Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Altering Theological Education for the New Normal

People who hear me teach on leadership and congregational development often comment “Why didn’t I learn this in seminary or Why don’t they teach this in seminary?”  You may be astonished to learn that I do not think either of these two topics should be taught in Seminary.  In this blog, I will offer my take on how Theological Education should be altered for the New Normal. What I mean by “the New Normal” is the Church that has lost half its membership since 2000 through the death of many of the G.I. Generation, conflict, and a failure to reach members of the Millennial Generation. A Church that is, by the way, still in decline.

Let me make two things clear at the beginning of this blog. I will be talking about the 3-year residential programs, and I will set aside the alternate training that is taking place through programs like the Iona School.  I see these latter as especially important for the future of the Church, but not the subject of this blog.

Second, many of our Seminaries have pickup up on the need for better preparation of our ordained people in leading parishes and many are now advertising that they are training future leaders for the Episcopal Church.  This, of course, has more to do with marketing than reality.  I find these claims to be of little value, and I have low expectations that the current curriculum has really been altered to do this.  Even stronger, let me say that it is unrealistic to believe that a faculty of academics could even value or imagine what this would really be.

What I do think Seminaries are about is helping form academically and professionally the character and intellectual foundation of future leaders.  Said simply, we already expect too much from our seminaries.  As Will Spong once said, “Every time General Convention meets, we have a new class mandated to teach.”  In other words, the rush to be relevant has created unrealistic expectations for our seminaries.

What about leadership itself?  I strongly believe that the Church should train its ordained leaders and that this is a post-seminary task best started in the first five years of ministry.  The reason is based on my experience with teaching clergy and having taught at Seminaries.  Clergy learn leadership best in the field as they attempt to give leadership. For most Seminarians, clergy leadership is essentially not on their radar screen.  And congregational development is beyond comprehension.  Put this together with the bias many academics have about what they see as the mundaneness of “Pastoral Theology” and you see the issue.

What is clear to those of us who work with clergy is that the context of having to lead and working with congregational leaders creates a tremendous opportunity for learning and development.  I commend Robert Lewis’ Curacy Express” for the practical application of this in the Church. So, from my perspective of working for 30 years with clergy, what alterations would I most like to see in Seminary.  There are two of them.

First, I would make Seminary more of an oral experience.  I would ask the professors to base grades on material that is half, at least, presented orally.  Instead of paper reports, I would like to see students prepared to give a 20 to 30-minute presentation (PowerPoint would be allowed) on say Pauline Theology or the English Reformation, or the Torah and the Early Church.

Then I would make preaching a three-year part of the curriculum. The first year would focus on the basics of sermon preparation and the second year on the effect communication of the Gospel. The third year would be the practice of preaching in class and chapel.  Let me add that when students do the third year, they will receive evaluations that weigh equally the content of the sermon and the effectiveness of the delivery.

Why would I do this?  Because parish ministry is primarily an oral vocation.  When parishioners ask questions of clergy, it is almost always in the context of communicating orally. Yes, I did articles for the Parish Newsletter occasionally, but most work in a parish is done orally.  When it comes to preaching, I have observed that many newly ordained clergy are making two fundamental mistakes; they are reading their sermons and their content reveals that they are preaching to their seminary professors.  When I say this to clergy, several will push back on how important it is to write out their sermons to make sure they are theologically correct.  Writing out a sermon in preparation is fine but reading them is a big mistake.  The rules for oral communication are different from written communication. Bishop John Coburn never got in a pulpit without a manuscript in front of him and he was an excellent preacher, but he practiced the delivery and memorized the text.  Preaching is an oral experience!

Here is the greatest compliment someone who preaches from a manuscript will ever get. “Thanks, Mthr. Jane, you preached that just like you weren’t reading it.”  Let me add that what we have learned in the live-streaming and YouTube experience during the epidemic is that nothing is more deadly than reading via a visual media!

Second, I would make half of the assignments in seminary classes a group exercise, yes even in the most academic course.  Imagine that Professor Jones is assigning a project or paper on the Baptismal service of the 1979 Prayer Book. Now, the professor announces, the first task group will be Bill, Jane, Maryann, and Elijah.  Both Elijah and Maryann immediately roll their eyes.  They are thinking how being stuck with two of the poorer students in the class will affect their grade.  My answer, “Welcome to Parish Ministry.”  Parish ministry is never a solo clergy operation.  It always involves working with lay leaders and members.  In traditional academic environment, the emphasis is on the individual’s performance and their grade.  In the Church, the effectiveness of one’s leadership and the health and wellbeing of the parish is about us.  It is a drastic difference.  It often takes several years for newly ordained clergy to realize this. The reason it takes so long is that they must first unlearn the method of seminary preparation.

How can leadership then be taught?  Many Dioceses already have examples of this through effective curacy programs, mentorships, and continuing education. This part is being driven by necessity. Seminaries have even contributed to this by the creation of D. Min programs focused more on the practice of ministry for post-seminary. 

I wrote this blog because the adjustment and alteration of basic seminary education has changed little since 1968 when I went to seminary. While more classes have been added, the method remains the same. This is because it is being controlled by those not prepared for parish ministry but for the academic community.  In a society that continues to have only about 1/3 of its people with a college education, these academic assumptions only contribute to a growing distance between the Church and society; clergy and their parishioners.  The New Normal demands something different!


  1. I disagree with the idea of memorizing sermons. It's great if one has that gift of total recall, but it is not practical for most of us. The amount of time necessary for me to memorize a sermon each week would preclude doing anything else, which wouldn't fly in the Parish. With that said, practice is tantamount to performance. I practice my sermon at least 10-12 times before presenting it on Sunday. This is not only part of the rewrite process, but helps to figure out the necessary inflections, pauses, etc. which all goes toward "preaching as if I weren't reading it."

    1. Good observations. I recommend you look at "Preaching without Notes" by Joseph Web for ways to consolidate what you are doing to become even more effective.

  2. While I strongly recommend writing a sermon, oral delivery makes it REAL,LIVELY and practical. Reading our sermons makes the Preacher look like a 'paper presenter' or like a third lesson Reader.
    If the church must remain relevant today we must make worship, homiletics, pastoring REAL and alive to the contemporary congregation while the authority of the Scripture is still maintained.

    1. True. Interesting watching on-line worship and seeing fellow clergy not getting this and continuing to read to a monitor, a visual devise. I often ask, do you ever watch your presentations? :-)