Discussion Points


Discussion Point #3: Rethinking Vocation

on October 17, 2011 , Print- 2 Comments

My seminary, my Bible school, offers degrees up through the M.Div. to professional people. Our students include housewives and heart specialists—I have a doctor who is one of the well known Malaysian heart specialists. He comes in. He's rushing. But he says, "I want to learn!" And he's half falling asleep. But the moment you ask him a question, he knows how to answer. He seems to be assimilating all that.

—Teresa, seminary president, 50s, Chinese-Malaysian, Malaysia

We’ve broken systematic theology away from pastoral theology. We separated it out from practice. It becomes rarefied, rather than missiological. I think there is an unhelpful division there, and actually, that translates into the choices people make when they come out of seminary. If you want to teach theology to your congregation, you'll do a series on God, on the Trinity, on the church. Those systematic categories then translate over into how you teach.

As a pastor, I've tried to integrate in a theology of everyday life. So rather than do a series on God and prayer and Bible study, I did a teaching series called “24,” it was based on the television show featuring Keifer Sutherland, about the idea of what it would be like to traverse through a whole day with God with you.

So in seven weeks, we looked at a theology of waking up and starting your day, a theology of commuting, a theology of work, a theology of measure, a theology of food and hospital, and just trying to break down some of the traditional theological categories to integrate it them more with life.

—Krish, ministry executive, 40s, Indian-Briton, United Kingdom

In my context, there is Protestantism in Indonesia, mostly built by Dutch reform colonization. So the paradigm for doing churches is just very deductive, very administrative, managerial. You can not touch political area. So the church is just a community of the believers. That's it. Just go to heaven. That is the problem now. I think that answered your question in my context of Indonesia. But I praise the Lord that in recent decades God's changed it very much. We realize, Christianity right now has a new paradigm that we have a responsibility in political life, and send all the children to study for political studies.

If I took my study now political science five years ago, maybe I would be discredited by my synod, because it is very dangerous for a pastor to take a political science not theology. You see there is a difference. There is a new paradigm shift now. But it is almost too late in the context of Indonesia, because Muslims they have very well training in political science.

Fortunately, we praise God for Catholics. Catholics were preparing many many years ago, because they have a theological church and state become one. Right? We Christians, mostly mainline Christians we have a dichotomy for reformation that church and state must be separated. But it's too much, the separation.

— Yusuf, pastor, 50s, Chinese-Indonesian, Indonesia

We're pastoring people who are managers, CEOs. There was a time when we would stand up there and say, well, the pastor said it, and that's enough. Well you've got people who are managing bigger budgets than the church. They're managing more people than the whole congregation. So, in other words, you're dealing with a whole different skill set of people, and their expectations are also a lot different than the previous generation. So, they're looking for ways, not only to equip themselves. Before my grandmother, they were looking for ways of equipping help, not only to, in the home. But many of them worked menial jobs.

Now we've got parishioners who are working in corporate America and they need to know that I am the only black in that room. So I need to know how to survive that. I need to know how to survive myself spiritually in a place. How do I stay spiritually grounded in a company that maybe morally challenged? So these are things that the parishioners are looking for in this new generation.

We run a school. We have 340 students. [It would be] wonderful to have my principal go to a seminary and begin to understand some of those experiences, particularly because she's doing the same thing: managing conflict. But I'm saying, from a spiritual point of view, literally, as the principal, I'm the pastor, but she still has to pastor the people, in some way, shepherding the people, shepherding families that may be in conflict, shepherding families that may be in distress. So, I think the

institutions have to open their doors and bring in more than just the pastor, but to begin to equip the church.

— Darrell, senior pastor, 40s, African-American, Chicago

People in the neighborhood, they see us coming in and out, black people, Bangladesh people, Pakistani, and so the journalists in the local radio there call us, "Let's do as the cultural center next door did," so they didn't call us a church. In the beginning I was kind of upset, and then I said, "Hey, this is a message probably from God." You know, we have become a cultural center and people think, "OK, they are taking care of the neighborhood and they care about people, and look, all these immigrants go in there." But you know what? My biggest struggle as a pastor is that I believe, and I know some people are going to get upset now, that we are too tough in our theology. We have a theology that makes people upset, and they think, "Right, there is a church. They are condemning us." And then they never come.

