Revisioning Seminary as Ministry-Centered

by Glenda Hope

Glenda Hope is the founder and director of San Francisco network Ministries and the Network Center for the Study of Christian Ministry.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1998. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


No one should be allowed to teach full time in a theological seminary longer than six years at a stretch.

I am a 52-year-old minister whose entire adult life has been spent in the professional service of the Presbyterian Church. I write out of love and a deep distress which has many geneses. First, the mainline Protestant church is in serious decline. Some go so far as to say it is dying.

Second, my major ministry, the San Francisco Network Ministries, is among people long ago abandoned by the church -- the frail elderly poor, the homeless, addicts and alcoholics, illiterates, people with AID’S/ARC who are living in poverty, prostitutes and other victims of our culture’s "sex industry," and people with various mental and physical disabilities struggling to live on meager benefit payments. There is a deep spiritual wisdom and hunger among these people, yet besides our street ministry, only one Roman Catholic and one Protestant church minister with some 25,000 people. This story is duplicated across the land, to the shame and impoverishment of the church.

Third, the Christian church has little access to or influence on the major policy making institutions of our society, in spite of the noisy presence of reactionary church voices and political campaign allusions to religious values. Decisions affecting the life of the planet, and especially the life of the poor, are made with little significant input from those who take the gospel of Jesus Christ as their primary guide.

I want to examine the form, content and role of seminary education in light of these three problems. While much of what I write has no doubt been said before, seminaries seldom show that they have heard it or are willing to take it seriously.

In May 1988 the Network Center for Study of Christian Ministry utilized a grant from Trinity Grants, New York City, to host a four-day consultation of ministry-based programs in seminary education from across the country. Represented were the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta, the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, the Women’s Theological Center in Boston, the New York Theological Seminary and the former Urban Academy of Chicago. We examined the programs’ theories and practice of adult education, clarifying our assumptions and exploring the implications of our work for seminary education in general. With the exception of the program at New York Theological Seminary, all the organizations participating were founded and are directed by people involved in ministry outside the academy (and even NYTS requires its professors to engage in nonacademic ministry). We all work on the premise that ministry studies are best conducted when they are centered on ministry rather than on the classroom or on students.

The NCSCM was founded in 1982 by the Pacific School of Religion and the San Francisco Network Ministries. It also includes students from San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) , Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopal) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Students enroll for one year of their M.Div. or D.Min. work, not an intern or additional year. Through an interview process, a student is placed in a parish or agency in San Francisco where he or she is engaged in ministry about 20 hours a week for nine months. The student also enrolls in four classes each semester in areas such as Old Testament, New Testament, theology, ethics, pastoral care, community ministry and spiritual disciplines.

These classes are open to NCSCM students only and are designed to be integrated with the students’ ministry. Field experience and academic work are in constant dialogue. Some classes are taught by practitioners active in a parish or agency, and some are taught by full-time professors from the participating schools. Each student works on-site with a field faculty person who, in turn, is trained by NCSCM staff and field education professors. Most students also choose to work with a spiritual director.

Academic rigor is not sacrificed. Indeed, students are not allowed simply to "master the material"; they must integrate classes with their day-to-day ministry experience, a much more demanding intellectual task. It is not possible to play the schooling game we all know so well, dealing with abstract principles of pastoral care or professional ethics, Jesus’ parables, innovative worship, or a Sunday youth fellowship. These pieces of life are not so neatly separated from one another. At NCSCM ministry and classroom continually probe, shape, question and reform one another. Ordinarily, when students are asked to write theological reflection papers on ministry experiences, they often fail to address the assignment -- seminaries have taught them theology, but not how to reflect theologically. Ministry-centered education seeks to redress that lack.

Whether they work with upper-middle-class parishes, ethnic or minority churches, undocumented refugees, small struggling urban churches, hospice patients, the elderly poor, delinquent youth or battered women, all students grapple with questions of class and race in a course on feminist ethics. Their case studies form the core of class discussion and theory in a Christian education course based on Donald Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner.

They agonize over Christology while working in an agency reaching out to homeless runaway youths selling their bodies on the streets. Where is Christ on these mean streets and what difference does that make to anyone? Discussions of baptism and the Eucharist take a different tone when we realize that most of these street children have been baptized.

Students and professors search and are searched by the Psalms. How do the Psalms of lament, of disorientation or comfort speak to us, through us and for us in a small parish suffering nine deaths from AIDS during the fall semester? What form does pastoral care take in a parish bleeding from internal conflicts about life and ministry in a neighborhood undergoing rapid changes in matters of race, age, economic class and sexual orientation? What form does it take in a large, affluent parish about to undertake a multimillion-dollar building program? How do studies in ecclesiology relate such Christian congregations to the burgeoning numbers of homeless on the streets of every city in the U.S.? How does a course on work and economic justice inform ministries with non-English speaking refugees trapped in sweatshops, or with prostitutes, or with single mothers, or with bank executives? Where in our theology and ministries is the meeting ground on which all these people might learn from one another?

