• Beth Jones

closing the gap between the seminary and the sanctuary

I originally shared these thoughts on social media in response to a conversation on twitter about the gap--sometimes felt as a yawning chasm--between the seminary and the sanctuary.

As someone who has given my life to theological education, that's a gap that breaks my heart.

I have a deep commitment to connecting theology to practice. I’m a book nerd, and I love nerd things,

but if theology doesn’t matter for discipleship and church and evangelism, I don’t know what we’re doing here.

I also think making those connections between theology and practice is generally something I can’t do FOR my students. Their contexts, experiences, and insights are different from mine, & I’m wary of encouraging them to try to reproduce the way I might do that myself.

So, instead of teaching THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS between doctrine & practice, I try, most often, to give my students collaborative space to wrestle towards those connections themselves. And with their peers.

(digression: processing my own seminary education, which was chock full of things to be grateful for, the parts that most frustrate me are those where the message was “reproduce my particular contextual reactions in every context.”)

But I am intentional about making that kind of space for practical connections, and I try not to let a class period pass without doing so. Same for assignments; my general rule is that every assignment should encourage students to connect doctrine to life.

I’m always eager to learn more from students about how I can be better at making that space and facilitating the holy imagination in terms of how theology is lived out.

Also, I’m aware I teach on the academic side of the academic/practical divide in seminaries (a divide I hate, but that’s another matter), & I know I have a lot to learn from colleagues on the other side.

There are at least 2 kinds of complaints about the seminary/sanctuary gap. The first is the “didn’t teach me that in seminary” complaint about super concrete matters. This is true of every job, and such matters are often so church-specific that trying to teach them would be futile, so I’m less concerned about this one (also, it’s not really my space in the curriculum).

The other kind of worry is the seminary-made-me-very-different-from-my-people worry, and this one? It’s vital.

What to do with the gap between an educated clergy & a suspicious laity. Somebody put it as “what do you mean David didn’t write the Psalms?”

If your seminary didn’t teach you how to recruit VBS volunteers, go get mentored by that lady in your church who knows how to do it.

But if your seminary didn’t teach you how to love & teach the Bible as authoritative & holy AT THE SAME TIME as you were learning who maybe did or didn’t write the Psalms, you have every right to be put out.

Luckily, there will still be people in your church to mentor you on this (value them, honor them), but also, a seminary education which holds critical apparatus up and over laypeople is a disaster. Of course people don’t want their pastors to connect “David didn't write the Psalms” with “the Bible isn’t true.”

It needs to be connected with “the Bible is more complicated and interesting and, because of that, BETTER & MORE BEAUTIFUL than we thought.”

The messiness of Scripture tells us about a God who loves us in our messes. The complicated, interesting Bible is revelatory of a mysterious, interesting God. Which brings me to the best piece of advice I’ve got.

Pastors, let your people know how much you love God. Let them see your love for Jesus.

The gap between professors and students isn’t totally different from the gap between seminary and sanctuary. I find that letting my students see how much I love Jesus goes a long way in bridging that gap.

Not showing love for Jesus in a performative way. Showing it in a for real way. In an I-couldn’t-keep-going-without-Jesus and Jesus-is-changing-my-life-every-day way. In an adoration way.

And that shouldn’t be separate from teaching about biblical authorship, or theological ambiguities, or other hard stuff. Not I-love-Jesus as one thing and then let’s-learn-about-this as another thing.

Whatever we know about biblical authorship & theological ambiguities has the love of Jesus written all over it. We can obscure that though, if we even begin to yield to the temptation of I-know-more-than-you power and condescension.

A lot of us read Thielicke, his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, in seminary. But, if you already know you’re not a theobro, it can be easy to suppose that only the theobros are doing the things Thielicke warns against.

But it can be any of us, & the danger requires open eyes & soft hearts.

Make the prayer, “who am I tempted to despise?” a regular part of your spiritual practice.

My prayer for every seminary is that curriculum & program design & faculty would testify to the way the love of Jesus is shining in every aspect of it. If you’re considering seminary, ask if it will. If you’re dismissed as green & pious, look elsewhere for your education.

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