Divine Debate

'Stuffy Academics' versus 'Holy Rollers'

Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the print issue of Emory Magazine on pages 30 and 31. The article presented here is expanded.

Beware of the person of one book.

Thomas Aquinas

Most Christians wouldn’t choose to turn to Thomas Aquinas’s “person of one book” to answer the profound questions of the human condition. Rather, they seek clergy who are educated and thoughtful “to help us wade through suffering and come out the other side with a sense of wholeness,” says Jan Love, dean of Candler School of Theology.

Yet as membership in mainline Protestant churches continues its downward spiral ― pulling along with it funds to pay full-time, fully educated pastors ― a debate is waging in Christian circles about the necessity of a theological education as a condition for ordination into ministry. The majority of mainline Protestant churches require pastors to obtain a master of divinity (MDiv) degree, but some argue that a person whom God has endowed with exceptional gifts of ministry can be effective without going to seminary.

So why require it, especially in these lean times?

Candler faculty and alumni offer ready opinions in what Love calls “this age-old debate of ‘stuffy academics versus holy rollers.’ ”

“Are there some educated clergy who lack empathy? Yes, but they do less harm than people who have all the empathy in the world and are ignoramuses,” says Luke Timothy Johnson, a renowned New Testament scholar. “The scandal in the church today is not of too much intelligence but of too little.”

Do No Harm

Like medicine and law, the field of theology carries a weighty ethical code of conduct where the meddling of an amateur can have serious consequences.

“Do you want an untrained surgeon replacing your heart valves?” asks Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching, who has been named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. “Pastors operate on people’s vision, helping create their religious imagination, which makes for a rich and good life. If that is poorly constructed, life can be tragic.”

Bishop Mike Watson 74T, bishop of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), says there are no guarantees that going to seminary will make a person a good pastor, “but you wouldn’t want a lawyer representing you who hadn’t been to law school.”

While no student can master all of the content and the complex issues presented in seminary, each is given the tools to be an honest teacher of scripture and to use them ethically—“as a gift, not as a weapon,” says Carol A. Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament, who is respected around the world for her translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

‘Liberal Arts’ for Ministry

As one of thirteen seminaries of the UMC, Candler’s mission is to educate faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries in the world. More than half of Candler’s students are United Methodist, but those seeking ordination in other Christian denominations also are welcome in Candler’s ecumenical culture.

Regardless of denomination, students seeking to become ministers pursue a set of courses and experiences that are designed to help them become grounded in the Christian tradition and discern their vocation for ministry—an arduous journey that ultimately teaches them to think theologically and become authentic, ethical spokespersons for their faith.

To fully understand Christianity, MDiv students follow a curriculum that includes in-depth study of biblical texts and courses in preaching. There also are two course requirements distinctive to Candler—one in another religion to help students gain an understanding of religious pluralism, and one on race, ethnicity, or gender to make sure they understand how concepts of “otherness” affect faith.

In addition, MDivs spend two of their three years at Candler engaging in contextual education, or Con Ed. Unlike typical field education where students visit and practice, Con Ed is total immersion for one year in social service settings and one year in church settings ― a rigor not required by most other seminaries. The Con Ed curriculum includes time for student reflection and discussion with other students, faculty, and mentors on the experiences they are encountering in the real world.

Reverend Kim Ingram 92T says her Con Ed experience, which included a church, a hospital, and a public housing community, was one of the hardest—but most important—things she did in preparation for ministry. “I worked among the poorest people in Atlanta, and to be able to reflect on that in collegial relation to other students, a site supervisor, and a seminary professor was a formative experience. You can’t get that on your own when you begin working in a congregation or through your personal encounter with prayer,” says Ingram, director of ministerial services for the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC.

David L. Petersen, Candler’s associate dean of faculty and academic affairs and Franklin N. Parker Professor of Old Testament, says the MDiv curriculum has four goals. “First, students belong to the two-millennium-long Christian tradition and represent it faithfully; second, they have the understanding to internalize it and do the in-depth exploration of the canonical resources and deal with pivotal thinkers such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; three, they have the ability to reflect on the Christian position on huge issues like war and poverty; and four, they find their authoritative voice within the tradition,” he explains.

Discerning vocation has no set curriculum and can be even more challenging. “Many people come to Candler because they feel ‘called’ to ministry,” Petersen explains. “But what does that mean? They must pursue the answer in dialogue with other people and in serious reflection, where they are forced to begin to sharpen a sense of vocation. You can’t short-circuit this process.”

Reverend Ellen Echols Purdum 81C 01T, Candler’s director of student life and spiritual formation, serves as the “connective tissue” between students’ vocational aspirations and the resources where they might begin to explore them—from worship planning to social concern groups to international study.

She also counsels them through the tough times. “We try to instill the ancient practice of prayer, work, and rest that gets them through the day; share ideas on how to keep their minds and bodies healthy; and help them establish a rhythm of life that keeps them to connected to God, other people, the earth, and themselves,” says Purdum, an ordained Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Atlanta. “When they come into my office weeping because they are so overwhelmed, I ask them to pull out their calendar so we can sort it all out.”

