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Sex, Drugs, and Seminary: Faithful obedience and ministry formation

Timothy Dalrymple just posted a very interesting piece on his experience at Princeton Seminary: The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary. It’s a fascinating reflection on the challenges of being an evangelical at a mainline school, and the “outsider” status he felt like he had there. As he describes it,

My Outsider status became clear to me — if not for the first time, at least in a new way — when I sat with friends on the seminary field, stretching before a game of ultimate frisbee.  It was still my first semester, and I was getting to know the people and the place.  We were talking about the sins that were emphasized in the churches that brought us up.  I said that pre- or extra-marital sex was the grave sin against we, in my youth group and Sunday School classes, were most gravely and constantly warned.  And, I said, I appreciated that, as it had helped me maintain my commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.

I might as well have said that I believe in eating toddlers with chipotle sauce and a side order of puppies.  My friends’ and fellow seminarians’ expressions had gone, suddenly, from benign conversational interest to something that looked like rats and skunks had deposited themselves deep in their nostrils, where they were scratching and relieving themselves and spreading their odors.  This, I saw, was the last thing my friends wanted to talk about.  And such a “backwards” and “judgmental” attitude (as it would later be described to me) really had no place at an enlightened seminary.

And, he goes on to describe a seminary experience that apparently involved a fair amount of drugs, alcohol, and sex, and that seemed more focused on “the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life,” than living obedient lives in “grateful imitation” of the grace we’ve received in Jesus.

I’ll let you read the article for yourself. It’s a fascinating window into one person’s experience.

But, what I really wanted to key in on was an interesting warning that he offers to any seminary student. Dalrymple comments on the fact that seminary was a real low point in his spiritual life, and that he’d heard similar stories from others he went to school with.  And, he thinks that the main reason for this was a simple lack of obedience. They’d gotten so caught up in the isolated, academic life of the school, separated from the pressures of having to live out their faith in the midst of other people, that they’d lost sight of the need to live faithfully.

So, he concludes with this thought:

I believe, and believe very strongly, that one way seminaries can improve themselves is to remember the foundational importance of obedience, to remember that we are saved by grace but called to live lives of grateful imitation.  When we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we come to know him and commune with him — and to know and commune with the Father.  If we want seminarians to see their seminary years as times of extraordinary spiritual deepening and growth, then we need to encourage those seminarians to live lives of integrity and holiness and selfless obedience.  They fill fall short.  But to the extent they try, they will grow.

I found this fascinating, because I’ve never looked at the struggles of the seminarian from this perspective. I’ve often heard people say that seminary was a “dry time” for them, though my experience was quite different. And, I routinely talk to my students about the importance of staying spiritually healthy while dealing with the rigors of an academic program. And, most importantly, I emphasize the absolute necessity of being involved in ministry while in seminary. But, I really haven’t thought as much about what the lack of simple, faithful obedience as an expression of Gospel-driven thankfulness can do to a seminarian. As he points out, lack of obedience in seminary not only impacts your seminary years, but it has dreadful implications for future ministry: “And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?”

If you’ve been to a Bible college or a seminary, I’d be curious to know what you think about Dalrymple’s post. And, was your experience at all like his? Was it a spiritual low point for you? If so, why do you think that was?

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Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Flotsam and jetsam (4/4)

  • I leave town for a few days and people start questioning whether the Trinity is an essential Christian belief. Brian LePort has a good roundup of the discussion.
  • Daniel Kirk discusses what to do when your seminary training makes it hard to enjoy sermons.

My advice to seminarians (and self-educated theologians) is this: cultivate the spiritual discipline of applying and growing from lessons that you would never teach yourself, from “exegesis” that you would never get yourself, from true ideas that are nowhere to be found in the texts from which they allegedly come.

Another reality to acknowledge is that the assumptions of much of American culture are not Calvinistic. So you would do well to fight against three things: the tendency to turn leaders into heroes, minimize the importance of institutions, and divide over secondary issues—all the while recognizing the pervasive influence of the dominant culture on religious life.

. . . The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy?” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”

….we have created an ecclesial climate in which it is hard to elect bishops who have the gifts of an Augustine and nearly impossible for them to live like Augustine—even if they do possess those gifts and get elected. That needs to change.

  • I don’t mean to distract you from important spring responsibilities, but here’s a post from Lifehacker explaining how to get a month of Hulu Plus for free. You do have to use IE 9 briefly, but it might still be worth it.

The importance of reading strategically

One of the greatest frustrations many students have is the overwhelming feeling that they have more to read than could possibly be digested in a single, human lifespan. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it feels like that at times. How do you work your way through that stack of books, articles, and handouts while retaining some small shred of sanity?

Fred Sanders was recently interviewed about his reading habits, and in his response he offered some good advice for dealing with this very challenge – read strategically.

The most important advice I can give about reading is to make decisions in advance about what you want from the book you’re about to read. You’ve got to stay in charge, and not just let yourself accidentally fall into the reading experience. Before you really engage the book, decide if it’s the kind of book you need to read slowly, repeatedly, taking notes, and pondering. Or is it the kind of book that covers familiar territory and will only offer a few new details? Is it a book you want to immerse yourself in and get lost in, or the kind you want to dip into for bits of information? Or is it a book that you need to figure out so you can put it on your shelf and know how to use it for reference later on? Some books contain analysis and perspectives that are brand new for you, and require slow assimilation. But others just confirm, deepen, or extend things you already know. And it’s fine to read for fun and entertainment, or even to read haphazardly. But you need to have made a decision that you’re going to do so. There are some books that I’m done with in 90 minutes, because I already knew what was in them before I picked them up, and I got everything I needed from them in a short encounter. I’m not an especially fast reader, but I do read strategically.

