Outdated Education

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A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post over on ShellyPalmer.com entitled, “What if your dream job does’t exist anymore?”  It was all about a several conversations that Shelly had with people trying to break into the news media business – looking for dream jobs that either no longer exist, or will soon be extinct.   These conversations culminated in a lecture Shelly did at Columbia Business School – where he was shocked that the students in the class were all looking to do jobs that are no longer what they were, if they exist at all.  I’ll let Shelly’s own words describe his reaction,

Just for fun, I asked about a dozen of them what they hoped to be when they entered the work force. The answers were a total surprise. To a person, they are aspiring to jobs that have devolved into commoditized low wage work, that they still perceive to be high profile, high paying careers.

Reading this post got me thinking about my own seminary education.  I’ve quipped ever since I graduated that I had recieved a wonderful pastoral education at my seminary – for 1950.  Shelly’s post made me realize that it’s not just the Church that’s having a hard time keeping up.  It seems like everyone is getting blind-sided by the rapid transition of our society.  So what are we to?

Well, for once, it would be nice if Christians took time to understand the trend that’s happening in our culture and realized that the way we educate our leadership – from pastors on down – is woefully outdated.  Pastors, and church education curriculums, seem to be designed for churches that don’t actually exist anymore.  This is a problem.

Think about it, my own seminary eduction was structured in such a way  so that I’d be prepared to go to a congregation where the pastor was essentially a CEO who gave a speech to the shareholders once a week.  In-between speeches, the pastor went around to the shareholders, giving them what they thought they needed, paying out dividends to people with a greater stake in company, and trusting that the by-laws managed the business of the company well.  Oh, we put nice spiritual-sounding words on what we were being taught.  Words like, “Pastoral counseling,” “conflict resolution,”  and “denominational polity” – but when you adopt a business format for an organization it warps the way ministry is done.  The medium is the message.

Now, in the 1950’s and 60’s this CEO model worked well because there was an incredible growth of people who wanted to have a share in a congregation somewhere.  It was a statisical glitch in the history of the US, but since it was working no one was bothered much by it.  The shareholders were happy, the CEO’s were doing well, and the parent-companies (denominations) were having a field-day utilizing the expanded resources that the growth of the 50’s and 60’s gave them.

Then the bubble burst.

American culture shifted from the exploratory passion of the laste 60’s, to the hedonism of the 70’s.  An endless war and government scandals left people wary of “traditional authority,” and suddenly people who moved into the endlessly growing suburbs were no longer making the search for a church an immediate priority.  Even worse, people who were coming into the faith  in the 60’s and 70’s were chaffing under the unspoken limits set up by congregations.  Pastors suddenly were CEO’s of corporations with several factions of shareholders – all complaining about things that weren’t covered by the by-laws.  The 70’s and the 80’s were, in many Churches, divisive times as pastoral CEO’s were inevitably drawn into the conflict.  Some sided with people who owned more “shares” in the Church, others were restless themselves and sided with those who were pushing congregations in new directions.  Many more ended up being nothing more than referees – trying to keep feuding factions together until things got back to a “normal” that would never come.  I still meet these pastors – battle scars have left them calm, even-keeled, and dreadfully dull.

These aren’t the congregations seminary is prepping people to pastor.  In 2009, almost 30 years after the CEO model stopped being widely successful – pastors are still taught to be 1950’s era pastors.  Is it any wonder that so many pastors simply burn out and give up?  These churches no longer exist, or are in danger of extinction!

What exists now in many congregations is the echo of what once was.  By-laws are viciously held on to, even though they haven’t worked for years.  The appearance of buildings is kept up, in hopes that one day people will start walking through the doors on their own again.  The factions continue to fight, or keep uneasy truces because they realize that “winning” control of a diminished congregation is a pyrrhic victory at best.  Every one of these congregations that I’ve met has also been waiting for CEO that would lead them into a new future that looked a lot like their glorious past – even while secretly preparing to pounce on the CEO if they step out of line.  The few resources left, after all, have to be protected.

