More Thoughts on Seminary and Graduate School

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I have been mulling over the various responses on Facebook and in the comments on this blog regarding my last post, “Seminary is not Graduate School.” They have been thoughtful and I have enjoyed the give and take in the discussions. I want to offer three points as a general response.

First, when I argue that seminary is not graduate school, I am not advocating for the absence of rigor or critical thinking. A proper formation for ministry requires deep learning and critically reflective engagement with the tradition. As one commenter put it, perhaps the emphasis should be less on “graduate” and more on “school.” This fits with my reference to the Rule of Benedict — preparation for ministry is about preparing in a school for the Lord’s service.

When I think about the kind of ministers the church needs (and here I first am thinking about priests), I believe seminaries need to help form effective catechists and pastors. Students do need theological formation, they need to express the teachings of Scripture and the church well in teaching and preaching, and they need to be spiritually astute and grounded, skilled in the discernment of spirits. They do not need to be excellent according to the standards of the academy. But they need to be adept in the care of the people of God, which does require a discerning mind and an ability to think critically. Seminary is meant to help accomplish that.

Second, while I think academic rigor is absolutely necessary, my concern with labeling seminary as graduate school is that it then locates the work of seminary in the life of the academy rather than in the church. I greatly value the work of humanities based education and the perspectives it offers to our common life. But the academy is dedicated to universal humanist values which downplay the commitments of religious particularity. While I think this is crucial for civil society, it is less helpful for the life of the church. Being a Chrisitan in the contemporary West means a kind of dual citizenship, toggling between sacred and secular values that do not always align well. I believe seminary training is a time to dive deep into ecclesial commitments and be shaped by them before returning back to the dual citizenship that contemporary ministry requires. Seminary is a time apart, not unlike many other cultural initiation processes that precede entry into a new role.

Finally, while it might be possible for university religious studies departments to offer much of the academic training there is something deeply formational and important about time at a residential seminary. (Here I am bracketing the university divinity school, largely because I think this is a separate topic.) I want to return to the topic of spirituality and discernment in my first point. I think one of the most important things one should learn in seminary is how to pray and how to teach others to pray. That is, seminary ought to be the time when one begins to be a skilled spiritual practitioner. One ought to be in spiritual direction, one ought to be developing the spiritual gift of discernment of spirits, and one ought to be developing a spiritual vocabulary and narrative of the Christian life that is easily shared with others. This is not the realm of graduate school. But it is the work of spiritual formation found in the school of the service of the Lord.

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