Educating the Congregation

by Susan E. Schreiner

Susan E. Schreiner is assistant professor of the history of Christianity and theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 1, 1989, pp. 985-987. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The consequences of much of theological education are found in the dispersion and fragmentation of the curriculum and an individualistic understanding of the ministry.


Beyond Clericalism: The Congregation as a Focus for Theological Education. Edited by Joseph Hough, Jr., and Barbara G. Wheeler. Scholars Press, 151 pp., $28.95; paperback, $18.95.The relationship between the seminary and the church has all too often been characterized by tension and controversy. Is seminary teaching too liberal? Is it irrelevant to the life and needs of the parish? Does the seminary ignore or, even worse, condescend to the church? Are seminary faculty answerable primarily to the academy or to the congregation? Are faculty members too quick to assign ministerial issues to the department of "practical theology," thereby reinforcing the opposition between theory and practice? At a time when many congregations are losing members, when New Age religions and alternative sources of spirituality abound, and when the relationship between the "church" and the "world" is undergoing yet another crisis of definition, such questions are crucial.

In 1983 James Hopewell wrote an essay "A Congregational Paradigm for Theological Education." In it he questioned the emphasis of seminary curricula on educating the individual cleric. Adopting a phrase from Edward Farley, Hopewell referred to this tradition as the "clerical paradigm." Among its main consequences, according to Hopewell, are the dispersion and fragmentation of the curriculum and an individualistic understanding of the ministry.

Hopewell argued that the object of seminary training should be shifted from a clerical to a "congregational paradigm." The focus of seminary education is the life and faith not of the individual minister, he wrote, but of the congregation. Therefore, rather than focusing on the "cognitive and characterological" development of the student, the curriculum of a seminary shoul concentrate on the cognitive and characterological development of the local church. By making this shift, the seminary would be able to link theological inquiry to the "maturation of a community." This new approach would require students to understand the identity and the context of individual congregations. "Goals, rather than elaborated means, now justify this new paradigm," Hopewell concluded. "The goals are the corporate form of learned ministry, an education not once removed from the church’s embodiment, a.concurrence of church and academy in the struggle for specific redemptive community."

Hough and Wheeler’s book grew out of discussions between Hopewell and various theological educators, many of whom contribute to the volume. Part one analyzes the problems with and the possibilities for Hopewell’s propbsal that a congregational paradigm be adopted in seminary curricula.

Although all the contributors agree that seminary education must be relevant and applicable to the church, the ambiguity inherent in the concept of "congregation" raises a host of questions: Which congregation are we talking about? How do we define congregation? Could a focus on the congregation lead to the neglect of the church’s catholic or ecumenical character (David Kelsey)? Will a focus on the congregation come at the expense of the church’s role in a world mission (Letty Russell and John B. Cobb)? Do we have proper—that is, nonsexist—metaphors and language with which to discuss the relationship between the seminary and the church (Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki)?

Part two provides disciplinary perspectives on Hopewell’s proposal. Various specialists explore the congregational paradigm by asking how their own discipline might be taught in a ministry curriculum, the focus of which would be the congregation. The perspective of the historian is offered in the excellent essays by Jane Dempsey Douglass, Carl Holladay and E. Brooks Holifield. The volume concludes with provocative articles by Don S. Browning, Stanley Hauerwas and Beverly W. Harrison. These final essays are written from the perspective of practical studies, namely, pastoral care, Christian ethics and feminist liberation theology.

This volume should serve as an important source for analyzing and revising seminary education. It does not present one monolithic opinion or program, but is itself a discussion and debate about Hopewell’s proposal, a debate the reader is invited to join. However, because the book is so engaging and often convincing, it is important to raise some questions which, to a large extent, go unanswered in these pages.

According to Hopewell, a congregational paradigm would focus seminary training on the "development" and "maturation" of the congregation. But who defines "maturation" or determines the church’s "redemptive quest"? Who sets the agenda and who, finally, critiques it? This problem is, of course, inherent in a clerical paradigm, but it is not necessarily resolved in a congregational one. Hopewell wants the church to play a truly "generative role" in theological education, but I doubt that these essays alone will encourage such activity. Because they are written by educators, they inevitably give us a model of theological education whereby an agenda is presupposed, advocated and imposed on future congregations. Articles by Browning and Hauerwas are exceptions to this tendency and should serve to re-emphasize the importance of congregational self-determination.

The question of an agenda is crucial, however, for benefiting from and critiquing this book since it points out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the volume as a whole. In Russell’s and Kelsey’s chapters a recurring phrase sheds important light on the presuppositions governing these essays. Both authors warn against "ideological captivity." According to Russell, "ideological captivity" in theological education must be challenged "not only with pluralism but also with the claim that the community of faith must be joined by the community in struggle in interpreting the meaning of the gospel message and in setting the agenda." Kelsey agrees by urging as much diversity as possible among the churches on whom the curriculum focuses: "This diversity is important because it enables the curriculum to resist becoming ideologically captive. A curriculum becomes ideologically captive when it leads to an understanding of Christian identity, both communal and individual, that uncritically assimilates the interests and commitments of particular segments of society."

