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The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry by H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, & James M. Gustafson


H. Richard Niebuhr was Professor of Christian Theology at Yale University Divinity School. His most famous book is Christ and Culture. Assisting him in this project were Daniel Day Williams, Professor of Theology at Union Theological School, and James Gustafson, then on the staff of the Study of Theological Education in the U.S. and Canada. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


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The following chapters on the nature and purpose of the Church, the ministry and the theological school constitute the first part of the report of The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada.

Hundreds of schools in the United States and Canada make it their business to educate men and women for the Christian ministry in Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Their graduates form a large proportion of the three hundred thousand clergymen active in the numerous church organizations of North America. They work as pastors, preachers and priests, teachers and scholars, evangelists and missionaries, writers and editors, administrators of denominational, educational, social service and reform agencies, as chaplains in prisons, hospitals and military establishments. Doing splendid, indifferent or woefully inadequate work these ministers and the schools that train them are subject to praise and blame by themselves, the churches and the environing society. They are questioned and they question themselves. In this situation more than a hundred theological schools have agreed to examine themselves and the status of theological education in general, to raise immediate and ultimate questions about their purposes, their methods and their effectiveness in discharging their duties; to seek also ways of improving their own ministry. Under the leadership of the American Association of Theological Schools and with the financial support of the Carnegie Corporation a study center was established to correlate the work of self-examination and to formulate its results.

The general reason for the inquiry is to be found, of course, in the conviction that "the unexamined life is not worth living"— a principle that has been given a special form in the Christian demand for daily and lifelong repentance. Institutions and communities no less than individuals are subject to this requirement. It is said that an uninspected army deteriorates and this is doubtless true of all human organizations. We tend to repeat customary actions unaware that when we do today what we did yesterday we actually do something different since in the interval both we and our environment have changed; unaware also that we now do without conscious definition of purpose and method what was done yesterday with specific ends in view and by relatively precise means. Education in general, and not least ecclesiastical education, is subject to this constant process of deterioration and hence in need of periodic self-examination.

Some special considerations have strengthened such general concern for self-study. The thought is abroad among theological educators and students that in the course of apparent repetition of traditional functions they have so adjusted themselves day by day to new pressures in the changing environment that they have lost the form and direction of inherited educational policy, so that the curriculum no longer is a course of study but has become a series of studious jumps in various directions. At the same time many of them are oppressed by the feeling that theological study does not sufficiently consider the changes that have taken place in human thought and behavior in the course of a revolutionary century. They note that in both respects they face problems similar to those that have led educators in other fields to undertake more or less promising reformations. Such examples have encouraged them to look forward to comparable efforts in the theological schools.

An even more significant occasion for theological self-examination lies in the temper of the times. In large sections of the Western world a new attitude toward theology and religion has become manifest. After a long period in which the need of many for a sense of life's meaning seemed to be supplied by the progress of civilization or by the realization of national destiny, disillusionment with the half-gods has made itself felt. Men who felt that they were born to die for the glory of nation or culture or for the sake of unborn generations or the advancement of knowledge, have been succeeded by generations who ask the ultimate questions with which religion and theology are concerned. Further, it is increasingly recognized by the thoughtful that the foundations of our civilization rest on deeper convictions than those generally acknowledged; that science and democratic life, literature and art, derive their ultimate orientation from religious faith; and that without renewal of the foundations the structure cannot endure. In this situation churches and theological schools sense that more is expected of them by their fellow men than they once thought and that they owe their neighbors more than they are prepared to give.

Moved by these concerns, in awareness of such needs, pastors and teachers of theology, administrators and boards of theological seminaries and now groups of these gathered loosely around a staff of inquirers with their advisers have undertaken for a brief space of time to examine their work and to ask large and small questions about its adequacy and improvement.

