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The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.

“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.

For quick announcements about changes or developments in the preparation process, dates related to exams or other key events, discussion boards, surveys, etc., you can follow us on Facebook at “Preparing for Presbyterian Ministry.”

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November 29, 2011

"Pastor-Theologians" and "Practicing Lawyers"

Theory and PracticeA recent article in The New York Times dealing with law schools and the legal profession (“What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering”) reminded me a good bit of some discussions I sometimes hear about seminaries.

The article talked about how the selection criteria for law school faculties often do not emphasize, or perhaps even include, experience as a practicing lawyer. Even though they are technically professional schools, the curriculum emphasizes legal theory—both archaic (stressing precedents laid down a century or more ago) and esoteric (incorporating postmodernism and deconstructionism)—rather than the day-in and day-out activities performed by lawyers. As a consequence, many legal firms find they have to provide the most basic practical aspects of legal training for those who have already earned their law degrees and passed the bar exams (and clients don’t appreciate being, in effect, billed for the on-the-job training of these new associates).

Basically substitute “seminary” for “law school,” “theology” for “legal theory,” and “pastor” for “lawyer” in the preceding paragraph, and you will find more than a few people within the church who would conclude that the paragraph makes just as much sense. (They might even say congregants share similar resentments as law firm clients.)

Certainly there is a counter-argument that could be made—and in fact often is—with regard to both seminaries and law schools that it is tendencies toward both ever higher degrees of specialization among fields of professional learning and ever higher degrees of complexity in the real world that have influenced the composition of both faculties and curricula. Citations of scholarly journal articles may not immediately show up in either legal briefs or sermons, but their respective content shapes how both lawyers and pastors think about the world and their responsibilities within it.

My point in this blog is not take one side or the other in this debate. It is instead to echo what many who work in the development of professionals in many fields are saying: Professional formation must include both what we call the theoretical and the practical. Just as clients of law firms want associates working on their cases who are up on the latest legal theories and have experience in the practice of law, so congregations are looking for true “pastor-theologians.” They want people who know the Christian tradition and have practical experience drawing on that tradition in the creative ways required by our rapidly changing culture. The “pastor-theologian” has been a hallmark of the Reformed tradition within the church since its beginnings, and it is as needed now has it ever has been.

So, how do we help to assure that those preparing themselves for possible service as teaching elders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) have both the academic and the practical training they require? As in emerging trends in other professions, I think it will have to include those engaged in the practice actively apprenticing those in preparation already while they are in graduate school. That is to say, the church needs to assume responsibility for practical training contemporaneous with the academic training in seminary. Neither congregations nor seminaries can do it all on their own.

Who knows, if the mentoring pastors are as willing to learn from as to teach those whom they apprentice, they might even become better theologians themselves as they catch up on developments in engaging faith and culture since their own graduations decades earlier.

Categories: Ordained Ministry, Ordination Process , Theological Education

Tags: mentor, practice of ministry, professional training, seminary