Emphasizing the Congregation: New Directions for Seminaries

by Christopher Walters-Bugbee

Mr. Walters-Bugbee is editor of the Communicant, the newspaper if the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 10, 1982, p. 1131. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Because the individual congregation is such a rich expression of the church, studying it can focus theological education. The traditional disciplines of the church — Bible, church history systematic and practical theology — continue to function but at the same time, are coming apart.

Dissatisfaction with curriculum is nothing new to the world of theological education, where “seminary faculty get as passionate about revising curricula as Jesse Helms does about cutting food stamps,” as one seminary trustee has observed. But the discussion has taken on new substance of late with the critique advanced by Edward Farley, professor of theology at Vanderbilt. In articles published in a variety of forums over the past two years, Farley has argued that the current organization of the theological curriculum corresponds to an ecclesial reality that no longer exists. The substitution of career-oriented professional training for the classical notion of theology as a wide-ranging pursuit of the knowledge of God has meant the loss of the unifying subject matter of theological education. This has resulted, according to Farley, “in an educational experience on the part of the student which has the character of an introduction to a fairly large number of types of expertise, but without an apparent paradigm that makes sense of the whole cluster of inquiries. The result is that theological education is experienced as ‘academic’” (Theological Education, Winter 1981).

With the glue gone that once held them together, Farley argues, the traditional disciplines -- Bible, church history, systematic and practical theology  -- of the classic, fourfold curriculum will continue to function in a dispersed state until a new paradigm is located which can organize the pursuit and attainment of theological education. As it happens, that is exactly what James Hopewell thinks he has run across in his work. Eight years of experiment and study as a professor of religion and the church at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology have convinced Hopewell that “the congregation is as central to theological education as the human body is to medical education.”

If Hopewell’s name seems familiar, it’s probably because of his contributions during the ‘60s to the development of theological education in the Third World. A former director of the World Council of Churches’ Theological Education Fund, Hopewell now serves as director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at Candler. He is eloquent on the subject of “the unique religious system present within each congregation,” and speaks with missionary zeal of “the bulky body of symbols and stories and values and beliefs and histories contained therein which lie just beyond the grasp of any of the quantitative tools at our disposal.” Yet he is realistic about the distance which many of his seminary colleagues will have to travel before they will be willing to accept his notion of “the parish as paradigm.”

Hopewell is aware, for example, that “embarrassment about the body is not some remote Victorian quirk; it happens every day in most seminaries. The body that these schools avoid -- modestly averting their eyes and groping toward it only in the dark -- is the body of the local church.” That body is the principal social reality to which the schools are linked by service and support, yet most seminaries he knows show little curiosity and even less delight about its nature. According to Hopewell, “Seminaries seem more comfortable pursuing less tangible objects like God and homiletics. The concrete body of the congregation disconcerts them.”

And lack of understanding about this body disconcerts all too many seminary students at the end of their three years on campus. That much, at least, is clear to Wayne K. Clymer, bishop of the Iowa conference of the United Methodist Church. After 25 years in seminary education, Clymer is particularly well equipped to handle his present responsibilities as chairman of the committee which functions as a liaison between the church’s Council of Bishops and the denomination’s ten seminaries. He is not at all surprised that the greatest time of trauma and confusion for seminary graduates coincides with their transition to “the strange new world of the local parish.”

“Look -- many of these people have been living in academia for 20 years or more,” Clymer says. “They’ve been coping with an academic, institutional mentality since they were five, and by now they think they know what is expected of them. They’ve learned the tricks of their trade -- they know that everything can be done by reading a book, attending a lecture, having a discussion and writing a paper. No wonder they experience culture shock when they move into a local church. Suddenly they find themselves surrounded by people with quite different priorities, who view the world through much different lenses, and who care about different things. This is especially true in small, rural churches, which can provide none of the kinds of support most seminary students have become used to.”

Hopewell acknowledges that some degree of abstraction is inevitable in any program of graduate professional training, but he remains convinced that “we have done it to such an extent in most of theological education that we tend to forget about the local church.” The current arrangement of the theological curriculum makes no more sense, he explains, than if a medical school were to claim that it had to keep students away from patients in order really to teach them about medicine. “What we are trying to do here at Candler is to counter that by reintroducing the body with all of its richness and complexity into the actual process and curriculum of theological education.”

