Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Thoughts on your thoughts

In response to a couple of the comments:

"While it's true American Christianity has suffered as a result of the anti-intellectualism of evangelicals, I also know plenty of very effective spiritual leaders without seminary degrees. The lack of that education doesn't signify much, even if we'd prefer to have our leaders go to sem. "

I think that effective spiritual leaders without degrees are the exception, not the rule. At least I hope so. Because yesterday I got to thinking: we require all kinds of certification for our teachers in other walks of life. Would you let your child attend a school where all the teachers weren't educated in what they are teaching? Much less would an adult want to learn about something from a person without a degree in it, or at least some kind of certification. Why is it that frequently in spiritual matters do we leave our brains at the door? Why is it acceptable to not have any training and be teaching others about the most important things in life?

We wouldn't let a person teach math or science without them having some formal training in it. We wouldn't take literature from a person who'd just read a bunch of books and had their own ideas about them, nor biology from a person who'd gone walking in a park a lot of times and thus felt they understood creation. So why do we let our most important, life-changing subject - theology - be instructed by people without formal training or at least some spiritual direction from a wiser person?

I worry when someone feels qualified to found a church when he's only attended a Rick Warren seminar and done a couple online classes. This guy's a great businessman, to be sure - and perhaps that is his vocation! - but I don't think I would want him in charge of my spiritual development.

"Here's a guy who gives his parishioners the most watered-down version of God possible and a quarter of his congregation tithes! Is this God's sense of humor?"

Well, this is true, but again, I'd say it's more because of his business acumen. People are receiving valuable services from him: counseling, a place for the kids to play laser tag (that was the Easter special service for them), Krispy Kremes, etc. I could see how people would feel obliged - actually not even mind - to tithe. In fact, here's a scary thought: is it because the church is offering them so much that makes them happy, is servicing them so well, that they are willing to pay for it? Often people complain about tithing because the church doesn't "do" anything for them - the rewards of the spiritual walk are not easily seen, and frequently don't make you happy (although they do make you fulfilled). So perhaps the problem with tithing is our culture of capitalism - I pay to get something. Tithing means paying to give something...which is completely weird to our minds. I'm supposed to give money and time and my gifts and maybe I'll be more fulfilled but my life probably won't get any easier - just more busy, with more difficult choices, and I'll start looking stranger and stranger in this culture? Doesn't sound like something many people would want to buy. But the things offered by Radiant (the website is hilarious - their "commitments" and "mission" are making people happy, comfortable, etc.) are things that we all want and are willing to pay for.

I am just not sure they are what Jesus' followers are supposed to be looking for.


Anonymous said...

That church description just makes me think of Revelation 3:14-19:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.

sojourness said...

Hi Feminarian,

I just stumbled upon your blog and I'm so glad I did. Can't wait to read more...

Vitaly Kartsev said...

I guess I don't see pastoring congregations as at all akin to teaching science. It's more like delivering babies. Would I want someone to deliver a child who is an old-fashioned midwife with decades of experience, or someone with a degree and no experience? Very often, effective spiritual leaders without degrees are called to ministry after years of volunteer work and honing their ministry skills as lay people. These leaders are much more effective than some recently minted MDivs with little practical experience. (Some denominations and schools are better than others at getting their seminarians that necessary experience.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is, judge based on the fruits, not on the credentials. If someone's ministry is flawed, it's not because they lack a seminary degree—often seminary can simply cement bad theology and bad ministerial habits.

And again, sure, we as a church may decide (probably rightfully) that we prefer leaders with degrees. But for many congregations, that's not realistic to expect, and we shouldn't malign their leaders simply for lacking credentials.

Anonymous said...

Ministry doesn't seem to be the kind of thing you can successfully apply a formula to. I am a student of theology (currently working on a terminal degree and I mean that in all applicable senses) and so I appreciate the perspective that values a theological education. But my dad began full-time ministry without any sort of degree, and only finished his MDiv a couple years ago (it takes a really long time when you're a full-time minister as well!). So, is it possible to be a good minister without a degree? Sure. But I do think that my dad is exceptional. It seems to me that the best way to look at it is, a degree can't possibly hurt anything (although I concede it is possible that it might not help a great deal either). It provides people with a period of time when they can really seriously consider if this is their calling and if it is really worth it. It forces you to "do your homework" about some of the really hard problems, like suffering and evil and what in the world "imago Dei" really means. And it gives you a network of people--professors and classmates--that you can reach out to when you need advice. So the question is not, are there good ministers out there without degrees. The real question is, why wouldn't you want to do everything possible to prepare yourself for this all-important task?

Stasi said...

I tried to post this yesterday but blogger was being a bugger.

