Monday, October 29, 2007

Lessons from Sem 3: Classmate disappointment

I went to a secular, state run University for my undergrad. I really didn't know what to expect, what with the drinking, drugs, and partying displayed by the media, but in college, I met many wonderful, Godly students. These friends were wonderful, and I've blogged about them before. They were sharp, they were committed to Christ, and constantly seemed to want to go deeper - to see how deep the spiritual well of Christianity goes. Well, as much as girl or boy crazy college students could. They challenged me and I challenged them. We weren't perfect by far, but when I think about what Christian community should look like, I often think of this group of college friends, struggling with God in their quest to find Him. At least, on the days I remember them favorably. I'm flighty that way.

A couple of years after college, when I entered Seminary, I expected to be greeted by students who reminded me of the Christian friends I had made at my secular university. I expected to find students who were sharp, well thought, interested in piercing the depths of what they didn't know, and excited by the new things they learned. I expected to find good students who read the assigned material and came prepared to discuss it, students who knew how to use the stacks and write good research papers, and who worked to integrate their reading and research into their Christian context. I, as a modestly read Engineer who had been away from college life for a few years, was prepared to be intimidated by my classmates.

Now, before I go any further, let's be clear: I'm more like the tortoise than the hare. I'm not quick and sharp and perspicuous, but I'm not dull, either. I am a hard worker, and continue to work things over until I get most of the wrinkles smoothed out. For some reason, I expected most of my classmates to be hard workers, too. (Or at least naturally gifted.)

I was disappointed. Just to give you an idea of the average student with which I interacted, here are some of the titles I thought about using but rejected because they were too harsh, even though they are intended to be a little tongue-in-cheek:
Matriculated Maladroit
Students are Stupid
My Kidney are Uncalculating

In general, I found that seminary students tend to be on the bad end of the bell curve. I was disappointed in how easily confused most of my classmates were, how fearful they were of new ideas, and how poor their own sense of self was. I was also regularly disappointed as to how well these students did in class. Frequently, they neither read the material, nor turned their assignments in on time, nor knew how to use the library resources.

There were exceptions, of course. In my 7 years in seminary, during which time I should have seen 2 full groups of students graduate, I can only remember maybe 10 people who seemed to be able to intellectually function at a graduate level, and half of those were elitist. I would call those elitist "In the club" to Melissa, because evidently you had to know the secret handshake to qualify for meaningful interaction with them. But I digress.

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a speech by Stanley Hauerwas (a well-known professor at Duke who holds chairs in both theology and law) on the ethics of death and dying for Christians. Hauerwas casually peppered into his talk that seminary students these days tend to be people who have failed at their secular vocation, and think that God must be calling them into ministry. And, being the good Christian folk most professors are, these students tend to get softened requirements for making the grade.

I wish it weren't so, but Hauerwas' observation seems to be accurate. During classroom interaction, many student's couldn't reason through their own thoughts and would assert things that led to logical contradictions, conflicts of interest, or worse. Those who actually read the assigned material frequently couldn't find the real meaning of the reading and would be baffled about the themes we were discussing, or would find the bogeyman in everything and be afraid of the ideas being presented. Those who didn't read the material would surf the internet during class.

In any case, seminary taught me something important about grad school: dull people get master's degrees, too. This has led to a sad realization about the pastors our seminaries are churning out: they seem to be incapable of doing the intellectual work of the church.

In the early church, pastors were the ones who defended the faith against those who would undermine it with ideas that were logical contradictions, or conflicts of interest, or worse. People like Iraeneaus, Athanasius, the Cappodocians, or Augustine were defenders of the faith because being a pastor meant running a church and thinking about THE Church. But, I wonder, would our modern pastors be up to the task of refuting the heresy of the gnostics, or of Arius, or the the Pelagians? Are our modern pastors up to the task of redefining our ancient Christian ideas so that they can communicate the good news of Christ? Instead, will our pastors sit confused and baffled while heresy grows, or perhaps be fearful reactionaries to any ideas that are new?

I'm partially comforted by the fact that Jesus' disciples seemed to be a bunch of dimwits, but turned out to be powerful agents of Christ in the world. That comfort is tempered, however, by the general decline of the American church.

What do you think? Are there ways in which you feel church leadership has been a disappointment?


stephanie said...

Hey big bro,
I have to say that I can agree with you here. Working where I do and interacting with so many seminary grads, pastors, and even those who have gone on to receive doctorates at seminaries, etc., has been eye opening and disappionting. It's hard to pinpoint the most disturbing thing about it, but there are a couple of things that have stuck out to me that are pretty heartbreaking. One is character and the other is something you mentioned, an unwilligness to change in order to reach people. Most people I encounter with this higher ed level tend to be arrogant and seem to think they have 'arrived'. Because they put off that vibe, they are completely unapproachable and seem to have lost that element of empathy that would invite a lost person who is searching to ever think of coming to them for help or to ask questions, etc. I think pride also has something to do with the unwilligness to change... maybe that and sheer laziness. Of course, there are definite exceptions to all of this, and I know many wonderful people in ministry and in the pastorate. But sadly, they tend to be the exception.

Benjamin said...

Thanks for that input, Steph. I didn't touch on it in this post, but those seminary grads who think they have "arrived" is a huge problem - and one that I contend ignores the scriptural intuition that the Spirit is a wild beast that blows where it pleases, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. How, then, can any Christian assert they have arrived? Paul even asserts that he has not "arrived", reached the "goal", or seen the truth in any way other than "in a mirror, dimly".

Personally, I assign those who think they have "arrived" to being poorly read, not really understanding the problem in their own human reasoning, and failing to have a heart for the lost. As I type this I literally want to spew such people out of my mouth.

Unfortunately, our church leaders remind me more and more of the pharisees the more I get to know them. And, as with the pharisees, there are some bright and shining exceptions, but they are the pearls among the swine.

Tracy P. said...

I had a lot of the same issues with educational leadership. I think the world has a vacuum of true leaders, and it's easiest to see in your own profession. five leaders of any kind that you truly admire...ready, go!

Benjamin said...

I assume you mean 5 living leaders? I'll have to think about that for a while.

Your point about leadership in general is very important here. I wrote a post that indirectly deals with this called "What Kind of God is This"? In July 2006. Basically, I wonder if our ideas of what leaders should look like is diametrically opposed to God's concept of leadership, or, more radically, the leadership of God Himself.

Maybe we just live on the fumes of those few great leaders we do admire.

Tracy P. said...

Here's a quote for you off of my google gadget today:

The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
- James Baldwin

TOO true!!

Benjamin said...

You're telling me.

Michael Cline said...

Couldn't agree more. What seminary were you attending?

(I hope I'm not one of those students that have "arrived" or are "elitist" simply because I see the same trend you identify...have mercy on me a sinner.

Benjamin said...

For reasons I won't go into, I don't speak of the schools I went to or the professors I took on this public blog.

Let's just say I went to sem with the chief editor of JM. ;-)