Hopewell’s enthusiasm for strengthening the interplay between seminaries and local congregations comes from firsthand experience. Since 1974, Candler has been offering, under his direction, academic courses in local churches on topics that the churches themselves suggest concerning their own problems in ministry and mission. The Candler program brings together a professor, a pastor and 12 lay-people with 12 senior students to work on that problem for an entire term. The students function as collaborative researchers, people who are themselves attempting to identify and understand the particular facts to be uncovered in this situation, and how ministry is to be undertaken. They are there as part of the team, as are the faculty members who, through their participation, demonstrate the practice of their particular disciplines in application to specific church problems.

The program is based on the “simple notion that students, laypeople, pastors and professors all have a stake in the particular problems of ministry and mission within local congregations, that each has gifts to bring to the understanding of the issues and that they can work together to address those issues.” And after 125 such experiments, Hopewell is ready to acknowledge success; that rather simple notion “works surprisingly well.”

Hopewell is quick to emphasize that these courses, offered through the seminary’s Rollins Center for Church Ministries, are not simply field education by another name. For that very reason, he explained, the institute courses are not treated separately but are located within the particular discipline of the profession involved. “If the course is being taught by a New Testament professor, then it is numbered and treated as part of his discipline. This replicates in a course setting the real dilemmas faced by students upon graduation -- trained in New Testament exegesis, they suddenly find themselves in congregations, facing problems involving family breakdown, or difficulties with adolescents in the church. This kind of contextual approach has a dual impact, because both professors and students are forced to see what these disciplines mean in terms of the types of issues that the students are going to face in the parish, and the ways in which they actually arise.” This is the principal reason, he adds, why participation in such classes is part of the course load required of all Candler faculty.

Taking the congregation this seriously, Hopewell has discovered, results in a radical reordering of academic goals and purposes. “What matters in the last analysis is no longer whether the individual student understands theology or the New Testament, but whether the congregation understands theology or the New Testament. In other words, a New Testament course becomes concerned with how the congregation perceives the exegesis of Matthew, and its relevance to its own particular situation.”

Hopewell reports that student reaction to the courses has been mixed. Seminarians display a certain amount of irritation that in addition to their Sunday field education assignments, they are also required to establish a deep relationship with another congregation. “But there are payoffs, too; some of these courses turn out to be simply brilliant. And in the most successful efforts, we have been able to establish new ways of thinking about theological scholarship and its relationship to actual problems in the church.”

The courses arose out of Hopewell’s hunch that it was important to get seminary and church working together on specific issues arising from the local context. It wasn’t until he had really immersed himself in the study of local congregations, however, that he understood how much he had to learn. Soon after the courses started, he began to realize “that a great deal more was going on in the local congregation than just rational give-and-take among well-intentioned human beings.

“What we discovered was that the local church had a culture of its own and that seminary graduates needed to be prepared to cope with the congregation as a very complex social reality with deep structures and metaphors by which it lives and moves, a social reality which is affected by forces and dynamics of which we know almost nothing.” What they discovered, Hopewell explains, is how appallingly little has been done on the whole question of congregations as subcultures.

Hopewell found himself pushed to this new comprehension by his growing frustration with the simplistic view of the church which he encountered within the congregations themselves. “For many if not most of the people I was coming into contact with in local churches, talking about their congregation meant citing statistics of one sort or another, or details of particular programs.” At a time when his own research and daily experience were alerting him to the rich complexity of congregational life, Hopewell encountered people within the very churches he studied who “had sold out to a mechanistic view of what was going on within their congregations.” It didn’t take him long to realize just how inadequate this view was for understanding congregational life. He found the congregations far more complex than their annual reports and statistics could possibly indicate; their living history was made up of symbols, stories, values and beliefs incomprehensible to the traditional quantitative tools.

Hopewell found neither the abstract teachings of the seminary nor the bottom-line mentality of the church of much value in dealing with the real issues of ministry and mission faced by local congregations. Prompted by his continuing experience with the institute courses, he began a serious research effort, convinced of the need “to find new ways to talk about the congregational body that can provide deeper insight into its nature, and enrich conversation with and among its members.”

One person who agrees with him is Carl Dudley, professor of church and community at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His own concentrated study of the dynamics of small churches and churches in changing communities has made him increasingly in demand around the country as a perceptive observer of the dynamics of congregational life. Dudley has more than a cursory knowledge of the existing literature about the church, and he finds much of it sadly deficient.

“My impression is that so much of the literature that has really dominated our thinking about the church derives from generalized abstractions about what the church ought to be or about what the evils of the church are by theologians who are at best uncomfortable in trying to apply that to particular congregations. It’s one thing to think along with Tillich when he talks in a general way of correlating the church to culture; you find it’s quite another when you try to apply that to particular congregations -- it gets exceedingly awkward.” For that reason, Dudley explains, it is difficult to find theologians who deal with the congregation. There are many theologians of religion and the whole church, of faith and of culture, but very few who have had much to say about the dynamics of belief within the setting of the local congregation. As a result, Dudley says, students leave seminary with only an idealized view of what the church ought to be.

