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What’s Going On In There?

by Josh Packard


I am right in the middle of conference season. Last week I was in Chicago for the joint Association for the Sociology of Religion and American Sociological Association annual meetings, and next week I’ll be in San Diego at a conference for church planters. Then it’s off to Seattle, Colorado, Los Angeles, and Austin. I’m talking about Church Refugees at all of these events to a mixture of pastors and other church workers along with academics who study religion.

One of the most unexpected things I’m finding as I make these presentations has been a growing number of seminary students who either chat with me afterward or email me later, often for confidentiality reasons. They tell me amazing stories of disconnect between their training and the daily realities that pastors face (many of them are working their way through seminary in various church roles). What they are learning in the classroom, they tell me, is simply divorced from the reality of running a church or even being the church in the world. (Check out the Practical Stuff for Pastors series)

This saddens me for sure, because education can be so powerful when it combines deep theoretical or theological knowledge with good, pragmatic training. However, it doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been saying for a while now that if we think churches are somewhat behind in thinking about the forces driving people away from institutional church, they are still light years ahead of most seminaries.

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You see, the reason these seminary students are talking to me in the first place is not to complain about their training. They’re coming to me to tell me that they are Almost Dones.  They point out the massive gap between their motivations for entering seminary and what they ultimately experience once enrolled. The divorce between their desires and their actual classroom experiences echoes almost exactly the things we heard while researching Church Refugees.

They tell me that their training isn’t relevant to helping people live out Christ’s message in their daily lives. There’s too much focus on running the church as a business. There’s not much truly creative thinking about how to engage the world. To be sure, some places are better than others, but I think there is real cause for concern that the same patterns we’re seeing among congregants might be also going on with pastors.

Many of you who read this blog regularly are pastors or other church workers who have seminary or other professional ministry training. What do you think? Is seminary actually a catalyst for driving some people out of the institutional church? Did your training equip you to do the job you have today? If you could do it over again and design your own program, what would you add or take out?

4 thoughts on “What’s Going On In There?

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    Thanks for sharing these ideas. indeed the disconnect between theological education and the realities of ministries is wide. From my perspective as an Asian, I blame: 1) the pharaisic idea and practice of isolation from the world as a mark of piety; 2) the dualism between sacred and profane, ordained-unordained division within the church as “the people of God”; 3) the model of theological education as solely happening within the classroom. whereas. The gap between the classroom, Church and community should be bridged.

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    I’m an ancient. I did seminary 1981-85, and, if anything, there may not have been enough about the financial realities of congregational life. At a Lutheran seminary, our training was heavy on Bible and theology, with ministry courses that included pastoral psychology or clinical pastoral education. What there WASN’T was anything serious about outreach…about meeting people where they are. I recently had an intern attending one of our other Lutheran seminaries, and she had a lot to say about “missional” identity and action. Her presence in our congregation helped put me back on a “learning curve” regarding making Christ known and the challenges of doing it “from the edges” now that Christendom is no more. I think that the whole definition and purpose of clergy has to change. There must be those, likely the ordained, who minister “to” the Gospel, to its truth and purity. But, there must also be those, ordained or otherwise, whose gifts are honed to make the Good News known to folk no longer culturally or socially inclined to hear it. I guess my concern leans not so much to an overabundance of business training, but the paucity of preparation for those willing to engage the world and the present generation with the Gospel.

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    I loved my seminary experience and did not find it focused on ministry as a business (I graduated in 2006, so maybe things have changed). But to be frank, this is a chicken-egg issue. Which came first? Seminaries not properly preparing students (which is debatable) or dysfunctional, demanding churches and seminaries simply churning out what is in demand? The church as a business model is popular in many church circles and so, is it possible some seminaries have fallen into the trap of preparing students for that which may be popular but not necessarily helpful?

    The emphasis in my seminary was on spiritual formation and I’m personally more inclined toward academia, mainly because my experience in the Church was one of obstinate, anti-intellectual people (not all, but certainly enough stick-in-the-muds to make any type of growth or change hard to come by.

    Is there a gap between the seminary and the Church? Yes. But there’s more to it. I facilitate a large group of clergy and seminarians online, and often people wonder why more isn’t said in the seminary about the type of opposition awaiting the students. I suspect there’s some desire there not to be negative (and probably not wanting to run the risk of alienating denominational donors), but also, there really isn’t any way the seminary could prepare us for all the many scenarios that exist. But there could be more intentional training for all students (not just counseling students) in things like systems theory so as to understand some of the dysfunctional behavior that they may encounter and how to successfully navigate through it.

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    Do you think that the institutional church is of God’s design? I do not. I think it is the opposite of what Christ established as Truth and how His children should go about Kingdom living post Christ’s resurrection. What is your end game with your information? I am a “done” and would not go back to the institution. Why would I? Christ has set me free from man made institutions, religion, and traditions. I am a part of the priesthood of believers and have the Holy Spirit to guide and teach me. God’s Ekklesia is The Spirit in you, not a place you go to. My hope is that all church goers figure this out and become “done”. What conclusion or outcome are you hoping institutional students, pastors, leaders make with your information?

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What’s Going On In There?

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