The subjects and objects of this study are, by and large, the Protestant theological schools in the United States and Canada. The community of inquiry goes beyond these boundaries at certain points; it is narrower at others. Geographically it often extends beyond the United States and Canada since the questions and answers of theological educators and churches in Germany, England and France, Asia, South America and Africa, as over-heard in the New World or as directly addressed to us here, enter into the discussion. Moreover, Christians can never forget that they are one people whatever the country of their residence. Again, the questions raised by Roman Catholic educators about their own schools and methods often run parallel to those of Protestants and their reflections are helpful to the latter. This is true also of the schools in which Jews carry on their theological work and educate young men to be rabbis. Primarily, however, those engaged in this particular inquiry are Protestants. First among them, again, are the institutions and men federated in the American Association of Theological Schools, but many schools not belonging to the association have co-operated freely. In general the group which has been drawn into the discussion has consisted of graduate schools of theology; but those who have been engaged in the task of correlating the inquiry have become very much aware that many non-graduate schools—among them Bible colleges and institutes—play a significant role in the educational venture and have a genuine interest in the outcome of theological self-examination. Various limitations have prevented the thorough study of this group of schools, but failure to draw them into the central community of inquiry does not imply any oversight of their significance.

No one can venture to speak for all those who have participated in the process of self-examination which has been focused for a little while in the office and the staff of The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada. All that is possible is that this small group should state in its own way the knowledge, reflections and convictions that have come to it in the course of an inquiry in which they have participated intensively for fifteen months. The members of the study staff—H. Richard Niebuhr, the director, Daniel Day Williams, the associate director, and James M. Gustafson, the assistant director—have visited more than ninety theological seminaries. They have had interviews with the deans of most of these schools and with scores of professors; they have met with more than forty faculties and have participated in regional conferences on theological education in Texas, California and Toronto. They have examined the publications of schools they were unable to visit. All but one of the schools of the American Association of Theological Schools and many non-member institutions have supplied them with detailed information on organization, finances, enrollment, faculty, curriculum, et cetera. These reports have been studied and the statistical information has been analyzed. Thirty-six seminaries have given particular help by supplying information about their development during the last twenty years.

Considerable time has been devoted by the staff to the study of the American denominations, their ministries and interests in theological education. Denominational executives, particularly those charged with responsibility for the seminaries, have been most helpful in providing information and counsel. Members of the staff have participated in conferences of educators of the American Baptist Convention, the United Church of Canada, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. With the advice of denominational leaders and others they compiled a list of pastors regarded by their colleagues as "good ministers" and entered into correspondence with a number of them, chosen so as to make the whole group representative of the denominational pattern. Thirty pastors gave their time for personal interviews; conferences were held with groups of others. A hundred members of the panel wrote reflective and illuminating letters about the purpose, limitations, opportunities and hazards of the Protestant ministry and offered their counsel on the improvement of theological education. In another phase of the study intensive and repeated interviews were held with first-, second- and third-year students at seven seminaries. Some of these interviews were conducted by the assistant director, others by members of the faculties. The reports—in some instances tape recordings—of the interviews have been of great importance to the staff in its efforts to understand how the various aspects of theological education affect students. Among other things "field work" was brought into a new perspective for them when it was seen through the eyes of the young men and women. Conferences with students in some thirty schools supplemented the data gained from interviews. Various limitations prevented the development of a program of consultation with Christian laymen. The limited number of interviews held with representatives of the business and academic communities and organized labor were very enlightening, and reports of lay assessments of the ministry made by other students of the subject were also helpful.

The data, insights and ideas gained from these sources and from the study of many special documents have been worked through by the members of the staff, individually and in many seminar sessions. Now they venture to report on what they believe to have learned in the course of their study and attempt to state what they think is the main content and meaning of the long discussion that is going on among theological educators. On many matters of fact the statement can be relatively precise and objective. But when it deals with principles and aims it must undertake to set forth what has been variously expressed by many or has been only implicit in what others have communicated. In this respect the report cannot be "objective" but must remain a somewhat personal effort to clarify and organize ideas about Church, ministry and theological education that seem to be "in the air" or that seem to be developing in "the climate of opinion." This first volume, in particular, is necessarily an essay of this sort.

