what to do about seminary?
About a week and a half ago, I spent the day talking about leadership with my colleagues. We sat in a circle, nibbling on chocolate mints and letting the unseasonably warm wind blow off the water and into the house.
At one point, several of us weighed in on this question: Have you ever been thrust into leadership without sufficient preparation and perhaps to the detriment of those you were leading?
My mind immediately flew back to my seminary internships, when I was responsible for leading Bible studies or for preaching or for calling on home-bound people. For so much of that time, I was not certain that I was called to be a pastor or to lead. Like many of my seminary peers, I had enrolled in seminary with the intent of figuring out my calling while I finished my degree. This was especially true for those of us who went straight from college to seminary. We had heard that people used graduate school as a place to stall, a place to put off deciding how they would spend their lives—but surely we weren’t among them.
So we went to seminary.
And we led Bible studies without being confident that we should be leading them. And we preached—not with the congregation in mind, but with our own calling in mind. I for one spent a whole lot more time introspecting and fretting and crying about myself and my uncertain vocation than I did about the lives of the people I was charged to care for.
Instead of absorbing the history of Israel or the Hebrew language, I turned my homework into another chance to ruminate on whether I had leadership chops. I rarely completed an assignment without turning it back toward myself, no matter where it started—Greek grammar, organizational leadership, the book of Esther, an ecumenical council. My fifth-grade teachers would have been ashamed: my papers never bothered to avoid first-person pronouns.
Apparently, this is increasingly common. More and more students are using seminary as a space for discernment, rather than a space for preparation. Once upon a time, people felt a call to ministry and attended seminary in order to be adequately equipped to serve as ministers. But now, in an era when jobs are hard to come by and adolescence is extended well into the twenties, people need more time to figure out their vocations.
And, from what I heard from my colleagues that day we talked about leadership, the seminary is having to figure out its own vocation. If students are using seminary not to learn the skills to be pastors but to discern whether or not they should be pastors at all, the curriculum needs to look a lot different than it has. Maybe we need to separate out the discerning and the equipping, because it’s pretty hard to acquire the skills for leadership when you cry over your homework every night, deep in an identity crisis.
I’m not sure what all this means, and I’m certainly not going to sort out the role seminaries play all by myself. But it has been on my mind. There’s no going back on the cultural shifts—the majority of new college graduates may never again be sure of their vocational path immediately out of school—so we’ll have to figure something else out.
Should we advise college students to take some time to work and to do their discerning before seminary, while they are earning, rather than spending, money? Should seminaries revamp their curricula? Should we stretch the length of seminary programs so that students have a chance to grow as leaders once they’re actually fairly confident they should be leading? I’m not sure.
But I just don’t feel good about sending seminarians into churches to try to care for a congregation while their gazes are pointed straight in.