Is this relevant to ministry?

August 12, 2011

I'm a part-time student at a
denominational seminary, where I'm working (very slowly) on an academic-track
masters. It's generally been a good experience, but the school's not a perfect
fit. Again and again, professors and coursework assume a ministry context.
That's understandable in worship or preaching class, maybe even in biblical
studies (where the many M.Div. students in the room all have homiletics on
their minds). But theology, or church history? I'm constantly wishing we could
just study the subject at hand without putting on our future-pastor hats.
Especially because some of us don't have one.

But when professors fail to
put things in ministry terms, it's not long before an M.Div. student raises a
hand to object. "How is this relevant to the people in the pews?" he or she asks.

There probably isn't a
solution to my particular frustration as a non-M.Div. student in these classes
(other than to go to a different school). But a great post by Century contributing editor Jason
Byassee addresses the issue for ministry
students. Jason's an academic and a writer who recently took his first
full-time appointment as a Methodist pastor. Here's how he describes the

single most striking thing to me about my new appointment is the level of
specifically intellectual demand that's been placed on me from the word

sat down to a men's Bible study my first Saturday, expecting good biscuits,
lots of hearty laughs, and a little discussion of Scripture. And I got this:
"Jason! Explain predestination to our brother Henry here." It was a joke, of
course-who wants to talk about God's choice of individuals for salvation or
damnation at 7 o'clock in the morning? 

Henry did. The question drove him out of his former church.

Jason goes on to tell of other
parishioners who didn't hesitate to call on the theological training of their
pastor. My own response to the make-it-relevant police might be, "How could big
questions like 'who is God' and 'what is the church' not be relevant to ministry?" But I'm aware that I'm more than a
little naive about the realities of parish ministry. So I was glad to read
Jason's concrete examples of how his theological education is serving him well.


M.Diver here

As one who received an M.Div. 5 years ago, I found where I was serving that the intellectual questions were few and far between. In some ways, it's a disappointment to have a wealth of information and ideas at your fingertips and to feel like you're wallowing in the mud with churches that just want it simple. Not that there's anything wrong with simplicity, mind you, but if you have in your mind growing people and challenging them to higher heights and deeper depths, you may end up disappointed and frustrated. I'm convinced that the way for pastors not to give up hope is to have some outside diversions to keep your academic and/or ministry juices flowing.

Is the M.Div. too broad?

This is most interesting, because my experience 25 years ago was just the opposite. Close to half my class never intended to be in parish ministry. They were headed toward Th.M.'s and Ph.D.'s. The primary focus in classes was on academics, and professors trusted students to make the connection to parish work.

I thought then, and wonder now, if there should be two different degrees. It seems to me that the Th.M. could be the path for academic pursuits, and the M.Div. reserved for a parish focus. Some classes could indeed overlap, but many would not. (I am not sure why some seminaries expect an M.Div. as a precursor to acceptance into a Th.M. program.)

I was disappointed in the lack of focus on parish ministry. It meant learning on-the-job in my first parish. While I don't resent my academic background, I do wonder if some more practical learning would have helped me be a better pastor sooner.

Is the difference reflective of a particular seminary's "personality" and understanding of its mission and purpose? Or is it a trend across all seminaries?

I believe there is a need for both deep academic studies and applicable practicle learning. Are the two mutually exclusive? Is the  attempt to blend them into the same degree failing each, by trying to compromise?

(I went to Princeton, by the way. Where do you attend, Steve?)

I'm at the Lutheran seminary

I'm at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago. My (anecdotal) understanding is that this does vary quite widely by school.

theological education

Great post Steve.  I appreciated Jason's article as well.  My experience as a lay person in a local UCC church is the same: many people are asking tough, theological questions.  On the other hand I also appreciated the article which Jason refers to - the assertion that a high degree of theological education is of limited value if a pastor is not a spiritually grounded person with strong convictions about doing ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  I think the answer may be somewhere in the middle; academic training is obviously important for pastors, but a life of spiritual conviction and lived theology is at least equally important.