Friday, May 14, 2010

Seminary Reflections: the Polity of Preparation

Unless you’re graduating (which I’m not, at least this year), the academic year at Princeton Seminary ends not with a bang but with a whimper. After the climax of Spring semester finals comes May term, a three-week long “intensive” term that asks its customers to dig deep for one more plunge into the abyss.

It doesn’t seem like many of us have gas left in the tank for one more course. It feels instead like we’re limping home. For better or worse, then, in this epilogue of a semester, I am enrolled in Princeton Seminary’s 2-credit, pass/fail course on Presbyterian polity. This is it: the full official treatment on Presbyterian governance offered by the school, and our preparation for the polity ordination exam.

When I tell anyone that I’m taking polity I universally receive some version of the same sarcastic reply: “Well, that must be fascinating” or “I bet you’re loving that!” or some other smirking, winking rejoinder. And of course there’s a certain glamourless-ness to it: for the most part, those of us taking polity are there because Presbyteries have forced our hands, and I doubt many of us would have signed up for it in a world without the ordination exam looming.

On the other hand, I have to admit that it has been refreshing, after a year of ancient languages and conceptual theological rubrics, to have a course firmly planted in the practical realities of parish ministry. Yes, I know that the Book of Order is in some ways a kind of fascinating ecclesiology in its own right. Yes, I know that it contains a vast swath of scriptural source material. But a class in polity is nonetheless ultimately a class about everyday parish decisions, and it’s the only course I have taken so far that can make that claim.

So here’s the question for the day, and it’s not one that to which I claim to have an answer: what is the best use of our classroom time at seminary? Is it the role of seminaries to provide the kind of theological, Biblical, and historical training that institutions of higher learning are uniquely equipped to do? Or are they rather (in the case of ordination-track students) best deployed as practical training grounds for the professional realities of parish ministry?

Obviously as students it’s not only our own choice to make: degree requirements and CPM stipulations will strongly influence the inflection of the courses we take. Requirements in Greek and Hebrew reinforce the idea that preparation for ministry is different than on-the-job training. But any number of friends working in parish ministry now have testified to the importance of courses in family systems, congregational song, and pastoral counseling.

So what’s the priority? In three years of seminary education, we simply can’t fit everything in; so, do we study the subjects we’ll never have an equivalent chance to encounter, or do we seek the most practical training for the jobs we seek? For those of you with seminary well behind you: were you ready for ministry? What do you think that question even means? What do you wish you had taken more of?


Elaine said...

This is based on memory, so I hope Grace forgives me if I get this completely wrong, but I recall Quotidian Grace posting some years ago about Austin Seminary asking people in her Presbytery what they wished seminary graduates knew more about. The overwhelming answer was how to read a budget.

I don't think we can address what seminaries should be teaching until we address the job descriptions for their graduates. I think it would be really interesting to ask 100 seminary graduates a year after the fact what parts of their religious, spiritual and/or working lives felt most in adequate or overwhelming.

Norman, OK

robert austell said...


I think the M.Div. coursework was more or less helpful. Certainly each individual graduate finds different holes in their preparation, but for a generalized program, it was fine (PTS, by the way).

If I could wave a wand and move our seminary training in a direction to better prepare for ministry, it would involve the process from inquiry/candidacy to seminary to first years out and beyond to have a more intentional and thoughtful implementation of mentoring.

I'd work to encourage disinterested or uninvolved home congregations, sessions, and pastors to be a student's biggest cheerleader.

I'd work to encourage CPMs and the student's liaison to be next in line as cheerleader, equipper, encourager, and facilitator instead of administrators of a checklist progressing to ordination.

I'd work to connect seminary students with a local church for the whole time in seminary - that could overlap formally with field ed, but would be more, specifically asking pastors (and Sessions) to help round out the practical education of the student.

I'd work with presbyteries and COM to take seriously the task of coming alongside first call pastors to do all the same things, perhaps even offering once a year a "what they didn't teach in seminary" class to cover budgets, conflict, and anything else one could think of.

I think the present reality is that we all give lip service to mentoring. Or we do it to check field ed off the list. But it's not done consistently and well and we often don't turn to it or do it well until we are desperate - and then its more like crisis counseling.

Robert Austell
Charlotte, NC

Adam Copeland said...

To answer the original question: yes, I do think classroom time should be taken up by teaching Polity. As I understand it, Presbyterian isn't just a how-to but a why. We're not congregational. We don't have bishops. Why? Because we're Presbyterian and have a special way of doing things that comes from theological claims about God, sinfulness, and the Church.

In my first year of ministry, Polity has been really handy. (I did learn how to read a budget, btw.) Sure, there's plenty of ways I'd redo things if I were in charge -- maybe a Polity course with lots of denominations and small groups w/ your own?

Thanks for the good post.

Quotidian Grace said...

Elaine's memory is correct! What seminary training misses is that almost all the graduates who become pastors of churches will find themselves functioning as administrators of a small business. Seminaries completely ignore this fact and do not offer any training in how to do this for those who have no previous background in business adminsistration.

jcaprell said...

When Beverly Roberts Gaventa taught me NT History and Exegesis at Columbia Seminary she epitomized the balance between the academic and the pastoral that is needed in the parish. What does it mean to be the Church, if we only run it like a CFO or an HR manager? Similarly, are we a true Body of Christ if we fail to be respective of others opinions, focusing only on rule that is in the Book of Order? COnversely, are we able to live in a community of faith, if our exegesis and sermon prep and delivery are so in the academic heavens that no one on earth understands?
Maybe the Lutherans have it right - a four year degree including a year long internship. I realize there are issues but we are known for our imagination and creativity.
Underlining all of this tho' is a question I keep coming back to - "to what was I called?"