However gauche it may be in clergy circles to say it, I loved my seminary experience. From the summer intensive course on New Testament Greek before my first quarter at the University of Chicago all the way to a course on John Calvin that concluded my last, lagging Lutheran year at LSTC, I enjoyed myself immensely. I can count the bad classes on one hand and the personal and existential crises on the other.
It’s no surprise, because I was a pretty successful college student too. Seminary turned out to be an extension of college, more or less. The same skills and habits served me well in class. The same life circumstances–no children to support, no big household expenses, no difficulty living cheaply, and most fortunately no debt to be paying back–made everything else manageable.
As a result I did not think it at all odd that my credentialing in America’s cultural elite (daydreaming worrier subsection) was more or less continuous with my credentialing in the earthly assembly of a crucified Jewish God-man. But there it was: seminary was Jesus College. Should it have been? Could it be otherwise?
Let’s not ignore the fact that modeling seminary education on the university has produced some powerful benefits. It has allowed faculty of a generally very high scholarly caliber, curricula that can provide a modicum of both breadth and depth, and easier conversation with related fields of history, philosophy, literature, science, and so on.
But Jesus College is an expensive model and a rather delicate one. Higher education generally is going through a period of ruthless transition, and its constituency is actually growing. Jesus College faces many of the same challenges, but its constituency is not growing. It is understandable that seminaries have followed the industry in some of their adaptations. Online learning has expanded dramatically since I was in school not a decade ago. Accommodations for non-traditional students are, thankfully, much more common today. Many seminaries are cutting back their core requirements or even the years needed for a degree. And some seminaries are trying harder to reach outside their historical denominations and the cohort of people preparing for pastoral ministry.
The real test of these innovations, however, will be whether they do more than shore up a system for educating church leaders that is eroding at the edges. They will hopefully enable still bolder experimentation. After all, the current model is itself the product of a time (I would guess the 19th century, when everything that now is began) and a place (Germany, same deal) and not a constant through the history of the church. It has been done other ways. Those ways may offer some guidance.
One possibility is for seminary education to diverge more sharply from secular high education in both directions–to be both more cloistered from the world and indifferent to educational trends and more immediately present and stripped of the privilege of living as a student. As a friend suggested to me, a first year could be spent in intentional and somewhat intensive Christian community. A measure of austerity would be welcome but substantial funding would be necessary (I am a romantic so I would suggest a monastery or a sheep farm). Let students pray together daily, read big books and raise vegetables. Let them mothball their social media profiles for a year. Give them the chance to learn a bit of how harsh they can be to others. Let the Greek adverbs and the theology be hard and unyielding but let the beds be warm, the food be good and the leisurely evenings with colleagues and family be many.
Then the next year, dump all these sheep-farm-hardened scholars back into the world. Let them find a little work and a place to live and hold classes in a church or at the bar or in the park. Let them examine the world around them with all the theological depth they brought to bear on themselves and their colleagues the year before. Then send them on internship.
Such a model would have the advantage of being, on balance, cheaper than Jesus College. It would have the drawback of being unappealing to normal people. But should we, at this late date, consider that a constraining factor? I worry, with the benefit of a modest amount of hindsight, more that we will move graduates more quickly and smoothly into a church and a world for which they have not been prepared than I worry that we will leave some prospective students cold. I am not long in this business but I have seen people I graduated with leave ministry. They were good colleagues. It’s hard not to suspect that their preparation, in one way or another, let them down.
If nothing else, the present moment opens the door to previously unthinkable possibilities. If we’re going to give up the Jesus College model little by little, we can at least be unafraid to try giving it up altogether, somewhere with some cohort of adventurous students. We may be surprised at what the world deeper inside our books and the world further outside our walls can teach us.