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?