Church Matters: Church Seminary Divide

or, tongue firmly planted in cheek: 7 Shocking Reasons Seminary Students Feel Alienated from the Local Church

See also:
Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types
Church Matters: Truncated Biblical Authority

Not all seminarians feel the angst of the church/academy divide, but many do. This post is a mental exercise in thinking about why. The point is to provide a springboard for more thinking on the issue, not to provide an exhaustive treatment. Please do not treat my generalizations as anything but generalizations (which by definition are not exhaustively true). If this is not your experience, then give thanks and keep plugging. A related goal is again to reinforce my nagging suspicion that the church needs a location and time for the practice of good thinking. Seminarians might be a good resource for this.

1. DIvergent approaches to questions

Fundamentally, local churches often look to close questions as soon as possible and scholars look to keep them open as long as possible. That scholars do not close questions has to do with the nature of questions; they are the objects of intellectual passions. In other words, they fuel inquiry by providing motivation for study. So a scholar may pursue a question for a lifetime, which a minister may want to answer with a five minute rabbit trail from his lesson. Questions are often at best “off topic” and at worst “impudent.” Granted there might be practical reasons for the church not opening every question. But a culture of all the “answers” needs to be avoided.

2. Ignoring or ignorance of contemporary challenges to the faith

Often local churches have (understandably) little interest in the big questions which threaten to undermine or derail the Christian faith ideologically, since their primary work is local. For example, churches have no interest in the metaphysical challenge of panentheism. Perhaps readers may not even know that this is “an issue.” But there are a whole host of issues that are relevant either in the wider theological or secular world that theologians need to address, but often are only very tangentially related to the life within church. Pastors largely do not concern themselves with this issues, and seminarians may notice them under every rock as the hidden cause for troubles X, Y, or Z. It seems to me that seminarians are myopic in thinking that modalism is the cause of all vice in the church or that it is vital that grandma not express herself in a modalist fashion.

3. “The First Year Philosopher Phenomenon” (or the Socrates problem)

It has been said that the most annoying philosophy student with which to dialogue is the one that has had only one year of philosophy. Critical thinking in small doses leads to a nascent awareness that things are wrong in a world that formerly seemed roughly OK. Usually, the first problem of which one becomes aware is attacked with such foolish zeal that people are hurt. The professors are “corrupting the children.” The truth is that the fourth year students might have a large store of valuable insight to offer, but often have learned to shut their mouth. Therefore, the vocal minority are foolish and the church stops asking seminarians for insight when they might be able to offer it.

4. The resulting mistrust

Local churches tend to become a bit lukewarm about seminarians in general because seminarians are critical and seem to know it all (the first years are foolish and the third and fourth years are more measured, but sometimes “angsty”).

5. The pastor may threatened; the seminarian may be threatening

Sometimes pastors who lack seminary training or whose training came in the 70s can be threatened by the young seminarians. Rather than looking at them as a valuable resource for the church, they can completely ignore them while secretly wishing they’ll finish and move to another church. The quickest way to get pushed out of a ministry is to ask questions about things that are already decided. When seminarians tend to do this, leaders can feel threatened and frustrated. Further, seminarians need understand that the pastor likely possesses a large store of pastoral wisdom that can only be acquired in shepherding people from birth to death.

6. The “You Need to Work Your Way Up” phenomenon

Most large churches have few needs in positions of teaching or authority. The needs they do have are filled by people who have “worked their way up,” often starting with a ministry like set-up crew. Since many seminarians are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities (sometimes full time at more than one of these), they can sometimes see these lower ministries as valuable, but not a good use of their time. This might not be arrogance, but rather wise stewardship. But without these “starter ministries,” the student may not have opportunity to exercise his or her gifts anywhere. From the church’s perspective, it is perhaps a warranted concern to reserve positions of teaching positions or authority for those who are committed to the church in the long term, but it does fail to recognize unique gifting and ability as well as the church’s own responsibility to its members who are training for ministry, especially in cultivating their gifts (it takes years to find one’s voice) and confirming (or not) their calling.

7. General lack of intellectual virtue in the local church

There is often no place or time for asking questions in the local church. To carry on glibly unaware of the fact that disagreements exist, vaguely contented in one’s own view, is vice. Dialogue is crucial for truth seeking and unity, because only in dialogue are one’s own ideas really tested and positions nuanced. The fact that the church mostly has no space for dialogue on really important issues has some really awful consequences.  All of the dumbest decisions I have witnessed either in business or in the church have occurred within the context of the latter institution. My heart breaks for now defunct local churches and institutions that have been ruined by poor thinking.

My prayer is that these observations and generalizations may foster further dialogue on these issues. So if you agree or disagree, kindly post below.

15 thoughts on “Church Matters: Church Seminary Divide”

  1. This feels rather one-sided, Pine-dawg, and not very empathetic. It seems the church might have some (seven?) complaints against the academy. But to ask a you-ish queston: what do you mean by “church” and “seminary”? More folks than seminarians and academicians ask “questions.” We, of course, need space for discussion, and pastorally speaking there also is a need for guardrails or roots, etc (pick a metaphor).

  2. Agreed about the one-sided nature, but I suppose, it is a post about why Seminarians feel alienated. What complaints might the church have about seminarians? (I think I hinted at at least one.)

    I’m not sure I understand your question. (It feels squishy.) Can you clarify?

