Discussion Points

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Training, Indoctrination, Education

on November 15, 2011 , Print- 0 Comments

I think that there are two major roles [for a theological institution.] First, to preserve
what has to be preserved. [Preserving] a depth in knowledge of the truth, the Word,
in detail. Knowing the theology in detail. . . .
And the second is to provide the church with tools which are valid for today. There
are some things that are unchangeable, and there are other things which have to be
changed all the time. . . .
To be away for three years for a master's program, in most of the cases, it is not
working. Because the times are changing. The situation is changing. You come back
to your church [after three years in seminary], and it’s a different church.
—Antoine Rutayisire, 40s, bishop, African, Rwanda

I went kicking and screaming, almost, back into ministry because I loved what we
were studying [in seminary]. Then when I got back into ministry I realized that—I
wouldn't say that the majority [of what I had been studying] wasn't useful, but it was
like I was on another planet again. I had to unlearn a lot. I had to relearn a lot. I had
to realize that my context went from a bunch of folks who were passionate about
learning, to a community that was all over the map. How to communicate and lead
and set conversation and set direction, those two environments are so different.
I have this love/hate thing where when I talk to young people and they start getting
excited about maybe doing a ministry, wanting to go to school, I say, "Well, it was
fantastic, and there can be great learning—but you can also get it all through an
Amazon book list. There is great learning and there is great community, but
recognize that it creates an environment that is so different than the world to which
you'll be in ministry, for the most part."
I'm not sure how to bridge that. . . . Because the pain for me is that I would love to
encourage people to do it; good young leaders, young pastors. I'm hesitant because
I'm not sure how well it will equip them for the things that I do nine to five in my
world. . . .
[I’ve discovered I need training] that moves from deconstructive to constructive. So
much of my training has been to parse out and assign and think through and get the
words right. But I haven't built anything.
As soon as I got back to ministry I realized my job was to be constructive. . . . All I
[had learned] was to deconstruct the conversation and go back and not know what
to do. So what does constructive theology look like? I'm not exactly sure. But my
disciplined reflection needs to be more constructive than it is.
—Scott Scruggs, pastor, 20s, European-American, Bay Area, California

I feel up against some particular issues right now in the church that must be
grappled with. One is the whole issue of divorce, which I didn't deal with a ton in
[university ministry]. Now, I find myself teaching the Gospel of Mark. I know the
passage is coming. And, I'm wrestling with how I do that in a loving, compassionate
way, but yet true to the Scripture. So, I’m going to send out a letter to everyone
who's divorced in the congregation that we know, invite them to a meeting to hear
about their experience, and to tell them that I'm going to teach on this.
But, I realize, I don't feel like I have the time to go and crunch through all the
historical stuff on divorce. Theology, at least for me, is a very relational thing. It's
not simply, who's the biggest name in history. It's who do I trust. And so I turned to
one of our theological patriarchs in university ministry, who’s now in Sweden—I
realized I had a “go-to guy.” And, I'm wondering, how can the seminary be a go-to
guy, a go-to person, for pastors who are in the trenches facing a super relevant issue,
helping crunch the data or put it in some kind of context where they can then
wrestle with it. I know you can't just give me something to say. But, I need
something pre-chewed because I don't have time to gnaw through that T-bone, you
know, on this historical teaching of divorce.
— Alex VanRiesen, pastor, 40s, European-American, Northern California

Seminaries, I've discovered, really come in one of two stripes.
You have the ones that help you to develop intellectual formation, the intellectual
frame of reference for understanding ministry. And then you have those that will
give you the methodological tools.
And I think that really, you need both. And the question becomes, how do you get
it?
And I think that historically, how many persons that I know of have gotten it, is that
they've gone to seminary, they've gotten the intellectual formation piece. And then
they've trusted their field education experiences as well as other internships that
they've done, to grant them what they need in terms of the practical pieces.
Now, the problem is, if you hook up with somebody who does not value their
seminary experience but values you, that can create problems for you, because they
can't teach you how to integrate what you've learned. Two, I think that the other
piece is that if you hook up with somebody who has, who operates with a
hermeneutical suspicion, vis à vis the academy, that doesn't help either.
— Anthony Trufant, senior pastor, 50s, African-American, New York

The world is dominated by powerful story tellers. So, I think theological education
gives you better stories to tell. And hopefully, continuing to create that community,
post graduation, for me would be very helpful.
— Michael McBride, pastor, 20s, African-American, northern California


Whatever else seminaries do, they offer theological education. But just offering it is not enough. Seminaries need to make the case for theological education. Perhaps this has always been true to some extent, but it has certainly never been more true than it is today.