Not ‘Either/Or’ but ‘Both/And’

The debate about the superiority of a seminary-trained pastor isn’t new in mainline Protestant churches, with evangelical churches having the greatest ambivalence about educating their clergy, according to Love.

“Evangelicals are deeply dedicated to understanding the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They believe God has endowed particular people with exceptional gifts for ministry and that these individuals should be recognized,” says Love.

But today the tension is focused on the decline in mainline Protestant churches—membership has decreased by some six million members since 1965, and is now down to about 18 percent of the US population—and how to reverse the trend.

“Churches now are interested in ways they weren’t twenty years ago in what makes good church leadership to sustain and grow the church,” says Love.

Are purely pious preachers the answer to filling the pews? It’s not an “either/or” solution. Rather, it’s the “both/and” of the Wesleyan tradition: knowledge and vital piety, say Candler’s experts.

“You have to have a combination of education and worship experiences. Just being a praying pastor doesn’t help you think through spiritual ideas or faith formation,” says Ingram.

Love agrees. “There’s a commandment that Jesus offers us in the Gospel of Mark that instructs us to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Loving God with your mind is just as important as with your heart, soul, and strength. God wants us to question things.”

An obvious example, says Love, is politicians who manipulate voters by distorting verses of scripture. “Too often religious organizations ask us to leave our minds at the door: mindless worship, mindless recitation of favorite verses in the face of hardship, mindless ethical engagement that actually could do harm. This is a betrayal of Jesus’ commandment and often leads to violence, abuse, discrimination and oppression of all kinds.”

Petersen adds that if these “misinterpreters of the biblical witness are shepherding a flock, then they have an ill-fed flock full of junk food.”

Learning How to Question

Seminaries like Candler, which purport to more about education than indoctrination and are university-based rather than stand-alone, have been accused of making students “lose their Jesus.” Alumni debunk the myth, saying learning how to question your own beliefs is a necessary part of the formation process.

“You go to seminary for the helpful questioning of your faith so you can grow into a more faithful and fruitful life. It’s part of growing in grace, of being alive, of becoming humble,” says Reverend John Simmons 96T, former senior pastor of Glenn Memorial Church, who now serves as director of ministry for the UMC’s North Georgia Conference.

Ingram says her Candler experience “was eye-opening to just about everything,” from biblical narrative to an understanding of Hinduism to ethics and the civil rights movement. “I’ve said repeatedly that everyone should go to seminary. It opens your mind about how to relate to other people, to other religions. At Candler, you come out knowing why you believe what you believe, or you believe something different.”

Watson says he chose Candler for its openness of ideas and the warmth of its spiritual dimension. “I wanted to be open to all thought and to be exposed to different approaches to theology and ministry. I came to Candler because it was unafraid to explore and it eliminated a lot of my fear. It taught me that I didn’t have to be afraid of other ideas,” he said.

The eye-opening “deconstruction” process starts in the classroom under the careful guidance of faculty like Newsom, Johnson, and Long.

Newsom, who teaches the Old Testament, begins simply by introducing students to the text. “I ask them to read the book of Daniel as though they had never read it before—and then the giggling begins and I realize most of them have never read it at all. Although they know it’s important, they literally don’t know how to get into the material.”

Her approach? “I see teaching as matchmaking. If students have a certain passion and don’t know where to look, I match them with the biblical text I think they will love or have a lover’s quarrel with, and then develop a deeper relationship with—this way they learn the depth and profundity of scripture that is the foundation of the church.”

Johnson’s teaching of the New Testament’s book of Revelation is “mind-boggling but liberating,” he says.

“Most students have heard just one approach. I talk to them about how the different ways of reading Revelation divides the church today, the consequences and issues. And then I tell them a more appropriate reading is that it should serve as a prophetic witness pertinent to every age, and this liberates them from readings that represent dead ends.”

If students don’t go through this process, they aren’t learning. “If we don’t engage the difficult texts with high intelligence, then students either repeat the distortions they grew up with or they ignore them and cherry-pick scripture they enjoy—which is a profound sort of corruption,” says Johnson.

The risk, he says, is that they become “easy prey to cultural co-optation” and the church “ceases to be counter-culture.”

All of Candler’s classroom and Con Ed lessons come together in creating and delivering a powerful sermon, another critical component of Candler’s pedagogy, and one that offers students preaching-teacher stars like Tom Long and Teresa Fry Brown, along with the legacy of “preaching genius” Fred Craddock.

“Praying pastors with a ‘pure heart and clear faith’ can get up and speak, but not week after week,” says Long. “They must know where their congregation is in their understanding and interpretation of scripture and this is a very complicated skill we help students learn.”

What happens, then, if a person decides to skip seminary and go straight to the pulpit?

“They miss out on the tools, relationships, and experiences they need to have a deep and fully satisfying vocation in ministry,” says Newsom. “I can’t stress enough the importance of the communal experience, of gaining the wisdom that comes from studying with other students. Try as they will and devoted as they can be, no one can form themselves in the vocation of the pastor. You must always rely on others, and seminary is structured to make that happen in the richest possible fashion.”

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