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writing things down…

Is seminary for everyone?

Atlantic.com carried a story today by an anonymous adjunct, Professor X. Prof. X questions the notion that college is for everyone.

The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, “a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.”

I often feel like Prof. X when I teach an introductory course for new seminarians, many who, because of poor undergraduate scores or other such circumstances, must show above average work (B- or better) to continue with seminary. I very frequently wonder if seminary is for anyone who enrolls and pays tuition. Another layer of reflection is added when many of these students believe they are, by going to seminary, pursuing God’s call. And yet another layer is added when these students question my and/or the school’s Christian generosity upon receiving their less than average grades. Though, I have not had occasion to fail 9 out of 15 students as Prof. X has, there is almost always at least one student each quarter for whom my course is the only one they get to take. Once grades are released and they have below the needed grade, there seminary career ends (at least at the seminary where I teach. I am sure some other seminary will take their tuition dollars).
But there is a larger question, really. I am pretty sure a good many seminarians shouldn’t be in seminary. The bigger question: “Is vocational ministry for everyone?”
Jim tipped me off to a nice post by Scott entitled “Future Pastors the Church Does Not Need.” Scott recalls a seminar with a mix of university and seminary students. He was haunted by the allergy to “being a theologian” the seminary students seemed to have. Before describing three categories of seminary students in the seminar, Scott writes:

It is my contention that if you call yourself a Christian then you are a theologian; the only question is whether you have a good theology or not. It’s OK if you disagree with me (you would be wrong of course) but I would assume that at the very least we want our pastors to be theologians.

Commenting further on the issue, Jim writes:

Years ago one of my own Professors walked into class one day and said “if you don’t think theologically, get out of the ministry right now. Pastors are theologians first and foremost and every aspect of life is grist for the theological mill.” Unfortunately many of my compatriots didn’t listen to him.

I concur with Scott and Jim, wholeheartedly. But, I am disturbed by the reality that those students whose seminary careers I’ve dashed will still become pastors, ministers, etc. For the Church’s sake, this worries me. So, larger than the questions about everyone being fit for college, seminary, or ministry, is the question concerning the Church’s role in helping people discern God’s call. For just as many colleges and seminaries depend on those tuition dollars from even the least capable of students, so many believe that in order to “save souls” or “do kingdom work” or (pick you favorite Christianese saying) the Church ought not question anyone’s call to “the ministry.”

[Disclaimer: I am thinking through these things as one from a free church perspective. I realize many denominations have filters in place. But, I would contend a good many of their “drop outs” find their way to some sort of ministerial role elsewhere.]

[And, for what it’s worth: I think too many PhDs are being awarded these days as well. I often wonder if I should have one.]

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3 Comments»

  John Lyons wrote @

“[And, for what it’s worth: I think too many PhDs are being awarded these days as well. I often wonder if I should have one.]”

I assume here you mean undeserving PhDs rather just there being too many worthy doctors. In my experience, those who wonder if they should have a PhD are NOT the ones I would be asking that question of! Of course, I shouldn’t have one myself…. 🙂

  B-W wrote @

But, I am disturbed by the reality that those students whose seminary careers I’ve dashed will still become pastors, ministers, etc. For the Church’s sake, this worries me.

I’ll fully admit to some mild bitterness here, but I’m bothered by the fact that such people will become pastors, ministers, etc., yet I (who actually graduated with a fairly decent GPA on my MDiv) can’t seem to get church work to save my life. Perhaps too many MDivs are being given away these days, too (although I frankly can’t share your “wonder” about whether or not I deserve the degree. I feel that I did earn it–not just because I paid for it, either! I’m just not sure that the degree is worth much without going through the extra steps of the denominational ordination process).

(Of course, needing to be paid is a consideration I have that many of the students you describe may not necessarily be concerned about. But I expect many, if not most, are getting paid, too.)

On the other hand, the very reason I am (at the moment) unordainable (at least, certainly within the denomination I’m most connected to) is that I haven’t been able to pass that denomination’s “Theological Competence” exam. But I hasten to add that even the professor who couldn’t pass me the last time I took it told me that I was “thinking theologically,” and I still consider myself quite adept in this area. I just didn’t have enough specific theologians in mind to satisfy that particular professor (or that particular denomination), my ability to get passing grades notwithstanding.

Actually, there is much about the free church perspective I find appealing (but, correct me if I’m wrong, aren’t you now part of a denomination that actually has a fairly strict set of requirements for ordination? My wife’s going through that process now). Unfortunately (and I think you might agree with this), I find that most of the “free churches” with which I have knowledge are rather incompatible with me (us?) theologically. Indeed, there is a downright mistrust of those of us who have done the work of learning theological basics.

  Transforming Seminarian wrote @

Good Stuff from the Religious Blogs I Read……

Another “catch all” entry, there’s just so much good stuff in the various blogs I read, that I felt I needed to share. I recommend using the “tabs” feature of your browser to open the various links so you can read the entries in question, allowing…


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