Thursday, June 10, 2004

Solving the Problems of Seminary Education

Solving the Problems of Seminary Education


Within the Missouri synod, there's been a great deal of talk recently about the restructuring of seminary education. Unfortunately, the fight over seminary education has usually been drawn along two lines: liberal ('the moderates' -- who are usually not very liberal at all by classical definition), and conservatives.

The liberals are mostly aging baby-boomers, who are inclined to throw terms like "irrelevant" or "outmoded" around like candy. Their preferred mode of seminary education is geared to contemporary issues, contemporary usually meaning whatever current society is worried about. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.

Conservatives are sometimes not much better. In the first place, those who call themselves conservatives sometimes ( not always, unfortunately ) mean that they are confessional. The two are not synonymous. Conservatives are sometimes just that: conservative, wanting to hold on to whatever was in the past. The past sometimes made grievous errors. Just like us. Sometimes confessional or orthodox Lutherans must be quite radical in the changes they hope to bring about, in order to root out the problems of the past -- and those of the future. But that's for another time.

The conservatives often hold to the past for seminary education. There's a great hankering in some circles for bringing the orthodox seminaries back to where they were in, say, 1900. Unfortunately, there were problems then, as well. Perhaps the problems were less. But there is no great virtue in returning to the past. The past is not our standard. The scriptures and our confessions are.

The problem
I would like to propose a radical, confessional change for seminary education.

It would solve the problem of educating second career men, who are perhaps blessed with a family to support while studying for the holy ministry.

It would solve the problem of educating men from minority groups, who sometimes feel that they are taken out of a particular community and forced into a seminary setting at variance with their day-to-day life.

It would solve the problem of men entering the ministry with a huge debt for their education.

It would solve the problem of men who enter the ministry, and are forced into spoon-fed continuing education because they are unable to study on their own.

It would solve the problem of a dichotomy between seminary education and the parish setting.

It would solve the problem of ivory tower professors who have no contact with the ministry setting into which their students will soon enter.

And frankly, it would solve problems that I cannot even envision, because it would -- for the first time, to my knowledge -- bring the element of competition into the way the Missouri Synod (and other confessional church bodies) educate their ministers.

I have seen very few situations in human life where competition is not a great and helpful thing. In business, it prevents one business from tyrannizing a particular market by forcing customers to endure bad service. It is truly astonishing what real freedom of choice can provide to a situation that is not working well.

There is very little competition in seminary education today. There are two seminaries in the Missouri Synod, but the St. Louis seminary is having such problems at this point that it frankly offers little incentive for a student to attend there when he can just as easily attend the one in Ft. Wayne.

The two Concordias are doing a good job, however. The proof of an educational institution is their graduates, and the graduates in question are superb. Recent graduates are confessional, well versed in the scriptures, and able to minister to parishes in need. But the problems mentioned above still haunt us.

A possible solution

In 1836, the University of London offered a radical degree program. In this program, they offered no instruction or any of the other traditional trappings of university learning. What they offered was a degree program in which students learned on their own, and the university tested students to verify that they had learned what was required in their field.

This program is offered still. (Interestingly enough, they also offer a BD, equivalent to an M. Div.) The idea has also spread. There are probably hundreds of colleges and universities in the US (and overseas -- the University of South Africa has an outstanding program) offering some form of external learning. But the one which has offered the purest form in the US is the Excelsior College's external degree program. This fully accredited associates and bachelors (and soon they will be offering several masters level programs as well) program is offered to anyone who can demonstrate knowledge in a particular field. How the student learns is his business. What he has learned, and certifying that he has learned it is the business of the university.

I am well acquainted with this program because I am a graduate of the program. I received a BA in philosophy from them in 1978, and went on to complete an associate's degree in nursing in 1980. I demonstrated my competence in both fields by written examinations in philosophy, and a combination of written and clinical examinations in nursing. Both are tough, and nail-bitingly rigorous.

I have no interest in lowering standards for ministerial education. If anything, they should probably be strengthened. I'm appalled at some of the suggestions being bandied about today, especially those aimed at changing the process for minority group ministers. Such suggestions are usually painfully condescending, and if put nakedly, are basically phrased as they are because the person suggesting them thinks that African-American or Hmong or whatever group is under discussion is incapable of the rigors of theological education, unlike (and here is the unspoken assertion) Lutherans of German descent.