  3. It is also somewhat autobiographical, which carries with it the possibility of skewing the situation, though I have belonged to six different churches during this time (maybe it’s just me?). But I do suspect I’m not alone. (I might also add that these observations largely do not apply to my current church.)

  4. Oh no, you don’t get to answer my question about definitions with a question of definitions! 🙂 It seems important to me that you chose to place academicians *against* the church. You’re part of the church, too, since, after all, we are a not-built-with-human-hands temple. All seven points could be re-skewed from a churchy perspective (e.g., you smartypants don’t understand *my* daily challenges to faith!). I know you’re not alone, and I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. (But I know a place where you might be accepted…and it ends with “utheran.”) Anyway, bridgebuilding is the key. This requires knowing your audience. Does my Mom want to her about panentheism? If it’s really so important how can you frame that so she sees that. (Don’t distract her with five-dollar words and abbreviations—seriously, my Mom *hates* that; pushes her to violence. Must be where I get it from…) Also, it means we frame our differences in constructive rather than divisive ways. Hence my growing knee-jerk reaction to those X-number-of-ways-to-do-something-you-really-don’t-want-to posts.

  5. I’m glad you bring up context, because I think that is the best point of push back. I think that I implied that seminarians are unduly myopic about “the issues that matter.”

    Also, I also hate the seven X posts; this one is a bit of a ironic test case. This is my first “Seven X” posts and the only one I have received comment on in the last few months or so. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I don’t like it.

    You seem not to have read carefully that the post is about *seminarians* not the academy and the *local church* not the universal church. I write these concerns as a churchman and a seminarian because I think they are real and legitimate. I want this to be a jumping off point for congregations to talk about how to utilize and disciple future pastors. (edit: I added two “local”s to church to clarify)

    Finally, this is going to be colored by my experience in my own tradition. So it is with a warm heart that I hear your commendation of those people ending with “utherans.”

    Thank you brother

  6. I get what you mean re. my not reading carefully. Still that is my point. You’re potentially creating a rather strong us vs. them. And heartily agreed that we, the body of Christ, need to talk about this.

  7. What you’re saying is that it’s easy to read my critique as fostering an us versus them mentality. Fair point. I’ll reread it and edit in an effort to make it more congenial. I care deeply about the local church, but in my experience I hear an awful lot of seminarian bashing (e.g. my former pastor, Matt Chandler, said “I look forward to not reading that email”), but not a lot of good thinking about what the causes of these situations might be. Do you think I’m touching on real causes however my tone might be construed?

    Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have never been the critical seminary student, at least not in terms of offering real criticism. But there is some real criticism to be offered, at least in the broader evangelical world. So here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

  8. Yup. That’s what I’m saying. Overall I think this requires *empathy* and attentive listening. For example, what is underneath Chandler’s glib statement? Also, I don’t think number seven is helpful. It only makes folks defensive. Attitude (what you are referring to in point seven) *is* important. And this is a symptom of a larger problem in the church today.

    Also, we need to foster an it’s-okay-to-fail atmosphere for everyone’s learning process—not just academicians.

  9. Hmm… Intellectual virtue is not a cliché. And I don’t toss this out casually. I do think this is a serious problem. Further, I am suggesting that this problem arises from the fact that there is no place for dialogue in the local church. Take a moment to think about it. Where and when in your church does good thinking and dialogue on theology and context happen? I’m quite serious about #7 (and heartbroken). Therefore, I hope it is a bit upsetting.

  10. Perhaps. Yet you don’t get dialogue by calling your interlocutor a bigot. And I think most folks will react about that way when being called “not intellectually virtuous.” You know the adage about honey and vinegar, Piney.

    Here again your own problem with definitions arises. What do you mean by “local church”? Do you mean the building? the “official” events? the people? If so, which people, when and where? Or does that matter? And yes, I have seen lots of good thinking and dialog about theology in small groups and bible studies—and even Sunday School!

  11. But again, you are assuming that I am not a churchman. I’m not sure how else to expose this problem. I’ll continue to serve and love the church, but I need to call a spade a spade.

    The way I’m thinking about the local church is the cluster of institutions and roles that fall within the sanction of the local church’s authority, ergo, its sanctioned programs, teaching, and authority structures.

    Finally, my point is not whether good thinking happens. My point is that there’s generally not a sanctioned structure for the promotion of context-oriented thinking. I’m adding the descriptor “context-oriented” because I take it that people in the evangelical church understand the nature of ancient head coverings far better than they know what the Bible might mean for a whole host of context-oriented issues, such as, technology, education, political engagement, etc. It is theological reasoning, that goes from text to context and context to text that is lacking.

    I do see your point that this may work out to be more inflammatory than helpful. Yet, my hope is that people who can see the problem will look at this as a call to foster such environments. And people who don’t see it as a problem will look at it as an opportunity to ask if it is a problem. I certainly could be wrong.

  12. I may have seemed to assume you’re not a churchperson (which you of course are), but that’s driven by the way the conversation is framed. I’ve been given a false choice.

    The point about theological reasoning is good. I put the blame on our tribe (i.e. PhDs). We have failed to guide and lead our dear coheirs in Christ in this. Still biblical literacy is needed. We cannot separate biblical literacy from how we read it and how we ought to read. For me, this is a major need in churches.

    And re. examples, I can imagine. 🙂 No need to name names.

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