Seminary and local church: Building a viable relationship?

Specific ways of improving pastoral education

Carlos C. Camarena is a gradutate student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University has embarked upon a major overhaul of its M.Div. curriculum in an effort to better equip ministerial candidates for their ministry. This effort, if followed through with close supervision and monitoring, will improve the training pastors receive and fulfill the expectations of a successful pastoral ministry. I felt optimistic when I first heard of this initiative. While 1980s revisions improved ministerial training, there has still been room for improvement.

Recently I completed the requirements for a Ph.D. candidacy in New Testament studies. Working to earn this degree, along with serving in the seminary as an occasional instructor, has given me the opportunity to discuss with fellow seminarians the strengths and weaknesses of the present program and what could be incorporated into the program in the future. The most striking innovation in the new curriculum envisions seminarians remaining "in-house" for one year and spend ing the remaining time in the field working alongside experienced pastors.

The reason for this revision is that the present M.Div. curriculum does not allow for adequate practical ministerial training. "Hands-on" pastoral education cannot be fully accomplished in the classroom or in the geographical area surrounding the Seminary.1

Much of the ministry that must be done in today's urban areas is complicated by decaying, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Yet, the urban scene also reflects a new and almost opposite trend: newly-renovated, upwardly-mobile, postmodern, post-Christian, condo dwelling neighborhoods are flourishing throughout the country.2

The extremes in our culture and even the nature of many kinds of ministry in between make an effective training experience difficult to achieve at or near the Seminary. Thus the idea of sending the "seminary" where the people are is an effort that should be applauded!

The small southwest Michigan English speaking church to which I was assigned during my M.Div. sojourn at the seminary was a valiant attempt to provide me with "handson" experience. However, this exposure was incapable of providing me with the more complete "real world" ministerial experiences I needed as I later entered ministry in the Hispanic communities. These and other rea sons led me to be supportive of the seminary's new efforts that attempt to prepare ministers in the context of "doing" actual ministry in "original" or "native" settings.

The new program could generate some further dissatisfaction if some basic concerns are not attended to. For example, even though the new program points to practical theological training, it seems that we are moving into that focus without sufficient dialogue between the local church and the Seminary. This lack of dialogue may be exacerbated by the following (exceptions admitted):

(1) Pastors who mentor interns may not possess all the necessary skills to guide interns;

(2) Interns may feel dissatisfaction because local church leadership often misunderstands a young pastor's need to "learn the ropes" of ministry;

(3) Local church people may become dis satisfied because the intern is not performing the functions traditionally expected;

(4) From the seminarians' viewpoint, it is yet to be determined how seminary administration will be able to follow the quality and level of learning of each intern while the student is away from the seminary. Meaningful cooperation between the seminary and the field is imperative to the success of the new emphasis.

Further, when seminarians, in their formal classroom training and/or seminars, are expected to recognize and become engaged in new ministry opportunities, such "new" ministries are often viewed with suspicion by many in the local church. This means that smooth local church-seminary relationships may not come easily. Local churches who have seminarians in training will need some meaningful orientation to the new training process.

Thus it seems there could be a certain level of incompatibility in this "marriage." Yet, given mutual consultation, the relationship certainly could be productive. Some seminary professors, for example, recognize that changing times require different approaches to ministry. These professors try to steer their courses to meet new ministerial challenges. The local church may need to be made aware that some of these new approaches should not be perceived as "liberal," but rather as new ways to reach groups that would otherwise be unreachable.

Although there are some challenges to the newly proposed M.Div. program, the seminary and Church administrative leadership is to be commended for their courage in steering the ship into uncharted waters and for looking for alternative ways to train future pastors. If the seminary and church leadership decide to ignore the need for change, we could later discover with pro found sadness that we have been servicing an obsolete machinery. Although the road ahead may be "rough" (for a while), I believe that this new local church-seminary relationship will turn out to be a truly productive one.

With this end in mind, we should establish multiple models of contact and interaction between the local churches and the proposed programs of the seminary and regularly adjust and develop all seminary programs in light of local church-seminary contacts.

The implications of making the local church the focus of practical ministerial training are deep and affect almost every other area of Seminary training. The following practical suggestions are given to strengthen the cooperative efforts of the local church and the seminary in pastoral training.

Selecting the "trainees"

Ministers are recognized in the community for their character and commitment. Ideally, no seminarian should be accepted into the M.Div. program unless he or she is endorsed and highly recommended by his or her local church. The local church has a unique perspective of the minister's spiritual and leadership abilities.