No phrase prompted more unease and resistance in many of our focus groups than the phrase “theological education”—especially among pastors. This discomfort came from multiple sources. For many serving in contexts of limited access to education, the phrase has an off-puttingly cognitive emphasis. They emphasized that mere education did not meet the very tangible needs of leadership in their churches and communities. Yet a very similar discomfort was evident among those serving amidst a postmodern culture that has become suspicious of rationalism and disembodied knowledge.

Meanwhile, for many who perceive how dependent effectiveness in ministry is on the mastery of skills of communication, cultural fluency, or community organizing, “theological education” seemed to neglect the practical skills required for successful leadership. And those who have seen the failure of leaders who had shallow resources of character and spirituality felt that the phrase did not encompass the kind of spiritual formation necessary for longevity in Christian leadership.

The bare fact is that for many people—not least those who hold a seminary degree—the phrase “theological education” connotes an abstract exercise, classroom-based and classroom- limited, disconnected from faithful action in the world.

And yet theological education is the one thing—maybe the only thing!—seminaries are uniquely equipped to provide.

Consider the difference between education and two other kinds of instruction: indoctrination and training.

Indoctrination tells students what to think and believe. Its emphasis is on the content of beliefs. Whatever process may have led to a community’s body of beliefs, indoctrination simply passes along, as faithfully as possible, that body of beliefs. Often the history of the process that led to the beliefs is omitted entirely, or presented as inevitable even when it was hotly contested at the time—as when Christians learn the Nicene Creed as a straightforward statement of belief without learning about the alternative beliefs, also known as heresies, that made the formulation of the creed necessary. In any case, indoctrinators do not seek to help their students become the kinds of people who could contribute to a change in the community’s beliefs. Indoctrination is well suited to the transmission of core commitments that are seen as unlikely to change.

Training tells students what to do and how to do it. Its focus is on the mastery of skills previously honed by innovators and experts. Pilots who train in a flight simulator are not expected to develop new methods for landing an aircraft in an emergency; they are expected to master previously perfected methods. Training is well suited to the transmission of discrete skills that apply in clearly recognizable and repeatable situations.

Indoctrination and training both have an important role in the formation of responsible and capable persons. Every sustainable human community has a core set of shared beliefs and commitments. Part of entering into any community is absorbing and assenting to those core beliefs. The word indoctrination has a negative tinge today, but that was not always the case. The church has always recognized its importance, most obviously in catechesis, the preparation of candidates for baptism, which in turn is rooted in Deuteronomy’s command to pass on Torah from generation to generation.

Likewise, training is immensely valuable because of its ability to efficiently transmit the condensed and clarified results of many generations’ previous trials and errors. Training allows people to skip much (though not all!) of that trial and error and quickly acquire abilities that may have taken centuries to perfect. Think about the difference between how much can be learned from a well-taught course in ancient Greek, with its progressively presented grammatical concepts, compared to the progress students would make if they had to recapitulate the whole history of philology simply based on a pile of ancient Greek texts.

But indoctrination and training are categorically different from education. In education you are neither told simply what to think nor what to do. Rather, education cultivates habits of mind and heart. Education does require the transmission of information and skills—it is by no means just a matter of “thinking about thinking” or even “critical thinking.” But education goes beyond information and skills to equip persons with mental and spiritual agility and acuity. These are the real, distinctive products of all serious education, especially at the graduate level.

Serious education is designed to equip students to think along with a tradition and carry that tradition into new places and times. The phrase “along with a tradition” matters. Everyone can have thoughts—ideas, hunches, guesses about the nature and meaning of the world. But an educated person thinks in conversation with a tradition—with a history of thoughts shared, contested, debated, and refined. This points up the limitation of the facile etymology of “education” as coming from the Latin for “to draw out,” as if the main purpose of education was simply to discover what is already present in students. True educators do “draw out,” but they draw their students out of themselves, out of their limited vantage points and histories into broader stories and ways of thinking.