Nor, in his view, do pastors fare much better in the parish, where they find themselves awash in books detailing the success stories of particular ministers and congregations and in practical how-to-do-it manuals on everything from evangelism to stewardship generated out of programmatic approaches to questions of growth, size and organizational effectiveness. It is quite clear to him that “the way in which we have tried to hear the church has been shaped by patterns of convenience, rather than the much more difficult commitment to ascertain what’s going on through close analysis of congregational life. Taking the temperature of the church through congregations is a messy business, which helps explain why seminaries and churches alike have tended to listen more to theologians than to the congregations themselves.

“Theologians have long been trying to get the churches to think more metaphysically,” according to Dudley. “Well, some of us think it is time theologians were challenged to think more congregationally.” He hopes that the use of multiple disciplines will help theologians listen anew to congregations as valid expressions of where the faith is at any given moment.

Dudley dates his awareness of the need for these new disciplines from the fall of 1979, when he journeyed to Indianapolis as part of a group convened by Robert Lynn, vice-president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, to review an innovative project on congregational research directed by James Hopewell. Hopewell had pursued his fascination with the congregation through a yearlong examination of a local United Methodist and a local Baptist congregation, and arrived in Indiana that fall with a presentation woven of insights about the two churches drawn from fields as diverse as history, economics, statistics and sociology, with particular emphasis on literary analysis, symbolic language, anthropology and mythology.

Dudley was just one of many there who found in Hopewell’s work “an exhilarating lesson in how different disciplines could be used to interpret the work of the local church.” He and Hopewell, together with Jackson Carroll of the Hartford Seminary Foundation, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute, and Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Theological Seminary, were excited enough by the potential demonstrated in Indianapolis to embark upon a concerted effort to discover the state of the art in congregational studies. Supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the group invited 15 scholars -- sociologists, ethnographers, theologians and experts in organizational development and analysis -- to apply their respective disciplines during the late winter and spring of 1981 to a case study of Wiltshire United Methodist Church (not its real name) prepared especially for this exercise by Alice and Robert Evans of the Hartford Seminary Foundation. A congregation of moderate size located in an upper-middle-class bedroom community in New England, Wiltshire offered the scholars a chance to demonstrate the range of insight that could be gained through the use of their specific disciplines in the service of congregational analysis.

The fruits of their considerable labors were displayed before an audience of more than 300 consultants, church executives, pastors and seminary educators who gathered in Atlanta last March for a three-day conference on “Understanding the Local Church.” The presentation of the scholars’ findings was the occasion for vigorous discussion and debate among conferees, who followed the proceedings of this ecclesiastical Rashomon with a rapt attentiveness, itself a testimony to the originality of this multidisciplinary approach. Conference planners had hoped to get across the notion that the use of more than one disciplinary lens provided a much more mteresting and useful picture of the multiple facets of congregational life -- and by all accounts, they succeeded.

But the Atlanta event taught conference organizers like Barbara Wheeler some unexpected lessons as well, and they came away impressed with how well the congregation held together. “We did a lot to that poor church in subjecting it to analysis, but we never succeeded in explaining Wiltshire away,” Wheeler admits, with obvious admiration for what she calls “the durability of the congregation.” Analysis by multiple methods covered several hundred pages with insights packed like sardines in a tin, yet could not, in the end, fully account for the church.

The president of Auburn Theological Seminary, Wheeler is one of the most keen-eyed observers in theological education. Her experience gained as, successively, consultant to the president of Union Theological Seminary, research associate for the Study Project on the History of Reform in Theological Education, and director of the Women’s Theological Coalition of the Boston Theological Institute, as well as her current work as a consultant for both the Association of Theological Schools and the major foundations active in theological education, give her a wide knowledge of the seminary world. It was Wheeler who was asked to write the closing chapter, assessing the import of congregational studies for the future of the church, of the upcoming book reporting on the findings presented at the Atlanta conference (Building Effective Ministry: Theory and Practice of the Local Church, to be published by Harper & Row in early 1983).

The congregation’s demonstrated integrity, its fullness and wholeness, present a striking contrast with many experiences elsewhere in the church, Wheeler observes: “experiences often described as cleavages, divides, separations, gaps or even gulfs.” She has identified several areas now characterized by division where things might be pulled together around the study of the congregation. High on her list is the division between the seminaries and the churches. “Neither the stereotype that people in seminaries have of local churches nor the stereotypes the churches have of themselves hold up very well if the congregation is really studied carefully and conscientiously,” she says.

