Last evening while checking Facebook, I noted a couple posts of particular interest having to do with the Church. One, from my FB friend, Jeff Robinson, spoke to me of his frustration with an evangelical Church that is so rigid as to marginalize his passions as a Jesus follower. Another, from the famed author, Rachel Held Evans (no relation except as my sister in Christ), referencing how seminary may or may not make one a jerk. I’ve not read her new book, “Searching for Sunday,” but her own blogs and FB posts suggest an ongoing search for a Church, whether evangelical or mainline, and a worship experience, whether contemporary or traditional, that is less rigid and more flexible.
Of late, I’ve been reading Joan Chittister’s book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages,” for my morning devotionals. This morning, in Benedict’s chapters 61-63, he dealt with the issue of relational hierarchies within his monastic communities. In my prayer time that followed, I promised God I would blog today on this larger issue of academic credentialing within today’s Church as it relates to my own exercise of faith as a pastor.
So here goes.
As often happens, my own pastoral insights are informed by very little that happened to me in seminary. Wonder if other clergy share that same experience? Far more foundational for me was actually my academic work at OSU back in the mid 70’s in pursuit of my MSW and my subsequent studies in both “structural” and later on “narrative” (post-structural) Family Therapy. It all boils down to how I think about boundaries. And how I think about boundaries informs my understanding of faith in particular, and of churches in general.
Clearly Church carries a higher position than does Seminary in the hierarchy Jesus established to implement God’s Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Truthfully, nothing Jesus said or did even implies a role at all for seminaries within the Church. Perhaps this is because He was a tad bit tired of answering to the Chief Priests who questioned His own academic credentials and authority? Perhaps such reminded Him too much of the Gentile system of Roman rule and rank and privilege. Perhaps He knew far in advance the risks of Seminaries that would crank out jerks who would seem to out-rule and out-rank not only the people but the Heavenly Father, positioning the Kingdom of God somewhat lower than Kingdom of Church. Ever wonder why Jesus is quoted early on in life as being about His Father’s business and not about the Temple Authority’s business? Or why He preferred the title “son of man” and rather consistently privileged the Father in heaven above Himself?
Where at least my own faith is concerned, hierarchies matter. Boundaries matter. Yet, boundaries are dysfunctional (whether in family systems or ecclesiastical) whenever they are too rigid. Flexibility is the key because it brings forth conversation, and conversation creates new narratives through which we grow and develop.
That being said, seminaries do not to me seem necessary except to facilitate conversation aimed at personal and ecclesiastical growth. I credit my own (United Theological) seminary here in Dayton, Ohio for its exemplary “best practices” in doing this. I blame seminaries in general, however, for having turned out far too many jerks over the years who then make rigid the divine / human boundary as well as the human / human boundary that knows not love but only fear. Jerks who silence the voices of Jeff Robinson and so many others like him in their own intentional growth to become more like Jesus for the sake of God’s preferred Kingdom narrative here on earth.
Seminaries? They matter, but only when they work to add flexibility in our divine to human and human to human boundaries. When they otherwise act to add rigidity, to silence conversation, and to freeze old narratives, they are only for jerks.