I don't buy that. What I do think is that changes need to be made in the process by which ministers are trained. I want to maintain the same rigorous standards governing the outcome of the process.

Let us envision a different process. In this one, students are responsible for their own education. They are able to learn in whatever way suits them best. Some will choose classroom instruction, and so there will still be a need for educational institutions, although they will be different from the way they exist now.

Others will choose to be tutored, and will work out arrangements with tutors. Some pastors may tutor men in their congregations who are studying for the ministry. Other students may want to study under some other teacher or writer or pastor, and will make arrangements that way. Some of this tutoring will be done in person, some by mail, some by phone or computer network conferences.

Still others will study mostly by reading. They will treat great past and present writers like tutors, and learn from them. Such students will spend six months absorbed in, say, Walther's Law and Gospel, or Chemnitz's Loci. Some will study them by themselves; others with the help of a tutor, and still others with a study group. The possibilities are endless.

And other ways I have not envisioned will be used as well, ways that will allow students to learn in whatever way helps them the most. I can only speak for myself -- as one who has completed two college degrees by such a process -- that this method encourages further learning. The tired, old system (now being promulgated as though it were the newest thing on the block) of dishing out pabulum disguised as "continuing education" could die on the vine. The system I envision allows the student to make the library his primary teacher, and that is a wonderful thing.

We have no idea what wonderful resources are at hand, most of them no further than a toll-free phone call away. English reading Christians in the late 20th century have an enormous supply of orthodox writings available in our language, not to mention those who can read and understand German or Latin. Luther and Chemnitz and Sasse and Walther and Marquart -- to mention only a few -- are waiting for us. Those writings alone would supply a lifetime of faith-enriching orthodox teaching, and yet we somehow feel the need to spoon-feed adult, college-educated (often graduate degreed) men. Of course, some will never take the time or energy to read these materials. The bigger question that must be asked, though, is whether we want someone so lazy or unmotivated or incapable in the ministry. No, I don't think every person has to read the great works of the past -- although we would all benefit from them. But if the clergy are not acquainted with these writers, they will surely pick up their theology from someone. Who will it be?


One objection that will certainly be raised to such a program is that while the residential program has a means by which the student becomes acclimated to the ministry, the external program has no such means. In other words, the seminary becomes (among other things) a halfway house. In seminary, he is no longer (in a sense) fully a layman, and not yet clergy. He has in seminary a chance to become adjusted to the responsibilities he will face without fully taking them on. A good example of this acclimatization is found in the annual report of the Dean of the Martin Luther Institute of Sacred Studies, the training institution of the Lutheran Churches of the Reformation. In his report at the LCR's 1994 convention, Dean Sheldon Twenge mentioned something most of us don't even think about: that "some LCR principles that become virtually 'second nature' to MLISS students [by virtue of their attendance at that institution] are: congregational autonomy, the advisory nature of a church body, and the office of the public ministry ... " (The Faithful Word, Vol. 31, No. 2, p. 54)

This is how ministerial training should be. Every church body has differences and distinctions which the student must make part of himself if he is to be happy ministering within that body. The student who is not acclimated to those distinctions will a) be unhappy, b) make his congregation unhappy, c) probably leave in search of another church body soon. This is one of the reasons why ministerial training (both internal and external) must emphasize the Lutheran confessions. Men who are not grounded and rooted in them may end up being fine generic Protestant ministers, but they will not be Lutherans.

The conservative answer to this problem is to act as though all men entering seminaries are just out of a synodical college, having previously attended a synodical prep school. Of course, we can act this way all we want, but it is not true now, and has not been for some time. It might have been a preferred way to train ministers, but it's not the way things are right now. Another problem for this method of ministerial training is that there are many men in the seminaries who did not grow up as Lutherans, and some of them have not been Lutherans for many years. So, why complain about something that's not going to change any time soon? If anything, begin working now on 13 or 14 year old boys, encouraging them to enter prep schools. But it will do no good to treat a second career man, aged 41, as though he had this history. It's simply pointless, and a waste of everyone's time and energies, both of which are in short supply.