Calvin is better approached through his spirituality than through his theology. Spirituality bears to theology somewhat the relation of practice to theory or of action to contemplation, or, perhaps . . . of history to philosophy; even, perhaps of Hebraism to Hellenism. Christian spirituality . . . involves what the gospel effects in the believer. It includes everything we mean by the Christian life: prayer, worship, works of love, pilgrimage, what the gospel means for daily life. Spirituality is first-order Christianity; theology is second-order Christianity. Protestantism, like Catholicism, endured a reaction against the creative, and therefore frightening, impulses of the 16th century, and there arose a concern to domesticate, to systematize, and to control the frightening impulses. After the charismatic leaders came the routinizers. After the disturbing spirituality came the theology.

Bousma noted that the teaching authority of the church was claimed by the theological faculty, leading to a division between them and the "clergy who minister to the whole body of the faithful." Yet "for those who are in daily touch with suffering, needy, sinful humanity, what is most required is less theology than spirituality, applied Christianity, first-order Christianity." Calvin, Bousma continued, "insisted on the obligation of God’s people to bring the world that God had created into full obedience to his will. Calvin stated ‘We are not worthy to look upon Heaven, until all the world is reformed."

In our time, ministry-centered seminary education programs are calling attention to the same painful division between sacerdotium and magisterium that existed in the medieval church. It is time for a radical revisioning and restructuring of seminary education. First, it is imperative that faculty as well as students be engaged substantially in ministry outside the academy. A NCSCM student’s experience illustrates this necessity.

At a party, I met a man who worked for a company in the financial district and he became intrigued with our ministry, expressing interest in working with people with AIDS in a poverty area where we work. He made an appointment with me, saying he felt the pull to do something "more" with his life.

Before heading to his office, I stopped to see Dan. Despite having wasted to 110 pounds and having diarrhea and difficulties breathing, he had been in excellent spirits. This night, however, he was gasping for breath and lacked energy to talk. I sat behind him, holding his body upright, so that he could swallow some pills. I wanted to stay, but was aware that I was overdue for my appointment, so I found someone to sit with Dan.

Arriving for my appointment, I found the man feverishly at work preparing a presentation with time for nothing but embarrassed apologies. We made another date, which he also canceled.

I am haunted by having left a man in desperate shape in order to respond to another who, at the level of party conversation, had evinced interest in "doing more," yet who had created a world of work which did not allow him to step into another world. I realize that when I move from ministry site to seminary, I move from a desperate place to a place professing to care, but which has created a world of work -- books, papers and presentations -- which does not allow it to connect in any meaningful way with that other world. Books and papers are valuable, but as seminary is presently constituted.those things defend us from firsthand, visceral encounters with desperate people and places. We. need to be haunted by such encounters; until we are haunted, our busy works will not impact nor change the world’s status quo, because without being haunted we will not change our own.

Theological seminaries should abandon the practice of tenure for faculty, and with rare exceptions no one should be allowed to teach full-time in a seminary more than six years at a stretch, followed by at least six years of ministry in a parish or agency before another teaching stint.

One argument against this is that such a practice would dilute the quality of scholarship. No doubt it would change scholarship, but this would not necessarily be detrimental. It might even enrich the theological gene pool, drawing on the minds, faith, scholarship and spirituality of a much greater number of Christians committed to ministry. It would provide parish and agency with more leaders challenged and enriched by theological faculty and students. It would bring into the academy people with vast experience in ministry, dramatically altering both the process and the content of seminary education.

NCSCM’s experience reveals that seminary professors are often profoundly shaken by what they learn of ministry from interacting with our students, while many of our adjunct faculty, both clergy and lay, display superior teaching skills and understanding of their subject matter and contemporary ministry. Where is it written that the common good is best served by having competent Christian scholars frozen into tenured and adjunct status? It is time for Christian seminaries to abandon the model pressed on us by the university and risk a model more suited to the needs of today’s church. (A recent conversation with the dean of an Episcopal seminary revealed that Anglican seminaries in Great Britain have already made these changes.)

This policy opens the door for ecumenical enrichment. Knowing that tenure would be limited, Protestant seminaries, for example, might feel freer to hire Protestants from different traditions, Catholics or scholars of other faiths. They would be encouraged to seek out the wealth of teaching talent among clergy and laypeople outside the academy, and to find ways to develop, appreciate and reward them. Finally, this policy would lessen the time that faculty now waste on empire-building, issues of personal security and internal politics.

The entrenched understanding of scholarship must be dislodged and attention given to critical questions such as: What should be the goal of theological scholarship? Who should be the recipients of scholarship? What should be the sources, processes and materials for scholarship? What should be the language of scholarship?

