (as they pertain to churches) to be things that could easily learned through an online resource like this? Should any project like Theocademy consider looking at offering instruction in topic areas that are not just “Jesusy”?

      Oh, and I get jazzed thinking about people learning languages online!

    • well, dang. I changed the post from 2 column to 1 column. did that happen to make a difference?

      I may just have to stop hosting through wordpress.com and do it on my own.

  2. Yay!!! I have felt that way ever since I graduated from seminary (which was almost 20 years ago). I wondered then, and wonder even more now why we weren’t allowed to access the massive sources available for biblical exegesis and interpretation. It seemed bizarre to me that I was expected to reinvent the wheel … well, the biblical equivalent of the wheel … when so many scholars had done so much already …. I am not saying that I was looking for someone else to do the work of asking what God is saying to us in a particular place and a particular time …. I still want to ask that question, I just don’t understand why they had to make the answer so dang convoluted … when it could have been so simple …. (I didn’t easy … I said simple)…

    I had a background in business when I began seminary … and I wondered why we didn’t get any training in church administration. I was taught preaching and worship by professors who had little experience serving as pastors in churches. I was never taught how to baptize and I was never taught how to preside over communion. We were required to give a Senior sermon … but I understand that has been done away with at my seminary …. how is a preacher supposed to learn how to preach if it isn’t in a context? Nobody warned me about the dark underbelly of parish ministry. I wish I had been told. I would have been better prepared, and I would have been able to prepare my daughter for the ugliness we sometimes experienced. It would have been so much better if I had had a pastor/mentor to show me the way before and during my early years of ministry.

    When I entered seminary I expected that given that fact that I was a single mom (one daughter) with no resources, I would probably have to have some student loans… I anticipated my debt to be about $5000 when I graduated and that I would be able to pay that off in 5, at the most, 10 years. My church, my pastor, my advisor at seminary and my presbytery confimed that number. Then three things happened. The PCUSA stopped its large grant program for deserving seminary students, tuition nearly doubled at the seminary and they stopped giving free medical insurance to seminary students. Oh, and did I mention that interest rates on student loans began to climb. I found myself in my second year of seminary facing a huge debt if I wanted to complete my studies. If I dropped out of school and worked for a few years, I would still not be able to return to seminary because I couldn’t hope to save the $15,000 to $20,000 it would take. So, I decided to continue my studies borrowing what was necessary. Did I mention that I held down two part time jobs, raised my daughter and took a full load of classes? I didn’t take a January term trip to Israel or Scotland because I couldn’t afford it; I had to stay home and work.

    The outcome was that I left seminary, secure in the knowledge that God was truly calling me to ordained ministry and that I also had a $22,000 debt. The first two churches I served were small congregations. I was paid barely presbytery minimums. If you factor in housing allowances, that meant that I qualified for student loan defferment — which I (stupidly) took. If I had it to do over again, I would have hollered as loud as I could to my church and to presbytery and anyone else who would listen that it was not OK to ask a pastor to go even deeper in debt to serve the church. But instead, I deffered the loans, which continued to accrue interest. I am now finally able to pay my student loans back — a month at a time and have (after 18 years) still $20,000 in student debt. When the seminary calls me every year asking me to give … I kind of chuckle and say, “I will be happy to as soon as I pay off the loans I had to take out to pay for my seminary education in the first place.”

    All that to say, it terrifies me to think about seminary students taking on debt today. It is even more expensive and churches are getting smaller and smaller …. the idea of being able to pay back the loans is close to fantasy. I really see very few options. But one that makes the most sense is pastors reclaiming the idea of training other pastors. There is so much available today in terms of resources and accessibility that it seems absurd to insist that living on a campus and incurring enormous debt is the only possibility. I applaud Louisville Seminary’s plan to fully fund tuition for students … maybe that is an option for other seminaries in the future … if that could be done… I say, problem solved … I am guessing that still, though, it makes more sense to rethink the whole idea. The arguement against anything but on-campus learning is that the student misses the community of students and professors learning together. Yeah, sure, maybe … but …. we have learned so many other ways to do community … that it seems ridiculous to ask a future pastor to go into enormous debt just so they can say hello on the same ground. We have to find a better way.

    I am enormously fulfilled as a solo pastor in a small congregation. I have never looked back because I have always felt God’s hand holding mine as I travel this journey of ordained ministry. It has been at an enormous cost … but I wouldn’t miss it for the world …

    • Wow. I’m still processing this witness you’ve offered, but my heart is just full of emotion. I’m grateful for what you’ve written, because it serves to reinforce why this project is important. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Landon. I’m a junior student at LPTS (your alma mater, I believe), and i think their new “Covenant for the Future” is a big step in the right direction. Scary, but very promising. Thank you for your words!

  4. No one is equipped enough to teach us but God! Revelation 10: 1-4, 9-11 This is a prophecy about 2nd coming Christ. Only He will be able to teach us the true meaning of the Word. During 325ad, many observances of the early church were abolished and even though there has been so many reformers trying to restore the Truth they cant and NEVER will! Thanks be to 2nd coming Christ who has ALREADY come!

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