What if We Had More Seminary Professors Who’ve Been Pastors?

imageA couple weeks ago, at our Presbytery’s Clergy Retreat, Phyllis Tickle explained why we are in the throes of a Great Emergence.  One of the more controversial comments she made was that our children are Biblically illiterate because their mothers and grandmothers are no longer home to share Bible stories to the children in the routine of daily home life.

Without getting into all the issues I have with this assessment (as much as I appreciate Phyllis) the truth is that my mother and grandmothers – both devout Christians and active in women’s church groups – never told me Bible stories while we baked cookies or set the dinner table or weeded the garden.  Not to discredit my mom and grandmothers in the spiritual nurturing department, but they just didn’t do this.  My father and grandfather didn’t do this either.  If I asked questions about Bible stories, they answered them.  But it was at my prompting.

Actually this blog post is not about this.

But I was talking about this with one of my colleagues, and we realized that most seminary professors don’t do this either.  They don’t tell the stories that help us make narrative connections between daily life and Scripture.

Obviously Church History professors tells fascinating stories about our church mothers and fathers and Bible professors use Greek and Hebrew exegesis to make interesting Bible stories even more interesting. But it was up to us – the students – to ask questions as they might relate to daily life in the field.

Then I remembered that my best seminary professors had had experience as parish pastors and they told different kinds of stories.

Of the dozens of seminary professors who taught me, only three had experience as parish pastors.  Isn’t it weird that many of the people who are teaching people to be pastors have never themselves been pastors?

Again – my best seminary professors had also served as pastors. One Bible professor, when sharing something about the Synoptics, said, “I used this story for a child’s funeral in my first church.”  And that’s what I wrote in my notebook.  A practical application to Biblical scholarship.  Another worship professor shared his favorite liturgical ideas from his parish experience and why they’d worked so well.  Again, that’s what I wrote down.

As pastors, we have the opportunity to be with people in the daily toils of their lives – from the milestones of marriage, birth, and death to the ordinary events of life.  Someone gets a new job.  Someone starts dating again.  Someone takes up gardening.  Someone gets a new puppy.  Someone gets her tonsils out. We know these things about people.  It’s our task to connect life events with the holy, and it helps to be mentored – if not in our families of origins  – then  in seminary so that we might know better how to coach people to make those holy connections too.

Do any of you see a trend towards expecting seminary professors to have parish experience?

Image source.

8 responses to “What if We Had More Seminary Professors Who’ve Been Pastors?

  1. I have thought this FOREVER! Especially as I was defending my D. Min dissertation, and realized my advisors may know more about their specific field, but I knew much more about the challenges & intricacies of parish life.


  2. I don’t want his to sound like an advertisement but one of the factors that turned my heart from wanting to just “learn” when I entered seminary towards wanting to share in parish ministry was the fact that most of my professors did in fact come out of a background in parish ministry. It does make a difference when a professor of doctrine or history can say something like, “this is the question I was asked most by my parishioners”; or an exegesis professor can tell us about a Bible study where, “many of the folks that had been in the church a long time thought that the line included in the Apostles’ Creed concerning resurrection of the body applied to Christ only and not to them.” These were eye-openers for me. Professors who had been faithful pastors and shared those experiences with students was one of the gifts I received from UDTS.


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  4. It’s the element of practice that’s key, I think. Meaning, this isn’t an abstraction we’re talking about here, but something that speaks powerfully into our shared journey of faith. If a professor has been a pastor, that helps, but it also helps if they can place it into the context of their personal faith journey. Like, say, the seminary professor who knows Paul…and loves Paul…because she immersed herself in Pauline literature to rebut subordinationists who kept her from leadership in her evangelical church. Or the Old Testament scholar who taught Job by talking about being at the bedside of his five year old daughter as leukemia finally took her. Not pastors, no. But still with a powerful message for those of us who are called to that form of service.


  5. Or active life in the church.

    MB McCandless (270) 872-3239 Sent from my iPhone



  6. My favorite professors had been pastors at one time, as well. What I’m seeing, though, from my current work, is that the competition to get into PhD programs has become so intense that students feel that if they get in, they need to go directly into that PhD from seminary, without stopping to pass go. And once they’ve spent the time in the PhD, faculty positions are so rare that if you get one, you take it.

    We have a number of faculty that work part-time in churches or who are very dedicated laypeople, but the number of faculty with full-time parish experience has dwindled. Right now, out of 40 TT faculty, only 8 have full time parish experience–and 5 of those are in practical theology. But supplemented by those with substantive part-time experience and substantial lay experience, most of our faculty are deeply formed. Still, as someone with only part-time parish experience myself (and full-time chaplaincy experience) there is a substantial difference between a part-time experience “on the side” and a full-time immersion. I wish the academy were more forgiving of dual vocations.


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  8. I think we have lots of seminary professors who have served congregations. Certainly Columbia did.
    But whether or not they had served congregations, I dispute the premise they weren’t pastors. They prayed with and for us. The provided pastoral care. They proclaimed the gospel in their teaching.
    Yes, I learned Greek and Hebrew. But that doesn’t mean they taught it to me as if my congregational context didn’t matter.
    Yes there are problems with seminary education. My professors weren’t one of them.


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