My concern with this book is that, in its own way, it too is ideologically captive. Seminary education is to serve as a challenge to various conservative opinions. To be free of ideological captivity is to "join the community of struggle," to oppose racism and sexism, to fight for human rights and women’s ordination, to engage in social action, to envision "holiness as justice," and to develop nonsexist language and imagery in order to "empower" and free the congregation to engage in the "struggle for liberation."

I support all of these noble goals. I greatly admire the churches described by Browning and Hauerwas. In fact, I am a certified liberal. I am active in the Democratic Party and Amnesty International. I campaigned for Dukakis. I’m even a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Yet all of this activity makes me nothing more or less than a quintessential 20th-century liberal. In fact, this activity actually imprisons me within the 20th century. It has nothing to do with being truly radical or prophetic, even in the midst of Reagan or postReagan conservatism.

That which is truly prophetic and radical is not that which challenges individual social and political realities (although these certainly do need to be addressed), but that which challenges our underlying worldview. In order to gain a perspective that frees us from the seductive and noble aspects of our own age, we must look to the past. Defining the "redemptive quest" and the "maturation" of a community of faith can really be done only in conversation with the tradition, a conversation that tests our assumptions and challenges even our most cherished and deeply held convictions.

As the essays in the first half make clear, this book addresses the issue of ecclesiology. But ecclesiology can be understood in terms of the current, living church with all of its pressing problems, duties and questions, or it can be understood historically. The latter approach takes seriously the present situation of the church but also envisions a congregation as existing over the passage of time. Douglass’s essay best addresses the need for a historical ecclesiology and, I think, points us in the right direction. Building upon the insights of this essay, I would argue that only an ecclesiology construed historically can truly free us from ideological captivity.

Robert Bellah has argued that the church should serve as a community of memory. Christian communities, preoccupied as they are with dilemmas posed by the modern world, frequently suffer from a stifling amnesia. The danger of such amnesia is that it allows the contemporary world and all of its assumptions to become tyrannical. Often the study of history reinforces the tyranny of the present. To become a community of memory does not mean that we address our 20th-century questions to the past in order to glean ammunition for various courses of action, be they conservative or liberal. Rather than looking to the past for answers to our problems we must let the past start posing the questions and setting the terms, not in order to adopt such questions uncritically but in order to judge our own thinking. To be historically oriented, then, is to allow the past to

confront us in all of its strange and alien character. The voices of the past must be permitted to speak on their own terms, and we must grant them the ability to call us to account. We might even come to the startling realization that many of our questions are wrong.

The task of the clergy should be, in many ways, a "liberating" one. To be educated in today’s seminary is to study the Bible, church history, theology, pastoral care, homiletics and ethics. These latter three subjects should be team-taught from a historical perspective by historians of theology, exegesis and social history. That historical dimension should not be abandoned at graduation but should be brought to bear on the sermon, church school teaching and pastoral counseling. The pastor should play a prophetic role in the original sense of the term—namely, not by predicting the future but by recalling us to the past and reminding us that the community has no future without recollection.

Perhaps the topic of suffering is the clearest example of how the past can challenge the future. Why did so many medieval monks, saints and mystics inflict pain on themselves? Why did theologians argue that tranquillity and prosperity are dangerous to the soul? Why, in the eyes of the tradition, did biblical heroes so often suffer adversity? To understand the nature of suffering from the ancient, medieval and Reformation perspectives may help us to stop fearing pain and affliction the way we do. It may shed light on why ours has become, in the words of Jacques Ellul, an "analgesic" age. To see suffering as a test of one’s being, a possibility for spiritual growth and a means of freedom from addiction to the world, may help us to rethink the nature of pain, prosperity, adversity and, above all, happiness.

In short, the learned cleric is here not always to comfort but to shock, to challenge, to offer an outlook alien to our age. By fulfilling this role, he or she can open avenues of understanding and real, instead of illusory, change.

If ministers allow the church of the past to challenge our most deeply held convictions, we might learn that reality is not always political. We might realize that suffering, pain and slavery cannot always be reduced to issues of domination or oppression. We might discover that relationships, human and divine, cannot always be framed in terms of categories about "power," "disempowerment" and "alienation." We might even discover that freedom is not always the same as political emancipation. We might learn that those whose wisdom is born out of suffering can teach us an understanding of God and the world that transcends all political, economic and social categories.

The 20th century has so politicized reality that we listen to other worldviews only with difficulty, hesitation or derision. Our tendency to manipulate tradition only deepens our enslavement to modern categories, questions and assumptions. As long as we cling to our own categories we cannot hear the voices of our tradition that speak about the importance of poverty and silence, that talk about the benefits of unjust suffering, that understand self-knowledge in terms of internal bondage, that depict human struggle in terms of solitude and self-abnegation, that speak of freedom in terms of self-denial and asceticism, and that perceive wisdom in terms of detachment and transcendence.

As they seek ways to redirect theological education, the authors of this book fear ideological captivity. This author’s fear is that they have, at times, failed to recognize how ideologically captive we really are. Not only must the voices of contemporary congregations be heeded as we train those discerning their vocation with the church, but we must listen to that "great cloud of witnesses" who call to us and challenge us from across the centuries.