Harold Recinos of Wesley Theological Seminary says that the purpose, of most scholarship is "to baffle the laity and to dazzle one’s peers in the academy." Charles McCoy of Pacific School of Religion suggests that it is "to add to the body of inert material in the library." Of course we must continue to provide .for investigative, speculative scholarship such as that displayed by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Norman Gottwald. The value of such groundbreaking work is indisputable. But our appreciation of scholarship must be expanded to include and encourage work produced primarily for non-academic, thoughtful, intelligent people of faith, and to value people-based research as highly as that which is print-based. We must structure the scholarly environment such that even the print-based research is always kept in dialogue with actual places, programs and peopIe in ministry. Our research must be haunted by firsthand encounters with suffering, needy, sinful humanity. William Weisenbach of New York Theological Seminary observed that Ph.D. programs reward "that 2 percent of the population who are true introverts, preferring solitary research to interaction with others." Such people occupy most seminary teaching positions.

On the M.A. and M.Div. levels, ministry-centered programs prefer short written or oral class presentations over the traditional term paper. When longer papers are assigned, we encourage having them prepared by colleague teams, or orally presented as work-in-progress so that peer and professor critiques can be utilized for shaping the final product. While this may not be the best preparation for traditional postgraduate work, it is the best preparation for practitioners, developing habits and skills of critical theological reflection and building truly supportive colleague communities. This method also requires professors to master a wider range of subjects.

Preparation for professional ministry is best accomplished where active ministry is occurring; therefore most seminaries should divest themselves of their real property.

From the outset, the NCSCM chose to have classes rotate weekly among the ministry sites of our students, a system that has proved to be an invaluable piece of the education process. Students and faculty gain an overview of ministry in the city, comparing and contrasting physical facilities, neighborhoods, staff, programs, financial resources and populations. Even confronting public transportation and the task of surviving cold weather raise theological questions for people of faith. It is difficult to deal abstractly with the prophets when you can hear 100 shuffling feet lined up outside for their one meal of the day.

Conversely, the location and relative splendor of many of our seminaries display a class bias against which Scripture consistently inveighs. In Power and Privilege Gerhard Lenski identifies clergy as members of the "retainer" class, buffering the ruling elite from the peasants. Which way lie our primary allegiance, identity and aspirations? Which are reinforced by the current milieu of seminary education?

Moving into smaller, more modest, rented, donated or shared space would free seminaries from the massive burden of maintaining their properties and liberate resources of money and time. Certainly there are problems with this move, chief among them being housing for students, but they are not insoluble and would yield to the knowledge and creativity of boards of trustees and others.

It continually amazes me that presumably mature students, more and more of them second-career people in their 40s and 50s, regress so quickly in the current adolescent model of education and regard the seminary as in loco parentis. By divesting themselves of campuses, not only could seminaries be freed from meeting many "nurture" needs (making funds available for scholarships) but students would adopt a healthier, more adult lifestyle, meeting their own needs in a variety of ways and places as the rest of the population does.

The time is long overdue for us to let go of the comforts of the private intellectual and therapeutic approaches to seminary education and to move toward the terrors of public communal discipleship.

Membership in most denominations is declining while the spiritual hunger of the people is deepening. The church’s influence on public policy is waning as the magnitude of human need and the precariousness of the planet grow apace. As we enter the dark night of our collective soul, few are sounding believable notes of hope. Ministers cast about for responses to displaced farm families, to the deepening misery of the rural and urban poor, to the epidemic use of drugs in every strata of society, to half a million homeless children; they seek techniques for church growth, approaches to spiritual nurture and meaningful worship. But few seem able or willing to grapple with underlying questions and causes.

In an October 1988 consultation on seminary education and urban ministry hosted by New York Theological Seminary, three brief papers addressed this point. Sam Solivan of NYTS raised the question of what language we should study and accept as part of the scholarly discourse. He noted that much of the most creative and challenging theology and biblical work is coming from the Third World, yet most Ph.D. requirements continue to insist on study in German, French, Italian and English. Theology from the Third World challenges not only language requirements but also major cultural concepts, assumptions and worldviews.

Noting that we do not live in a sacred world valuing "received knowledge" from holy writ, but in a profane world harshly criticizing that tradition, Victoria Erickson of Union Theological Seminary in New York City wondered if we dared invite our worst critics into our classrooms for dialogue. If we do not prepare leaders for the church who are able and eager to engage that world, the church will continue to lose its presence and influence. People don’t simply want to be told "who ‘the man’ is," she observed; they want help in understanding how he got our money and power and what it will take for us to get it back without violating the gospel in the process.

David Frenchak of Chicago’s Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education decried the practice of seminaries talking about the city while having no experiential knowledge of it. The sabbatical used for a brief foray into a U.S. or Third World ministry is little more than ecclesiastical tourism, providing snapshots but no in-depth picture of the majority of the world’s reality. "Healing," he complained, "is focused on psychology, not on justice." That cannot continue.

Christians are a people of Incarnation, of Word and Spirit. Those preparing for leadership in the church must bold those three elements together. Seminary education must inculcate such critical abilities, inclinations, and knowledge of our tradition that students leave seminary listening to people -- within the visible church and those outside it, especially the most alienated. We must also listen for the Spirit of God in our own work and prayer, action and contemplation, and bring biblical and theological study to bear on all we do and plan.