What the Church expects of its Seminarians

Last Tuesday, the bishop of the New Jersey Synod delivered the Tuesday convocation at LTSP. His one hour long presentation was centered on the question of what the church expects of its seminarians and especially of its seminarian graduates. The senior class at LTSP had learned the week before which region of the country they had been assigned to and they did make up the majority of the audience. They were followed in numbers by the first years, a handful of second years, and then the professors. The bishop packed the house.

The bishop began by discussing a book he had recently read while on a three month sabbatical, “American Grace.” I haven’t read it but, from my understanding, it is mostly a book of sociologist statistics and analysis about the religious like in the United over the last fifty years. The bishop focused primarily on two things: the rise of those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (they are now 17% of the US population and are called the “nons”) and the discrepancy between the religious principles between the clergy and the laity. Some of this information was enlightening though I noticed that several questions I would have asked were not answered in the presentation (specifically what lay members expect their clergy to believe). The audience seemed to enjoy the vast gulf of doctrines held by LC-MS clergy and LC-MS lay members.

The last third of the presentation was devoted to a survey that the bishop sent to his clergy and lay leaders. He then compiled the results and shared them with the audience. The general conclusion seemed to be that graduates should be better trained in learning how to train leaders in the congregation, to continue learning church history and confessions to educate lay members (education that lay members were asking for their professors to teach them), and help in understanding the use of technology and social networks. There was also a fourth point made but I, sadly, forgot it. There was also one set of questions shared with the audience where the beginning of each question was “Can we expect a masters-educated graduate to…” This was probably the most poignant, and over-dramatic, part of the presentation and the phrase “can we expect a masters-educated graduate to…” will become one of my many seminary related in-jokes.

But by the end of the presentation, I was very annoyed though I couldn’t put it in words at the time. There was just a tone to the presentation that irked me – though maybe my lack of sleep due to a paper I wrote the night before that turned into a rant against online-media church consultants had me on edge. Anyways, it took several days for it to stew in my brain and it wasn’t until I was actually at my internship church today that it finally hit me. The problem was that, half-way through the presentation, I knew that the presentation had nothing to do with me. Rather, it was ABOUT me – in the sense that part of the solutions/rhetorical questions were directed to what the bishop called “counter-cultural.” Me. The bishop was talking about me.

I know that I can’t fully adequately explain what it was in the presentation that made me feel off-putted – I just got a sense that by me being my very self, I was somehow a problem that the church was now struggling to deal with. And I wish I could write it better – and pinpoint where that happened – but I can’t. And I find that frustrating too. It just felt very strange feeling like I was being talked about, dissected, diagnosed, and identified as a “problem” that the church, and the graduating seminarians, are going to have to fix. There must be a better way to talk about the changing church.

2 thoughts on “What the Church expects of its Seminarians”

  1. Good heavens. What can the church *not* expect a masters-educated whatever to do? Pastoral work routinely involves reading Greek, unclogging an overflowing urinal, and telling a young woman that her closest relative is dead — all within an hour or two. If there’s something we can’t be expected to do, I want to know about it.

    I think you’re on to something about the offputting, though. I’ve heard enough of these presentations to know the feeling, and it is hard to define. I have a couple of guesses, from my own experience.

    For one thing, bishops and the people who work with them are often a little jaundiced. They are asked to face some very difficult problems, which means that after a while they tend to see the world, and especially the church, in terms of problems. If they aren’t delicate, they can (accidentally, sort of) make it sound as though “the problem” is any of the following: (a) congregations; (b) laypeople; (c) pastors; (d) seminarians; (d) seminaries. (All of whom, nota bene, have one thing in common: they aren’t bishops.

    For another, there is a generation gap — not necessarily of age, but of experience — between any bishop and any group of seminary students. The bishop has been out of school for 20 years or more — often much more. He or she has a keen grasp the situation is in his or her own synod, and a good general sense of the situation in the ELCA.

    But what the bishop usually lacks is a keen sense of what’s going on — outside of class — among seminarians. For example, I find it hard to imagine that you or any of your classmates have any real limitations in the use of IT and social networking. But neither the bishops nor the congregations they polled can really imagine where you are — so they are really projecting their own limitations, and those of their aging friends and pastors, onto you.

  2. I think you’re right about the projection of their own limitations. I honestly think that’s a problem not only in the church hierarchy but also in congregations in general. Maybe because it is easier to see the limitations now since congregations are diminishing, closing, clergy are getting older, etc. Things don’t seem to be “working” and so it’s easier to point out limitations rather than solutions which, incidently, is the opposite of what my pastoral care class is currently focused on – a solutions approach to care rather than problem focused.

    The convocation is now online at http://ltspmedia.ltsp.edu/2011/03/convocation-video-seminary-education.html. People can feel free to watch it and see if my take was off or whatnot.

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