5 Things You Shouldn't Learn in Seminary

As I'm reaching something around a half-way mark (I've lost count) in my own journey through seminary, I have felt the need to pause and reflect on the ways in which seminary has shaped me spiritually and vocationally. One might assume that seminary, simply by virtue of its being seminary, would spiritually form someone into a more healthy person, a more authentic version of themself. One would think that an education committed to theological reflection, pastoral training, and the study of scripture would, by default, make them better--better equipped for ministry, better prepared for theological questions, just better as a person. And while I believe that seminary can definitely do those things and, at its best it definitely will do those things... it doesn't happen by default. If you expect to go to seminary and take your hands off the wheel of your own spiritual formation and still come out more healthy, you may have another thing coming. Besides biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology, there are a few other things that seminary may try to teach you--things you don't wanna learn! And if you've already been to seminary, you may need to unlearn a few things. The following is my list. It may not even be the whole list, but its a list of just 5 things you may learn in seminary, but 5 things you shouldn't learn in seminary.

1. Theological tribalism.
I had a professor in my undergrad who used to say, "labels are like training wheels for your mind--they're helpful, but eventually you've gotta learn to ride without 'em." In theological education, when you're first starting out, it's easy to think you're becoming an expert, even when you've still got the training wheels on, when you're actually just beginning to get the hang of it. You've actually learned just enough to be dangerous, but perhaps not quite enough to be helpful. You get the categories--reformed theology, Lutheran theology, process theology, apophatic theology, Methodist, UCC, Evangelical, Baptist, Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, etc., etc., etc.--but now you need them. You can become dependent on labeling things. It's not that labels aren't important and even very real, it's just that when they become the dominant method by which we engage in theological dialogue, our theology can become tribal. We huddle with those with whom we agree and build fear toward those with whom we disagree. Our way becomes the right way, everyone else's way becomes "the alternative." An "us and them" mentality takes over, and we become tribal and exclusive. Theological reflection might need to start with putting up walls and distinctions, but it should always eventually get around to tearing them down until our dialogue is not "us vs. them" but simply "us" in all our difference. Use the training wheels, but eventually take them off and hang out with the people who don't share your perspective.

2. Execution-exegesis.
Biblical exegesis is important. Everyone in the seminary needs it, really. Theologians need it for when they finally get around to the biblical witness. Church historians need it in order to understand the development of biblical interpretation. Preachers need it to figure out what they're actually gonna say. Everybody needs the bible folks. So a basic, if not robust exegetical method is an important lesson for any preacher, theologian, historian, or pastor to learn. And unless we keep our heads under a rock throughout seminary, we'll probably come out better at exegeting scripture than we were when we entered into seminary. Or will we?
We may get better at the technical process of exegesis, but will we really get better at exegeting scripture? Hopefully, exegesis will always include some degree of intuition--"living with the text."But sometimes our intuition dies to the technical process and, while exegesis should be foremost the "bringing to life" of the text, with our exegesis we end up executing the text, sucking the life from it. Rather than treating the text as a living word, speaking to us the word of God, exegetical processes can reduce the text to a dead letter, an object to be dissected. We can exegete the life out of the text, but if it does have life, it cannot speak to us. I've heard, unfortunately, a few too many sermons in which it was obvious that the preacher had exegeted the text quite thoroughly, but never actually brought it to life for the reader/listener. The information was interesting but it wasn't inspiring. We need to be sure to exegete scripture so that it doesn't just say whatever we want it to say (how much oppression and violence might have we avoided throughout history with a little good exegesis?) but if we lose sight of that living word which speaks to the heart and not just to the head, we've lost the real point of exegesis altogether. Once again, we might learn just enough to be dangerous. We might, by thorough an methodological exegetical analysis, actually execute the text rather than bring it to life.

3. Manuscript preaching.
Now, this might just be a preference... I'm open to that possibility. And maybe not every seminary emphasizes the manuscript so much, but I'm sure there are some seminaries in which writing a sermon pretty much means writing a manuscript. Though it wouldn't be fair at all to reduce preaching classes at my seminary to "manuscript writing" (it's actually a whole lot deeper than that) I definitely took from my preaching class a methodology that included preaching from a manuscript. There are, of course, some pros to preaching from a manuscript. Some of these pros include clear articulation of thought, precision regarding the duration of the sermon, and the assurance that you won't say something you don't want to say. One major con, however, is that when you preach from a manuscript, you risk failing to actually connect with the people in the congregation so that what's said from the pulpit is received at all, let alone received as good news. To put the point rather too crudely, manuscripts can make for boring preaching and boring preaching is bad preaching even if it's good content. Before coming to seminary, I never used to preach from a manuscript... and I was never so boring as after I "learned" how to preach. The manuscript has a way of getting in the way, getting between us and the people to whom we're preaching (and not just because that's actually where it's geographically located). Now, again, this could be a preference. Some people are quite good at preaching from a manuscript. Some people are good at connecting with people while they preach from a manuscript. With some, you can't even tell they're using one. But what I'm really getting at here is that even if you use a manuscript for preaching, the manuscript should never be the medium for the message... you should be the medium! If you are medium, if the message is coming from you and, more importantly, if the message is being received from you and not just from words on a page, then it doesn't matter which tool you use--even if its a manuscript. If you have to risk making a mistake in articulation, if you have to risk going a little over or under your allotted time in order to create a space for people to connect with you and especially with the words which God is speaking to them through you, the risk will be worth it! It doesn't mean you shouldn't have a method, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful with words (indeed, be even more careful), and it doesn't mean you should just get up there and talk completely "extemporaneously" (if this is your impulse, then please take a preaching class!), but it might mean you should ditch your manuscript for the sake of your sermon.

