Tuesday, July 06, 2004
Theses about pastoral formation ::

Out of the comments on my posts below “Face-time and ministerial formation” and “Online Seminary: is virtual formation possible?” and other blogging sources I am beginning to develop some ideas more firmly. I will try to begin presenting these as a series of theses.

The comments on the locus of formation were particularly stimulating both Andrew and Finker highlight a duality. To be real formation needs local grounding - as Rubén and I were stressing - but to be honest effective and challenging it needs a wider dimension too, opening the student to new truth. Andrew sees this opening as happening better with the onsite Seminary experience, rather than the conservatism natural to local churches:
I have a suspicion that one is forced to engage much more with the theological issues when on site. It is much easier to simply write essays and disregard things you don't agree with when you study by distance…. I have some of the "typical" issues that are associated with fundamentalism and strong conservative theology in mind like creationism, inerrancy etc...When you're on site you engage in these issues/debates not only with the lecturers but also over coffee with classmates.” (Andrew)
As Finker stresses too that students need the discussion over coffee with their peers, and the challenges we teachers try to present. Yet Andrew’s point about the difficulty of raising hard questions in a local setting reminds me of my deepest dissatisfaction with the onsite seminary. Seminaries are good at presenting students with critical thinking. We can help students understand complex issues around the nature and interpretation of the Bible. And a couple of hundred years of intense academic study has certainly raised such issues. We can also help them to ask awkward questions about the latest fads and quick-fix solutions for church life (questions that often get overlooked by busy pastors of expectant churches). The grounding in classic theology hammered out over centuries through often bitter controversy is also more likely to be taught from a seminary context.

However, as Andrew points out in the pews of many churches such questions and nuancing are seen simply as wrong, unchristian and untrue. Yet, students who have their minds changed while “away at seminary”, do not learn how to preach the new (critical) ideas they are learning. The result is that when they return to a local church – as pastor. They cannot reconcile what they are convinced intellectually is true with what their hearers believe. They risk living in two worlds, “knowing” critically yet preaching like unthinking fundamentalists. Such schizophrenic pasturing cannot be good. Or as Finker says:
You would be amazed at how many of my fellow students (and myself to some extent) end up being dislocated from a full and absorbing church community for their whole period of training. Unhealthy for sure.
If the “head stuff” is true – it needs to be heard. Indeed like AKMA I’m convinced that theological education is all about truth!

But truth (as “head stuff”) needs to be integrated into the “heart and hands” stuff of the life of the church. Not some elitist add-on.

This integration is only likely to occur in a local setting.

So, the first two theses:

#1 The formation of pastors to serve local communities of Christians needs to occur within a framework of long-term relationships of accountability and love in a local worshipping community – warts and all!

#2 Theological education MUST be about truth, even where the search for truth is not comfortable. True formation therefore also needs the seminary effect.

Where #1 is stressed to the detriment of #2 (as it naturally is in distance and internship models) the result is wineskins empty of all but old wine.

Where #2 is stressed to the detriment of #1 (as it almost inevitably is for most onsite “seminary students”) truth becomes arrogant or impractical – it’s not preachable in Andrew’s terms.

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