The best seminaries are laboratories for the Church of tomorrow

Quality seminaries are the science labs for the Church of tomorrow. At their best, these institutions offer a safe environment to test real world, often unsteady theological components that can quickly lead to explosive combinations of scripture, history and reasoning. These religious science laboratories are vital to the ever evolving work of the Holy Spirit in congregational life.

My final seminary course included one of those intense lab experiences, producing results I would carry into my ministry career. It was a practical theology course designed for students called to the role of pastor. We spent most of our time mixing theological and ecclesiological chemicals in an effort to keep us from poisoning our first church positions.

There were 12 students in the class. I was one of two women. For the sake of sisterhood and sanity, the two of us always sat together. The 10 men were relatively kind and courteous to us – until the day the topic of women as pastors and preachers came up.

The two of us women found ourselves on trial against centuries of male religious theories, including Saint Paul’s ancient work on women in the Church. On this particular occasion, we were watching a ping pong debate featuring the usual arguments for and against people with our body parts preaching in pulpits and pastoring parishioners.

“Christians need to support quality seminaries that offer laboratories of theological learning that will prepare leaders for the church of tomorrow.”

Here is a brief replay:

Moving past the matters of covering our hair and causing men to stumble, the debate intensifies. One student, red-faced and flapping his arms in a hysterical fit of rage, says, “Women are just too emotional to lead!” Another guy adds fuel to the flames with a reference to heretical women using witchcraft against the church during the dark ages.

Then one of the men – let’s call him Jack – proceeds to argue in favor of women preaching, but with some mind-boggling biblical reasoning.

Jack says to the class, with obnoxious pride, “Remember in the book of Numbers, the story about Balaam and his stubborn donkey? I mean, if God can use a donkey to speak truth, then why can’t he use a woman?”

The room bubbles over with laughter. But never in my life had I heard anyone, let alone a jackass, offer a question combining so many components about God, sex and leadership.

While the men banter on, I lean over to the woman next to me and whisper, “Well, I don’t know about you but I think at this point I’d rather be burned as a witch in Salem than be a donkey under Balaam.”

In the years since then, I’ve learned a lot from that mad science experiment. Most importantly, it revealed how important seminaries can be for clergy and congregations. Theology schools can provide a creative and supportive environment for future church leaders to process their own inquiries on important topics (including sometimes wild and dangerous hypotheses) before taking on those topics in the pastorate.

Good theology schools teach the next generation of clergy to try out new ideas even if those potential pastors, philosophies and perspectives falter or fail. Failure is a critical element in learning how to lead. Clergy fall and fail, sometimes foundering in the chaotic waters of congregational life. The disciples, particularly Peter, needed three years of seminary and a good ass kicking before they were ready to serve the body of Christ.

Every generation of the church is forced to face the challenges of its day, and seminaries hold the responsibility of equipping clergy to wrestle with the realities of sexism and racism, poverty and oppression and, above all, how the Church can explore and experiment its way through difficult biblical and cultural equations without dehumanizing God’s children.

“‘If God can use a donkey to speak truth, then why can’t he use a woman?’”

Too often, churches and their leaders get stuck using the same methods of picking and plucking passages from Peter, Paul and other apostles that align with our preferred positions in the world.

The Church continues to use old, outdated language that has lingered on the lips of generations of God-fearing, church-going, everyday folks who are rarely given the opportunity to think a different way – a way that creates space for all God’s children, that holds the tension of unity without conformity and that holds the dignity of God’s children in the midst of difference.

Seminarians can discover spiritual and practical solutions in the safety of theological laboratories that will prepare them to lead churches that inevitably will confront conflict. These solutions lead clergy and congregations to re-think our religious language, to re-examine scripture faithfully and to fully redeem practices that have been harmful to many of God’s children.

Now, back to that memorable day in seminary:

Near the end of the class, the professor finally intercedes. He turns to the men in the room, eyeballing Jack in particular, and says, “What if we asked the women in the room what they think about this topic?”

The room goes silent. I feel the poisonous brew of anger, humiliation and resentment in my belly. Uncertainties about my calling suddenly flood my mind. What words, what solutions could I offer a church wrestling with the topic of women, let alone issues like racism or sexuality or economic injustice? At the moment, words fail me, partly out of the fear that saying what I really think would result in losing my graduation standing.

Then the student next to me clears her throat. She speaks with authority and wisdom I would remember and respect for years to come. She looks directly at me but addresses her words to the men: “And God said in Genesis 1. ‘Let us create them in our image, female and male we created them.’ Praise God, we all are created and called by the God of Genesis 1 and not the devil of Genesis 3.”

Christians need to support quality seminaries that offer laboratories of theological learning that will prepare leaders for the church of tomorrow. The God who combined breath and dirt in the beginning is the same Spirit calling us to partner in the ever evolving body of Christ.

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