But education is not indoctrination. It is not simply the rehearsal of the tradition. An educated person has joined a community whose job is to think together in ever new ways about their tradition as it confronts new realities. Indeed, education is the only hope for traditions to remain living. For human communities are constantly confronting new challenges and new opportunities. The rehearsal of truths, no matter how true, that were discovered and articulated in previous contexts are rarely sufficient to keep a tradition alive. At best it will become fossilized, an inert relic that has lost the capacity to participate in and shape the ongoing human story. Only education can prepare persons whose minds and hearts are sufficiently agile and discerning to keep a tradition living in a new time and place.

By the same token, education is not training. It is, in fact, preparation for precisely the situations where training will be of no use, because the difficulties and possibilities are novel and have not been conclusively “solved” by previous generations. The skills training provides can be invaluable, and are sometimes a prerequisite for innovation—we rightly expect that surgeons master proven surgical techniques before they try out new ones—but they are not a substitute for education, the cultivation of habits of mind and heart that equip persons to be simultaneously faithful to the best of what has come before and responsive to the present.

This helps clarify why we need theological education, and not just indoctrination or training. The truth is that there are awfully few situations in the practice of Christian ministry that feature well-understood, recognizable, and repeatable technical challenges. (Perhaps the closest thing is the celebration of the liturgy in liturgical churches, where ordained ministers can be, and indeed need to be, trained in a sequence of words and deeds that may change very little from week to week, and even less from one Christian year to the next.) Especially in the fluid environments of

the post-Christian West and advanced consumer capitalism, the emerging and urbanizing economies of the Global South, and the communities where newly arrived immigrants live alongside established communities—in other words, almost everywhere today’s seminary students can expect to live, work, and serve—there simply is very little certain technical knowledge to be passed on. This is an environment where training will be of very limited value.

Equally to the point, to the extent that there are skills and practices that can be passed on, seminaries are much less well equipped than many other institutions to offer training. At one time seminaries were the strongest institutions in American Protestantism. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of churches with budgets larger than all but the very largest seminaries. These churches are almost by definition masters of training (and sometimes indoctrination; usually the core beliefs of evangelicalism are taken for granted rather than taught, though there are some prominent exceptions to this rule). They have learned how to bring to scale the transmission of their core beliefs and most effective practices—and they often aspire to train other church leaders as well. The best of their leadership conferences have a targeted usefulness and timeliness that few if any seminaries will be able to match.

Seminaries may play a role in training, especially among communities with relatively limited resources invested in other institutions, but the ability to train for particular functions of leadership is no longer a comparative advantage of seminaries. Indeed, since so many skills are best learned in a context of apprenticeship, it is very likely that churches are the most natural place for training. By the same token, churches are the proper location for catechesis, the passing on of the core of the faith. One does not—and should not—need to pay for an expensive graduate-level education to learn what Christians have always and everywhere believed, nor even to delve deeply into the riches of the Christian faith. That is the mission of the whole church, not just of seminaries, and to the extent that seminaries are currently providing that kind of instruction it probably more reflects the failings of churches to take their catechetical mission seriously than the natural strength of a seminary.

Alex’s reflections on his upcoming sermon on divorce nicely illustrate the fluid and complex environment that seminaries must prepare their students for. In a moment of candor, he admits, “I need something pre-chewed because I don't have time to gnaw through that T-bone, you know, on this historical teaching of divorce.” Read out of context, this could sound like a request for indoctrination—a definitive answer to a complex question—or perhaps training in how to connect a well-defined answer to the realities of contemporary pastoral ministry. But reading more carefully, it seems clear that Alex is really asking for help marshaling the many perspectives—biblical, theological, pastoral—that should inform a clear and compassionate approach to the issue of divorce.

Alex is articulating the need for education—an education rooted in the classical theological disciplines. He needs biblical studies to learn the exegetical skills to approach a passage like Mark’s on divorce, and to learn how to set that passage in its original cultural context. He needs theology to give him perspectives on how to handle the tensions that arise when trying to read one biblical text alongside many others. He needs history to understand the ways Christians have responded to Jesus’ words in Mark through the centuries—so that he can, “in a loving and compassionate way,” invite his congregation to respond just as faithfully today.

Like Scott from Northern California, and Antoine from Rwanda, Alex needs theological education to equip him to be, in Scott’s words, a “constructive” leader—one who can craft thoughtful, faithful responses in new and challenging situations. Alex’s own church offers significant resources in catechesis and training to its members. But in order to lead that church, Alex needs more. He needs a theological education, and he wants to be a part of the ongoing community of learning that emerges from theological education at its best. This is what seminaries need to make the case for today.

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