I just wanted to say that things got mixed up - I wasn't trying to say that nobody can be a good minister without a degree, I was saying that the person in the NYTimes story's faults were probably directly related to his lack of a degree. The other way around, see?

That's all - Jen's fabulous comment sums up my feelings exactly.

Anonymous said...


Interesting stuff. I can't say that I agree with everything that you say but it is thought provoking. I do have to chuckle on your views of seminary, though. You hold it in far too high esteem. While I certainly agree that brains are often left at the door, few people you read about in scripture were trained or certified in what they were doing. They had a call. They answered. EVERYONE needs trained up/mentored in the ministry, but the glaring disparity between the high price of seminary and the willingness to go into debt to attain the education versus the lifestyle that God calls us to is hypocritical on the part of higher education. In order to properly minister I should go to seminary, incur tens of thousands in debt... and then commit to a life of service in which I will be in bondage to the debt and not truly free to minister where I am called? I have posed this problem (face to face) to the presidents of three seminarys (Fuller, Nazarene Theological, and Asbury). None of them had any comment... except of course to offer me a FAFSA form. :)

Chip said...

In order to properly minister I should go to seminary, incur tens of thousands in debt... and then commit to a life of service in which I will be in bondage to the debt and not truly free to minister where I am called?

Yeah, tell me about it. Last fall I started working on my MDiv at Fuller's extention program in Seattle. I'm having a hard time seeing how continuing that path can work, largely because of the finances. Right now, I can use my gifts in some limited ways as a volunteer. I do think that seminary can help me develop those gifts and be better equiped to minister, but I also think that the debt incurred would be a huge obstacle to being able to put those gifts to use.

Anyway, I agree that many of the problems that I see in the NYT's protrayal of the church stem from a lack of theological reflection. I hope that one of the benefits, particularly to a busy pastor, of the pursuit of a seminary degree is space, time, and a community in which serious theological reflection can take place.

Sarah Dylan Breuer said...


You said, "few people you read about in scripture were trained or certified in what they were doing."

But in a society in which few people were able to read, Jesus apparently not only could read from a scroll, but could do it rapidly to skip back and forth between disparate passages in Isaiah (at least, if Luke 4 is any indication). And Paul, despite his loud protestations that he "did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom" (1 Cor. 2:1), spent years studying at the feet of Gamaliel, and more studying the Greco-Roman philosophy and rhetoric he quotes and employs.

God makes use of the gifts present in the church, but Jesus did say, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be," and if we (collectively, as Christ's Body -- I don't think the burden should be borne by individual seminarians) can't invest in studying scripture seriously and at length, and also cultivating the intellectual gifts that God gace us that we might fulfill Jesis' command to "love the Lord your God ... with all your mind," I don't think we can say that we're all that serious about Christian tradition and using all of the gifts God gave us for ministry.

Anonymous said...

On a different financial issue...

I think Feminary takes the commitment to tithe too lightly.

For most of Radiant's parishioners, I'd guess a tithe is more than they spend on food; probably as much as their car payment. I find it hard to believe that the secular goods and services provided are enough to inspire 25% to tithe.

P.S. I hope things settle down for you. Not least because I'm looking forward to the next installment in "what happens when a socially liberal theologically conservative inclusive tolerant feminist Episcopalian goes to one of the world's top evangelical seminaries."

Paddy O said...


You wrote, "few people you read about in scripture were trained or certified in what they were doing."

Few people were trained? Who wasn't trained? The disciples (those untrained fishermen as often stated) spent three years in training with Jesus, then had the most profound lessons imaginable after the resurrection when Jesus went through all the Scriptures revealing how his mission had been promised.

Paul studied under Gamaliel, then spent years learning the message of the Gospel before setting off on his own.

We can go down the list. Almost everyone was trained, almost everyone went through a long time of learning before they became teachers.

The danger is that in our passion we might speak of the things in ignorance, thus leading people towards a path of darkness.

I agree that seminary is too expensive and that churches need to somehow become places of learning so as to keep debt down. However, if you or anyone are willing to put in the sheer amount of time and effort a seminary student does in studying Scripture, theology, history, and languages... more power to you.

It's just that pursuing the amount of learning without teachers or outside a degree program is terribly rare.

Jesus himself knew the Scriptures, and the theology, and the history, and the culture. He waited until he was thirty to jump into ministry before it was his time. The disciples sat at his feet and learned. Learning and studying and training are at the core of every single influential Christian leader throughout history.

This isn't to say that a seminary degree is required to serve God, because faithful men and women have served God in countless ways after their own mode of learning. But, I would encourage folks to not degrade a seminary degree because of the fallacy that Biblical characters were unlearned. They were quite learned, even if they didn't all get letters after their name.