Now, many of my missional and emergent friends see the same trends as I do and say, “Exactly.  That’s why we need to dump the idea of seminary altogether!”  To these friends seminary can never be anything more than several years of prepping to be a congregational CEO that gives weekly speeches to the shareholders.  They want to form entrepreneural and flexible congregations that are “relevant” to what people are looking for now.  I respect the work these friends do, I really do, but I also think they’re making the same mistakes that led to the CEO model lock-in that we ended up with in the 1950’s.  They’re making the assumption that the desires people have now for simple, unadorned, faith are the impulses people will always have.  While these churches are, indeed, flexible – they’re going to discover that they are only flexible within a certain realm of assumptions.  When society shifts again, they’ll be as stressed as “institutional churches” are today.

Seminary is important – but it must change.  The curriculum needs to stop being tweaked to make pastors better CEO’s (“let’s add an evangelism course so they can help the church grow”).  The CEO model is dead or on hospice, let’s allow it to die with whatever dignity it has left.  Instead, I hope that seminary education can focus on continuity – helping hopeful pastors to see ministry as part of the great tapestry of the Christian faith.  Studies in Church history, worship, and ancient discipleship need to form the core of pastoral study – so pastors can help give congregations their context in the grand story of the faith, a context sorely lacking for want of pastors who are unable to see it themselves.  Alongside this work on continuity, pastor’s ought to be taught how to be futurists.  There is an art-form which springs from looking at current trends and then using one’s imagination to see how those trends are changing the world in which we do mission.  I’m tired of congregations being 15-20 years behind the curve, we need congregations (and pastors) who are willing to help form the curve – doing so from the Spirit-driven desire to remain in the continuity of the Apostolic faith.  Seminaries must take on an Ancient-Future stance if they are to be part of how the Church in this country moves forward.  I hope they hold the funeral for the CEO model of pastoring sooner, rather than later.  It’s already long over-due.

5 Comments

  1. coffeezombie says:

    Honestly, I have to admit…I find the whole topic of this post to be weird. It just seems odd to me that such a change would be having to occur in a church every 50 years or so. Then again, I’ve always–even when I was a Baptist–been a little disconcerted by the focus on ‘relevance’, whether it was relevance 50 years ago or relevance today.

  2. ARJWright says:

    Dude!!!

    Great post. I’d not even thought about it like this if you had not posted it. Now to pass it on and cause more disruptions all around me 😛

    There are many folks in all types of educational arenas saying that education needs to change at its core (effecting all specific types and the after-effected industries). I am on board with the change, as long as those who are initiating the commentary about the change are doing something to create the change. Saying change is one thing, being a change agent is another.

    Now, what would the positive and negative implications of this change be 😉

    Again man, great post.

  3. Matt says:

    2 years ago my seminary celebrated it’s 200th anniversary and as part of the celebration, they posted older documents from years past. One of the documents was a paper with the list of classes a seminary student was expected to take in the early 19th century. I don’t remember the whole list, but I did think it was incredible that in order to become an ordained pastor at the time, they had to learn the following languages: German, French, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

    7 LANGUAGES!!! Among other classes which I can’t remember. It was obvious what seminary training was for, and that was to be able to study and interpret documents in their original language and share them with the people.

    All I know is that if that was what was required today, I wouldn’t be able to be a pastor.

    So what would your core curriculum be about?

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent post bro. I have written a short paper called, ‘Digital Revolution and the Church’ which you might find interesting. Check it out at:

    Click to access The_Digital_Revolution_and_the_Church.pdf

  5. wezlo says:

    coffeezombie – I agree with the whole “relevance” thing. I deliberately avoided using the term in my description. “Relevance” seems to cut you off from any part of the Christian Story that doesn’t fit in the current environment. Since I crave continuity, it doesn’t appeal to me as an impulse.

    A futurist isn’t “relevant,” they are steps ahead of people looking to be “relevant.” A futurist pastor, as I envision, needs to anchored to the past. I still say that some of the best futurist pastors in the US are Orthodox Priests – they way they’ve jumped over technologies that the average Protestant is only now discovering is mind-blowing…

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