One of the things that interests her in the ongoing talk about “the seminaries and the churches” is that when the problem is stated that way, seminaries aren’t seen as part of the church. In her view, a lot of the talk about “the seminary’s failure to address the church” fails to understand that the seminary is an organ of the church, just as the congregation is. Congregational studies, she thinks, could lead to both a deeper understanding of ministry in congregations and a better demonstration of the kind of ministry in which seminaries are engaged. “People in both camps would quickly discover that some long-cherished divisions -- the favorite one, for instance, between the academic and the practical, the reflective and the active, theory and practice -- are confounded when you look with any care at the life of an actual congregation, and see the ways that theory is always in practice, that even the act of theorizing is an act of practice. Things just don’t stay neat once you study a community as rich and dense as the local congregation is.

Wheeler is quick to emphasize that she does not mean that the curriculum should be organized around the function of ministry. That solution, she explains, has only succeeded in making everybody uncomfortable with an image of the minister as a functionary. But she does believe that the serious study of the congregation at all of the levels of its life -- theological, ethical, historical, cultural, socioeconomic and aesthetic -- can provide deep insight into the lived ecclesial reality with which theological education ought to be in intense and constant dialogue.

“I don’t view seminaries as training schools, stamping out exactly what local churches identify as their needs for the next day; that’s not their function at all. But I do think they bear a deep accountability to the congregation understood in depth and at all of the different layers of its life” -- understood, she says, in ways that the congregations themselves don’t yet understand, since they haven’t been engaged in very deep congregational studies either. In her view, congregation al studies are important for seminaries because the seminaries are accountable to the church, and important for congregations because understanding themselves better will enable them to hold up their side of the dialogue with seminaries and other church agencies. “I also think it is valuable for people who are inclined to lay trips on congregations to see for themselves that they are far more complex than most of the ideas that are held about them -- that many of the ideas about what is wrong with them are just too simple.”

Wheeler believes that congregational studies is as promising a discipline as any she has seen. “I don’t know if it is going to become the paradigm for organizing the theological curriculum, but I do know that the congregation is interesting enough, varied enough and goes deep enough, and has the kind of inescapable connection with the living stuff of the church, that it can at least be the source of very interesting conversations. Not everyone feels that strongly, of course. The Vanderbilt faculty, following on Farley, has focused on the theme of ‘the minister as theologian.’”  Yet Wheeler is convinced that “the contributions which congregational studies could make are evident,” and that learning how to understand the intricate workings of congregations has indisputable value for those being trained for pastoral ministry. The implications for form are more subtle but no less significant. “If the congregation is in fact, as we believe we found in preparing our conference, such a rich basic expression of the church in which many elements cohere, then perhaps the study of it from a variety of perspectives can serve to reorient, reorganize and unify what Farley has called ‘the dispersed disciplines’ of theological study.”

Now that people in the mainline denominations are starting to talk unembarrassedly about church growth and evangelism of a fairly conventional sort, Wheeler worries that the potential exists for any emphasis on congregational studies to be misinterpreted as an outgrowth of the spirit of the times -- which views local communities of believers uncritically, as in-arguably good things, and assumes that if there is anything the matter with them it is that they aren’t big enough. In her view, the immediate challenge for congregational study is to make abundantly clear that though it is dissociated from those who write off the congregation, it is also dissociated from those who romanticize it, and whose view of it is “entirely complacent, accepting and benign.”

Proponents of congregational analysis share no single theological position, Wheeler explains. They take the congregation as seriously as they do for quite a range of reasons. For some, valuing the congregation is an outgrowth of their Christian faith; for others, the congregation is simply the most interesting social institution that they’ve ever got their hands on; for still others, the local church body is a microcosm of the human condition. “I think that what we have to say to seminaries is in some ways quite radical precisely because congregational studies don’t have a single position -- the basic issues being fought in Atlanta were really epistemological, and the battle was over how you know the church. That’s what made it so exciting there, and what makes congregational analysis so promising for the reconceptualization of theological education.

“The challenge to congregational studies,” Wheeler continues, “is to keep things as complicated as they got in Atlanta. to make it clear that the congregation is neither automatically damned nor automatically saved simply by being the congregation. Rather, it is a powerful mixture of elements containing in its culture, tradition, structures and practices the seeds of its own and the world’s undoing or salvation.”