— Stavros, pastor, 40s, Greek, Greece

If you want a short response to the question, what do seminaries need to become in order to equip the church to join God's mission, my own experience with traditional seminary is that it does really good theology, really good practice of ministry, really good pastoral skills, and some good work with culture, and some good work with all these other things. But I don't think that it really equips the leader to read the context, and to let the context lead the shape of the mission. The shape of the mission is always from the box out to the community instead of reading the context and letting that shape backwards. If that makes sense.

And that is a particular skill that I have not grown up with in my church life that I feel the [Master of Arts in Global Leadership] really pulling me toward. And to do that in an intentional way, I think would be very powerful for our upcoming leaders.

— Marilyn, ministry director, 50s, European-American, Pennsylvania

I think I drove most of my professors nuts because I knew I wasn't called to traditional in church ministry. I knew I was called to business from an early age, and knew that it was in the context of business that God was going to walk out my calling. So most of my professors loved and hated me at the same time.

— Kim, photographer and entrepreneur, 30s, European-American, southern California

I think that was what was so difficult in trying to bridge these two worlds together where it seemed like there was almost two different Christianities out there, one that was intellectually engaging and one that really focused on the heart. And I guess when I came to Redeemer one of the main concerns I had was, how do you bridge these two worlds seamlessly so that they don't just seem like two different Christianities, but one that's part of a continuum?

And for me, what bridged that distance theologically was the idea of the death, resurrection, and glory of Christ. People had to see the relevance of his death, resurrection, and glory in their personal lives to drive all that they did in their spiritual formation personally. As well as driving their understanding of what God is doing in the world.

So instead of seeing a dichotomy between engagement and also personal formation, spiritual formation, they would hopefully see that to develop personally is the same as engaging the world. And that's part of the same God, the same gospel dynamic.

— David, pastor, 30s, Asian-American, New York City

I want to make sure that seminaries are encouraging and facilitating seminary students to learn about things other than just seminary, so that when they come out into the real world—not in the real world—when they come out into full time ministry, if they haven't worked in the real world, if they did just go straight from college to seminary, they would have least gotten exposed to some other industry, or maybe another way of looking at the world that's not just a seminary perspective.

Not because any other perspective is valid just because it's another perspective, but because the people that they're going to be ministering to didn't all only go from college to seminary.

— Christian, attorney, 30s, European-American, New York City

Two generations ago, it was clear who theological education was for. It was for people preparing for ordained ministry or, possibly, missionary service. An overwhelming majority of M.Div. students went on to work as clergy in a Christian denomination. Seminary, like many other professional schools—of law or medicine or business—gave individuals a specific credential for a specific career.

Our conversations with groups around the world strongly suggest that the expectations of students and other constituencies for theological education is changing in ways that will make the second-career boom of the 1980s and 1990s seem like a minor diversion.

One generation ago, the picture began to be more complicated. Many seminaries and denominations welcomed a surge of “second-career” students and aspirants to ordination. Rather than proceeding directly from college to their professional training for ministry, these adults came to seminary after work elsewhere or after their children were grown. Most were still “changing careers” and went on to ordained ministry after seminary, so seminary continued to play its part as career preparation. But a significant minority were simply seeking theological instruction and spiritual formation to complement their work in other spheres. All of these older students brought cultural competency and confidence that changed the atmosphere of the seminary classroom, pressing faculty to be more conversant with disciplines beyond the traditional theological domain and to accommodate the learning styles of students who might be the same age as their professors.