A form letter, signed by a prospective minister's pastor, merely stating that the candidate is a "member in good standing" is a poor substitute for having a more in-depth knowledge of the shepherding and evangelistic qualities of an applicant. Perhaps the Seminary should require an interview with the candidate's pastor.

Perhaps we should interview local church elders and even the spouse of the candidate? It may be argued that this approach would be somewhat impractical or would greatly reduce the number of candidates. Yet a forceful counterargument could be that taking the above approach seriously would send a message that we are serious about our convictions about the quality of our ministers and the importance of effective ministry in the local church.

Having pastor-professors

Historically, seminaries have been accused of forming theologians not pastors. A way of rectifying the implied wrongs would be to have pas tor-professors and/or professor-pastors in our ministerial training.

(1) Seminary teachers would be pastor-professors, exposed to actual pastoral ministry. This seems to be the intended purpose of the new M.Div. curriculum.

(2) Seminary teachers should also be professor-pastors. This does not mean that professors be assigned to pastor local churches, but that in their teaching, they make their material applicable to local church ministry.

The great majority of students enrolled on the Andrews Seminary campus are preparing for pastoral ministry. Seminary professors whose lectures demonstrate the realities of pastoral ministry are generally seen by Seminary students to be more relevant to the students' future.

Developing a relevant curriculum

No other single element is more basic, practically speaking, to a philosophy of ministerial training than the curriculum. Almost all our present seminary curricula reflect a "compartmentalized" approach to the content. Information is absorbed in blocks, and professional skills and functions are all divided into cognitive categories. The inference behind such an approach is that the students will know how to apply all that they have learned to any situation they may encounter. But, to our frustration, this does not happen.

Knowledge that has been absorbed by compartments does not flow or interact between compartments quite as readily as one might hope, once the student gets into the real world of ministerial work. This is made particularly evident in biblical or theological courses where it is traditional to leave the coursework essentially unrelated to the ministerial student's later ministry and where no intentional or focused attempt is made to relate the coursework directly to the future work of the student.

Few pastors are able to connect the "compartments" of knowledge in their preaching, teaching, leadership, or administration. Studies demonstrate that there is a need to restructure the cognitive content, a content which still seems to rely on the antiquated model of brain compartmentalization. It is not enough to create new disciplines or courses to fit new realities. There is a need to look at our curricula as a whole. We hope that the new M.Div. program will give consideration to the wider picture and in a more integrative way.

Graduation requirements

How do we know that a seminarian is ready to graduate? A seminary that is geared to simply train theologians or biblical exegetes does not need to worry about anything beyond the "technical" abilities of their graduates. But a seminary that feels the burden to prepare ministers for their actual work needs to stop and ponder the requirements for graduation.

How do we know that a seminarian is ready to graduate? If the Seminary really wants to assume a commitment to educate ministers by using the local-church setting, one of the other agencies that may be able to evaluate the final product is the local church. That a student is ready to graduate3 should not be decided simply because a seminary-required curriculum has been completed, or because the student has completed the required period of "testing" with out committing major blunders. The local church should also cast the first vote. This proposal may not be popular, but if our goal is to produce ministers, it would be illogical to exclude the local church from the process of evaluation.

Completion of a core curriculum and approval by the union/conference officers should be only two parts of the equation. Recognition by the community should tell us that the seminarian is ready to be given the title of "pastor" and the M.Div. degree. Yet, we must recognize that further evaluation may be needed as to what would be required to "mint" a new pastor. Such evaluation should be done by more than one committee or board.

The complexity of pastoral ministry makes it obvious that these suggestions are only a beginning. Yet the time to implement changes is now, when we still have our present aims in mind. We need to establish ongoing consultations at all levels: union/conference and seminary administration, and local church leadership.

1 See the interview with Seminary Dean. Dr. John McVay. in Adventist Review, June 28, 2001. Or at <www.Andrews edu/SEM/news.htm>, issue no. 19, September 14, 2001

2 A few unions/conferences have seen the need to attend to this kind of ministry. See "The Light Is On in Seattle," Adventist Review, July 26. 2001. 9-13

3 Most Protestant denominations ordain their seminary students upon graduation. This is generally a time when the student has proved" his ministerial calling by being involved in actual ministry along side seasoned pastors and whose calling has been recognized by administrative bodies, the local church, and the seminary. The conferring of M.Div degree is not in isolation from the recognition that the seminarian has been called by God to be a minister of the gospel.

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Carlos C. Camarena is a gradutate student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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