It's past time to update seminaries for a 21st-century church

by Bill Tammeus

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About 10 years ago, I was at a Catholic seminary. No, I wasn't enrolled there as a student. I don't think the seminary takes Presbyterians.

Rather, I was at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, also known as Mundelein Seminary, just north of Chicago, working on a profile for The Kansas City Star of a young man named Justin who was nearing the end of his seminary training and moving toward ordination as a priest in the Catholic diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

I was struck at the time by how little about that whole experience seemed to break with tradition. Justin's room was small and crowded with books and papers, not unlike the way seminary students' rooms have looked forever. His description of his classes would, with few exceptions, have seemed quite familiar to priests who had come through the seminary 10 or even 40 years before. And the chapel service I attended seemed to break no new liturgical ground.

I don't know what has changed there in the interim, but I do know that we Presbyterians are thinking anew about seminary. And I hope at least some Catholics are doing the same.

It's past time for such an analysis.

An example of what my denomination is pondering is found in the current issue of Presbyterians Today, a monthly magazine of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The cover says "Rethinking Seminary" and includes a piece called "Converted at Seminary" by Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Yamada, who grew up Buddhist and converted to Christianity at age 19, is one of the wise minds in my denomination, challenging conventional thinking.

"No longer can theological education be seen as the sole prerogative of our seminaries," Yamada writes. "New challenges require that we come together to share in this calling to teach and nurture. Knowledge will no longer come solely from the lectern of the classroom; it will come from the homeless shelter, the worship-committee meeting, the local Bible study, the community protest, the Twitter conversation, the church visitor as well as the member of 50 years."

One new example of teaching theology outside of seminary is a Presbyterian initiative called Theocademy. It's an effort to use technology to assist with faith formation of people in the pews as well as to help train our elected church officers.

It will not, of course, replace our seminaries. Those institutions, as Yamada insists, must continue to exist but must adapt to the new and changing needs of the 21st-century church. The knowledge and wisdom available from seminaries, however, must find their way to the people in the pews, and Theocademy can be one way for that to happen.

If I were a member of a Catholic congregation, I'd be tempted to ask the priest, whatever his age, to talk to an adult education class about his seminary experience and what he found helpful and what he found lacking.

Then I'd be tempted to ask other priests about that same subject. If I began to hear a common theme about what seminaries are lacking to prepare priests properly for this rapidly changing era, I'd be tempted to find out who is working to fix that, and I'd get behind that effort.

But as I did that, I'd also be thinking about ways to move practical theological education from the seminaries into the pews. As Yamada writes, "We must continually reevaluate the effectiveness of our systems."

As we rethink seminary in our different traditions, eventually it may lead us to rethink ordained ministry itself. It's past time for a thorough analysis of that, too. What, for instance, might it mean for individual congregations if their pastors arose from within their midst instead of coming in from the outside?

If the leaders of our seminaries aren't asking these questions, those of us in the pews need to be.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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