Today, the student body at many seminaries is trending younger again. In part this is because masters-level education has become normative for a much larger number of college graduates than was the case twenty years ago. But, as we have already noted, the career track after seminary is now in disarray—more like a tangle of overgrown paths leading in various directions, with uncertain destinations, than a “track.” And this professional reality coincides with a dramatic (and, we believe, hopeful) revolution in the way Christians understand vocation. Our conversations with groups around the world strongly suggest that the expectations of students and other constituencies for theological education is changing in ways that will make the second-career boom of the 1980s and 1990s seem like a minor diversion.

Across the board, pastoral ministry is no longer culturally marked as “set apart” in the way it was just a few decades ago.

In a nutshell, the divide between “sacred” and “secular” vocations, which the Protestant Reformation did much to erode, is giving way entirely. On the one hand, “sacred” vocations (pastoral ministry and missionary service, which even today are still the normal referents of the word “vocation” for Catholic Christians, along with monastic life) are in many ways becoming secularized. Pastoral ministry is increasingly understood by pastors themselves using categories from the business world and management and leadership theory. The deference that used to be given to “men of the cloth” has all but vanished from American life. Even congregations that greatly respect their ordained clergy are likely to see them much more as professional and personal peers than as a special category of person set aside for a uniquely holy duty. This transition is perhaps most striking in the Black church, where institutionalized racism in the wider society once meant that ordained ministry was one of a handful of viable professional careers, with clergy frequently occupying the most privileged and respected place in the community. Today, however, as several of our focus group participants observed, pastors of middle-class Black churches are likely to have many members of their congregation who work in high-status and high-compensation jobs in business, government, medicine, and more. Among Hispanic churches, on the other hand, the vast majority of pastors are bivocational by necessity, working jobs similar to their congregation during the week while leading and preaching in the evenings and on Sundays. Across the board, pastoral ministry is no longer culturally marked as “set apart” in the way it was just a few decades ago.

At the same time, “secular” work is becoming sacralized—that is, more and more Christians are seeking to orient their work towards ultimate significance. This trend draws on several sources. At a socioeconomic level, the expansion of college education in the United States, even though much of it is narrowly preprofessional, extends a sense of choice and agency to more and more workers. Students choose a course of study, and consequently a career, and where people feel invested with choice they seek to orient their choices on the map of their values. This is mirrored by a long-wave trend in the American workplace towards investing even entry-level work with the nomenclature of “team,” “partner,” or “associate” rather than “employee.”

At an ecclesial and theological level, many growing and influential church movements in America draw explicitly or implicitly on a Reformed worldview in which daily work has significance as part of the fulfillment of the “creation mandate” or anticipates the eschatological destiny of human creativity as part of the “glory and honor of the nations.” Even streams of Christianity that stand at a distance from the Reformed tradition—like the Anabaptists—are examining the significance of work in a much more comprehensive way than they would have a generation ago.

Our focus groups repeatedly returned to the need for theological education to encompass a holistic vision of vocation, not just the concerns of ordained church leadership and mission more narrowly conceived. This was true not just for the “usual suspects” like students from the Brehm Center and participants in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's Center for Faith and Work, but also for global leaders like the president of the Covenant Church of Congo (who described his realization that he needed to start a Christian university, rather than a seminary, in order to train Christian leaders there) and a seminary president in Southeast Asia (who said that many of her students were not on an ordination track but were Christian professionals seeking more theological grounding); the cohort in Fuller’s MAGL program; and African-American pastors (who expressed an urgent need for ways to theologically address both the professions and the needs of communities plagued by low education and violence). The broadening understanding of vocation, and the need for seminaries to address it directly, seems to go well beyond middle-class North Americans seeking fulfillment in their careers—it was as prominent a feature of the conversations in Cape Town as in Pasadena.

Perhaps this is the most dramatic way to summarize this finding: The audience for theological education is expanding even as it is shrinking.

We believe the surge of interest in faith and vocation is one of the healthiest things to happen to Christianity in a very long time. The decline in the status and prospects of ordained clergy is a murkier development, to say the least.