Men who have come through "the system" will have absorbed a confessional stance partly by osmosis. But I think we must further face the fact that part of our problem may be that our congregations are no longer as "Lutheran" as they should be. This is a problem much bigger than seminaries, and it is beyond my scope to remedy it. I have no interest in becoming some type of Lutheran cheerleader, making individuals and congregations and synods Lutheran for the sake of being "Lutheran." I do hope for a more outspokenly confessional and biblical heritage for us all.

That begins, not at the seminaries, but at the congregational level. The Word of God must be preached purely, teaching must be biblical, hymns must be doctrinally pure, and liturgies must point to the risen Savior, and away from ourselves. When this happens in congregations, the socialization of ministers will be a given, happening on the congregational level.

How do we gauge outcomes?

Training for the ministry involves several areas, and all of them must be examined before any church body can certify that a man is qualified for a call.

The one thought about most often is that of academic learning. "Apt to teach" is one of the primary qualifications Paul gives for the minister of the Word, and that necessitates adequate learning. The student must demonstrate proficiency in such areas as exegetical theology (which of necessity includes knowledge of the original languages), doctrinal theology, historical theology (which would necessitate knowledge of Latin, and, at least for Lutherans, German), and practical theology (including the theoretical aspects of such areas as homiletics and liturgics).

This is the area easiest to test in. The candidate's knowledge can be easily tested by some combination of written or verbal examinations.

Another area the candidate needs involves (for want of a better term) practical areas, such as preaching ability, teaching ability, and liturgical skills. This is a more difficult area to test. It is also a difficult area to teach, and most seminaries will -- if candid -- admit it. Obviously, it cannot be assessed by means of written exams, and probably not by verbal ones either. Remember, I am not suggesting means by which students can learn these abilities. That is, bluntly speaking, their problem. I am merely discussing how they should demonstrate their knowledge of these.

I can suggest several means. One would be by means of a skills list which would need to be demonstrated, to someone who is capable of objective, mature judgment on the particular skill. Another would be a series of demonstrative examinations for the various skills, such as a "model" sermon, "model" teaching, or whatever. Finding a way to test such abilities is difficult, but not impossible. If testing the ability in a "conventional" seminary is possible, testing it on an external basis is possible, too.

The third area that must be addressed is that of the man himself, his character and life, which is a sure requirement in the New Testament. A residential seminary program provides some means by which the faculty and others can judge this character requirement, in ways an external program cannot. There's never a sure-fire way of judging this, even in a residential program where the faculty and students are in close contact; everyone has horror stories of men entering the ministry who are by character unfit for ministry. Some means of judging a man's life would have to be developed, but, again, this is by no means an insurmountable barrier.


The plan I've proposed is by no means complete. I am not an educator (although I teach a junior high Bible class, and tutor my own children in a homeschool setting), but I have been through programs of this sort. This type of learning works. I am not saying it is for everyone, and I am not saying it would solve all of the problems seminary education is facing. What I am saying is that competition would help us solve these problems, and that this means of seminary education -- which would force the student to take responsibility for at least part of his own learning -- would make for men who are able learn on their own, without that perhaps saddest of situations, wherein a minister stops reading anything of consequence six months into his first parish.

Seminary education is expensive, both for the synod and for the student. Unfortunately, an uneducated or undereducated ministry is a lot more expensive. We need to make the best use of our seminary funds. This is a way of innovating that is comparatively inexpensive. We are the first generation in history which has access to so many means of teaching, and it behooves us to make use of them. Think about the means unavailable even twenty years ago: video and audio tapes, teleconferencing, on-line seminars, CD-ROMs, and satellite downloading. Not to mention that we are blessed with inexpensive books (especially when we look at the adjusted dollar cost, compared with twenty years ago), and easier and less expensive travel. Other means will come along in even the next decade that we cannot even imagine now.

God has enabled us to have these technologies. We can use them to make our education better, or we can ignore them, and continue with the same, expensive means we've used in the past. Companies catering to homeschooling families have come out with wonderful innovations, and that is a result of competition. Can we do the same? Of course we can. The important question is whether we will. We are faced with an opportunity to improve the way we educate our ministers. Properly done, it will not only save scarce time and resources, but will improve the way ministers learn.

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