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