For traditional pastoral and mission work, a seminary degree is increasingly seen as having relatively ancillary value. As discussed above, for the kind of entrepreneurial leadership increasingly required for pastoral ministry, an M.Div. may well be more and more like an MBA: undoubtedly useful, even academically rigorous and personally satisfying, but not highly correlated with leadership effectiveness—in other words, a superfluous credential. The traditional audience for this kind of degree is certainly not growing, and is probably shrinking. We believe most seminaries would do well to assume that they will never enroll more M.Div. students—and certainly not more M.Div. students preparing for traditional ordained pastoral ministry—than they do today, either in absolute numbers or relative to enrollment in other degree programs. (There may be exceptions—some streams of American evangelicalism are experiencing a minor clerical revival, including the Southern Baptists and the Presbyterian Church in America. But most seminaries, including Fuller, will benefit only marginally from this trend.)

On the other hand the audience for seminary education is expanding: more and more people, most of them not seeking ordination or professional assignments in mission and ministry, aspire to reflect theologically about their work, their communities, and their vision of life. Given that their vocations often required graduate work, many will want to match their vocational training with equally serious graduate education in theology.

We believe the surge of interest in faith and vocation is one of the healthiest things to happen to Christianity in a very long time. The decline in the status and prospects of ordained clergy is a murkier development, to say the least. But taken together, these coordinated trends pose significant challenges, if also real opportunities, for seminaries. The declining trend could easily outpace the expanding trend. The declining audience was a relatively well-defined group with predictable needs and aspirations; the expanding audience is heterogenous, less predictable, and more likely to be sensitive to price and to broader macroeconomic trends (since theological education is not an economic necessity for them in the way it once was for those who sought ordination).

Our conversations over the past two years encourage us, however, that the core of theological education is more than relevant to the new and broader communities seminaries need to address. What many people are looking for is precisely a theological vision of vocation. The seminaries that are best at preparing people to think biblically, historically, and theologically will be the ones most able to serve the expanding audience—especially if they can link these core strengths with innovative programs at the “edge” that reach people who might not otherwise realize that seminary is for them, too. Seminaries that develop effective strategies for recruitment and are innovative in their curriculum and pedagogy at both the core and edges of the curriculum will have much to offer both pastoral leaders who want to be equipped to call people to an integrated understanding of faith and life and the people we once called “lay people”—now recognized, by both their pastors and themselves, as the ministers in Christ’s name, in every sphere of life that they were always meant to be.

2 Comments on Discussion Point 3: Rethinking Vocation
Dianne SmeedOctober 31 2012 at 11:20 AM

I would not have thought that the student body would be younger again - I am surprised by this but I think it is wonderful. Dianne Smeed http://www.preaching.com/resources/preaching-online/11663600/

Brian MillerNovember 04 2011 at 13:26 PM

I am the member of a pastoral team made up of 6 members plus the pastors from our four church plants in northern Virginia. Two thirds of us are bi-vocational. For us, we wrestle constantly with the ideas of vocation. How we see ourselves and our ministries have a profound impact on who we can reach, the level of resources we need, our ability to model the kingdom, and how we engage our congregation in the work of the kingdom. For some of us, we never plan to enter “full time ministry” because we will lose access to the mission field in our back yard. Most of us are seminary trained and have at least one graduate degree. (In a perfect world we would like to run everyone in the church through seminary as they carry out the ministry.) For us, we need the good theological base, but a good theological base does not tell us how to minister in our context. We also need good cross disciplinary theology that tells us, all of us as the body, how to be incarnational in the vocational/minsistry context we are planted in.

For example, “a Christian perspective on the purpose of business has been proposed by Denise Daniels and her colleagues1 and Jeff Van Duzer and his colleagues. In contrast to the contemporary paradigm of increasing shareholder wealth as the purpose of business, they propose that the theologically grounded purpose of business is to serve God through serving customers by providing the legitimate goods and services needed for life; through serving employees by providing vocationally rich opportunities for work; and through serving the broader community by contributing to the common good. (A Theological Reflectio...

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