4. Professional Christianity.
Martin Luther is probably the guy who's most famous for teaching the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers." Depending on what seminary you attend, this may or may not be a dominant theme or mantra, but if you're at a protestant seminary, you're likely going to hear of this doctrine at least once. As I understand it, you might be able to summarize this by simply saying, "there's no such thing as a professional Christian." There's no group of people at a church who are more Christian than the other Christians. At the church in which I'm serving, we call this the "ministry" of all believers. Ministry is everyone's vocation. It's not the job of the pastor to do ministry. Ministry does not belong to the pastors of a church. In seminary, again, we learn just enough to be dangerous. We learn just enough to think, or be tempted to think, that we're the pros, the ministry belongs to us, the theology belongs to us, and the people in the church have the privilege of getting to receive our professional ministry as we graciously condescend to them to help them out of our wealth of spirituality and theological knowledge. There is no such thing as a professional Christian. Our job, as ministers, is not to own the ministry but to empower the church to the ministry--to invite others to participate in God's action. This doesn't mean we should downplay the authority we have, like it or not, as ministers. Luther himself had a pretty robust theology of "office" to go along with his priesthood of all believers. Everyone's a minister, but the pastor holds a particular office that needs to be respected (especially by the minister herself) and has the role and responsibility to facilitate space for ministry. But just because we have some education, just because we went to seminary, we must not think of ourselves as "further along" or more entitled to ministry than the people in our churches. Even theology doesn't belong to us. It is for the church to work out its theology, not for the pastor to hand it down to them (I realize there's a polity bias in that statement, but I'll stand by it). We need to create space for ministry and create space for the working out of theological questions. There is no such thing as a professional Christian!

5. Academic (narcissistic) perfectionism.
I could go on this one for a while...
Seminary has a way, probably especially in more academically rigorous institutions, of getting competitive. It's subtly and even passive-aggressively competitive because we're trying to be spiritual at the same time, but it's competitive nevertheless. Maybe it's just because we think that what we're doing is important (and I think it is) but all of the sudden, in seminary, people who didn't used to care about grades, get obsessed with them. I'm one of those people. I graduated high school with something like a 2.4GPA, I graduated college with maybe a 2.8GPA, and it wasn't because I was dumb, I just didn't care (I wouldn't have gotten in to Princeton Seminary if San Francisco Seminary hadn't taken a chance on me). But all of the sudden, now that I'm in seminary, my grades dominate my anxieties... I mean they dominate them. And it forms a kind of narcissism. In his book, The Depleted Self, Donald Capps designates both a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity…” and a “hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others…” as elements of narcissism (p. 12). Capps gives an example of “…a student who ordinarily expects an A and receives an A minus…” and expresses “…the view that he or she is thus revealed to all as a failure” and “…conversely, having gotten an A, the student may feel fraudulent, and unable to take genuine pleasure in a real achievement…” (p. 13). I can't help but think this example describes a lot of seminarians, myself included. Get an A minus and you're dumb, get an A and, well, it must have been an easy class. This kind of perfectionism may make for a good GPA, but it makes for an unhealthy person and an even more unhealthy minister. Narcissism may make you more successful as an academic, but it will only make you worse for the church. This might be the most important thing many pastors picked up from seminary that they need to unlearn. It also the most difficult thing to unlearn. Naming the problem is maybe just a start. I know intellectually that grades have little to do with ministry, little to do with relationships, but it's a lot more difficult to purge the power of insecurity that's manifest in that obsession with grades from our person. We can start by seeing success less as a goal and more as a temptation.


Andy Gill said…
such a progressive evangelical... ;)
Jeremiah Knabe said…
I'm so happy to see you haven't been swallowed by the 202 year old monster on Mercer St. These are excellent comments and as one who is 5 years out of PTS I can say you are right where you need to be. I can't wait to continue the conversation at the end of the month!
Mary Stephan said…
Love it, Wes. Thanks for sharing with us!!!