Saturday, August 23, 2008

Building Up the Body of Christ

Dr. Molly Marshall and the folks at Central Baptist Theological Seminary have been very kind to me. Since I became volunteer director of the Murfreesboro center of the seminary three years ago, they have graciously accepted me as a co-worker and colleague although I am something of a “barbarian within the gates.” I am not an academic, but I do enjoy working with them to develop men and women for Christian leadership.

Most recently, I was invited to be part of a faculty retreat at Lied Lodge on the Arbor Day Farm, a beautiful setting in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The primary presenter was Dr. Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. I know Dan from his days at Southern Seminary. I was a guest presenter in a couple of his classes, and he was the outside reader on my doctor of ministry project.

Over the three days we were at the conference center, Dan made several presentations on the state of theological education and the church. Much of it was not new, but one particular thought is underlined in my notes: “Theological education is the servant of the church.” What does that mean? This might be explained by another quote: “The church can exist without theological schools, but theological schools cannot exist with the church.” We could unpack that at length, but the bottom line is that the mission and calling of theological schools is to prepare men and women to serve God through the church (and the churches’ various auxiliary enterprises such as chaplaincy, teaching, etc.). This does not mean that the churches dictate to the seminaries what they should be teaching; it does mean that the seminaries must be cognizant of what is happening in the churches and the contexts in which the churches minister in order to be effective in the preparation of ministers.

Based on Aleshire’s comments and some personal observations, let me suggest several things that seminaries can do to prepare men and women for ministry:

1. Ground them in the faith by helping them to develop spiritual disciplines that they will continue to practice throughout their lives.

2. Encourage in them a love for learning. I continue to be inspired by the seminary professors who (forty years ago) were not ashamed of the passion they had for their chosen discipline—whether biblical studies, theology, philosophy of religion, or ethics—and openly shared that with their students.

3. Help them to “learn how to learn.” No matter who much a student puts in his or her notebook (or computer), it will not be enough to carry that student through a lifetime of ministry! We use the term “lifelong learner” often, but it is important to remember that a real lifelong learner must have some tools to understand what he or she needs to learn, the ability to seek out the resources that will supply that information, and the discipline to use what one has learned.

4. Instill in them a desire for Christian community. It can lonely in ministry. Ministers need community for encouragement, accountability, and balance.

From time to time, seminary professors are blamed for ministerial failures, but the failure more often is in the minister than in the minister’s preparation! I can affirm that the Central seminary faculty are doing the best that they can to encourage the development of ministers who are grounded in spiritual disciplines, who love learning, who are “learning how to learn,” and who will seek out authentic Christian community. What the students do with this is their choice!

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