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Impossibility of Theological Education

[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean’s conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]

Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”

Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.

The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.

Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.

There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.

2 TIMOTHY 2:2

I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?

If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)

These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)

Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.

Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?

Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.

Thanks Paul.

OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT

And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.

Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.

It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.

I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.

Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?

Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?

Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?

Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?

I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.

And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.

There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.

Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.

OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK

So, my happy thought for today is:

1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.

2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.

Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?

To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.

For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.

And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.

We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.

That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.

Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.

This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.

Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.

In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”

11 Steps to Writing a Good Theology Paper

The perennial problem of the seminary student: what does it mean to write a good theology paper and how do you go about doing it?

Although there really is no definitive answer to such questions, here’s an older article that John Frame wrote describing How to Write a Theology Paper. He explains the 11 steps that he goes through in writing the paper and offers some good thoughts for any seminary student looking for tips on how to write a good paper.

At one point, he explains the importance of offering your own argument and not just re-stating the opinions and ideas of other people:

Furthermore, every paper should contain something of the theologian himself. It is rarely sufficient simply to tell the reader what someone else says (an “expository paper,” as I call it). Nor, in seminary level papers, is it adequate to write down a series of “standard” arguments on an issue—arguments that have been used time and time again. I describe papers of that sort as “party lines.” Party lines are often useful; it is good to have at your fingertips the standard arguments for infant baptism, for example. I myself use this kind of argument frequently in talking with inquirers. But generally, party-line arguments do not belong in theological papers. Expositions, summaries, surveys, party lines—all of these are essentially regurgitations of ideas obtained from other sources. They involve little analytical or critical thinking. But such thinking is precisely what is needed, if the paper is to represent an advance in the church’s knowledge.

You’ll need to read his paper to see his whole process, but here are the 11 steps that he suggests.

  1. Choose a topic with care.
  2. Understand your sources.
  3. Write down what you find interesting.
  4. Ask questions about your sources.
  5. Formulate a critical perspective on your sources.
  6. Organize your notes according to topics of interest.
  7. Ask, then, What do I want to tell my audience on the basis of my research?
  8. Be self-critical.
  9. Decide on an audience.
  10. Decide on a format and style.
  11. Produce your formulation.

HT Justin Taylor

Do seminary grads burn out quickly?

You often hear people lament the high dropout rate of those entering vocational ministry, particularly in their first few years.In a post earlier this week, John Ortberg repeated the statistic that “90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field.” I’ve heard similar comments to the effect that 50% of more of seminary grads will drop out of ministry within the first five years.

Those are pretty startling claims. If people are burning out of ministry that quickly, then we are doing something desperately wrong.

The problem is that it’s not true.

Actually, I can’t say for sure whether Ortberg’s statistic is true, since his comment refers to anyone who enters vocational ministry, not just seminary graduates. But, seminary graduates as a whole have a good track record for staying in ministry over the long haul. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says:

Persons educated for ministry tend to end up in ministry, stay in ministry, and believe that their education provided good preparation for what they are doing.

Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 131.

Indeed, according to an Auburn Center study conducted in 2008, “nearly 90% of M.Div. graduates go immediately into some form of professional religious service,” only 5% of those will leave vocational ministry within the first 5 years, and only 10% within 10 years. So, the actual rate at which M.Div. graduates leave vocational ministry is only 1% per year on average.

The rates for women in ministry are somewhat different with fewer entering vocational ministry upon graduation and more dropping out in the first five years (the study suggested a number of possible reasons for this, but did not resolve the question). But even here the vast majority stay in vocational ministry for the long haul.

So, according to the numbers, at least, seminary grads fare very well in both the short term (5 years) and medium term (10 years). I haven’t seen any studies yet that go beyond 10 years, but I also haven’t seen anything to suggest a change in this pattern. So, it seems reasonable to conclude that seminary graduates as a whole tend to enter vocational ministry and remain in vocational ministry at very high rates.

So, although we still need to  pay close attention to how we’re preparing people to face the demands of ministry over the long haul, we can at least do so with more confidence than pessimism.

Should we read less in seminary?

Jon Bloom posted a quote from John Piper today, which argued that seminaries produce bad, superficial readers because we’re simply requiring too much reading. Here’s the quote from Piper’s book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

I [do not] want to give the impression that I think there is virtue in reading many books. In fact one of my greatest complaints in seminary was that professors trained students in bad habits of superficial reading because they assigned too many books. I agree with Spurgeon: “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them.” God save us from the allurement of “keeping up with Pastor Jones” by superficial skimming. Forget about “keeping up.” It only feeds pride and breeds spiritual barrenness. Instead devote yourself to boring in and going deep. There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books!

What do you think? Do you think that the amount of reading required in Bible schools and seminaries detracts from or contributes to quality learning?

I have been so helped by John Piper’s recommendation in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

Seminarians are getting younger

USA Today reported last week on a growing trend in US seminaries – younger students.

For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.

For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.

The article offers three possible explanations: (1) there are more twentysomethings in America today, (2) younger people are more inclined to pursue “altruistic” jobs than before, and (3) more financial resources are being targeted at younger students. Regardless, it seems that after several decades of rising ages at US seminaries, seminarians are now getting younger again.