The whole report is to be issued in three relatively independent publications. The present book will be followed, presumably within the year, by a volume offering a more detailed study of the schools, faculties, students, curricula, et cetera. The third portion of the report is being published in a series of bulletins dealing with subjects requiring special emphasis or statistical tables too detailed for inclusion in the general volume. Of the former sort is the Memorandum on the Theological Education of Negro Ministers which appeared in September, 1955; of the latter sort, a study of trends in thirty-six representative schools from 1935 to 1955 which is now in preparation.

A further book, sponsored by the study but not written by members of the staff, is to be published soon. It will contain a series of essays on the history of the Christian ministry written by Church historians who have met in several conferences and submitted their manuscripts to one another so as to produce a genuine symposium. They are: Professors Roland Bainton of Yale University Divinity School, Edward Hardy of Berkeley Divinity School, Winthrop Hudson of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, John Knox of Union Theological Seminary, New York, Sidney Mead of the Federated Faculty of the University of Chicago, Robert Michaelsen of the State University of Iowa School of Religion, Wilhelm Pauck of Union Theological Seminary, and George Williams of Harvard Divinity School.

|There now remains the pleasant task of expressing publicly the gratitude of the directors of the study to the persons and organizations who have helped them in the inquiry. Among the scores and hundreds of these the following immediately come to mind: the chairman and members of the Executive and Administrative Committees of the American Association of Theological Schools who set the study in motion; the members of the Advisory Committee, The Reverend Theodore Ferris, Bishop Paul N. Garber, Reverend Ralph W. Loew, President Franc L. McCluer, President Walter N. Roberts, Professor Lewis J. Sherrill, Dean Charles L. Taylor, Jr., Reverend Gordon M. Torgersen; the presidents and deans of seminaries who gave their time and counsel liberally, and cheerfully answered irritating questionnaires; the denominational executives, secretaries of education, of departments of the ministry, and the secretaries of the National Council of Churches who advised us in many matters; the ministers who gave precious hours for interviews and letters; Professor Samuel Blizzard of Pennsylvania State University and Union Theological Seminary in New York who shared with us some of the preliminary results of a study of the ministry he is carrying on under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation; Marcus Robbins, the comptroller, and other officials of Yale University who administered the funds; Dean Liston Pope of the Divinity School of Yale University who provided ample and pleasant quarters for the office of the organization and supported it in many other ways.

All these and many others have made greater contributions than the study staff has been able to appropriate and to transmit. The defects of the report are not due to any failures on their part but are chargeable to the director.

Special thanks are due to the Carnegie Corporation of New York which made the study possible through its grant of sixty-five thousand dollars, and to its vice-president James A. Perkins whose interest in the project and whose counsel were constant sources of strength. The Carnegie Corporation, it should be said, is not the author, owner, publisher or proprietor of these or of the other publications issued by the staff of The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada, and is not to be understood as approving by virtue of its grant any of the statements made or views expressed therein.

Particular acknowledgment must be made of the work of those members of the staff whose names do not appear on the title pages of its reports. Robert Gessert, now of Smith College, rendered important service during the summer of 1955 in collating and interpreting statistical material. Mrs. Miriam C. Smith brought considerable experience in research and high competence to her work as secretary. Mrs. Fleur Kinney Ferm, the staff secretary, has worked on this project longer than any other member except the director. Her good judgment, skill and patience have made contributions to the study which though they remain unidentified are conspicuous to her associates.

Finally, the director must take this occasion to express his great gratitude to his colleagues, Professor Daniel Day Williams, now of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Professor James M. Gustafson, now of the Divinity School of Yale University, for their faithful comradeship in service and for the deepened understanding of Church, theology and education he gained from them. Their contributions to the present essay are much greater than can be indicated on the title page. The book is the result of a co-operative effort, though in the end one member of the group needed to develop and formulate the "sense of the meeting.", He, therefore, must accept responsibility for the inadequacies and errors of the interpretation.

H. RICHARD NIEBUHR, Director

The Study of Theological Education

in the United States and Canada

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