What If Wednesday: What If Seminaries Taught Culture Shifting?

imageSeminaries have been described as General College for Professional Ministry. Students take Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Theology, Christian Education, Practical Theology, Pastoral Care, and Preaching. This track has not changed much in the past 50 plus years.

As I – and many others – have written, seminarians are being trained to serve churches that no longer exist.  Or at the very least least, we need seminarians trained to do 21st Century Ministry which is totally different from 20th Century Ministry.  Again, this is old news.  But I believe that . . .

Seminaries need to teach future professional ministers how to shift a congregation’s culture.  

Last weekend, I worshiped with a congregation I love.   They are currently being led by an Interim Pastor, so they’ll soon be electing a Pastor Nominating Committee who will search for their next “permanent” pastor.  After worship I lunched with several over-80 year old members who love their congregation and wonder what the future holds for their church.  “What can we do to attract a good pastor?” I was asked.

The answer is complicated.

If they want someone to do ministry the way it’s always been done, then I have two responses:

  1. Your church is going to die.  My guess is that it will die within 10 years.  I’m regretably certain that it will be gone in 20 years.  I don’t mean to sound harsh, but crunch some numbers and see what you come up with in terms of your membership and your budget numbers.
  2. You can easily find a chaplain of any age to preach, teach, visit, marry, baptize, and bury to serve you until you die.

If they want someone to lead them into the next 50 years, then I have one answer:

  1. You need to call a pastor who is an expert in shifting your congregation’s culture.

The problem is that most of our pastors have no idea how to do this.  What if we taught this in seminary?  (I have ideas why we don’t but that’s for another blog post.)

Imagine equipping a new (or seasoned) pastor in the tools needed to help a congregation discern:

  • How does the neighborhood see them?  (Maybe they are invisible.  Almost certainly they are not The Church On The Corner that everybody notices and respects.)
  • Who is in their neighborhood?  (Have they noticed that they might not speak English?  Have they noticed that the neighbors don’t look like them?  What are the neighbors doing on Sunday mornings?)
  • Can they imagine being the church without _____ (Traditional Sunday School?  A choir in robes?  Sunday morning worship?  A 9:30 Bible study?  Potluck dinners?)  Maybe those traditional features are working for them still, but what if they are not working any more?  What needs to be relinquished?
  • Can they imagine shifting away from transactional ministry?  (e.g.  “If we start a pre-school, young families will join the church” (as opposed to just offering a pre-school because the community needs it.)

We don’t need anymore classically trained pastors who have no idea how to navigate a culture change in their congregations.  While we love smart pastors who can exegete a Koine verb or articulate the various theories of atonement, we need culturally, pastorally savvy pastors who can navigate difficult shifts with love – while also exegeting verbs and knowing theories of atonement.

Who can identify seminaries that are teaching this today?  And what are those seminaries?

Image of one of my alma maters:  Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

21 responses to “What If Wednesday: What If Seminaries Taught Culture Shifting?

  1. Jan – not sure about seminaries that are doing this, but we are working with the Center for Progressive Renewal (specifically Bruce Reyes-Chow) on this. Seems to me – now 8 years out of seminary – that the timing is better for me to hear and learn this culture shift stuff. Also, the church gets to learn it with me. Part of our issue is we expect that seminary will teach us everything – and that, once we’re out, we should know everything we need to know. I’d love to see us empower the pastors, churches, and presbyteries that are doing this well … to be teaching.


  2. Ultimately, the best class in seminary to prepare me for guiding my congregation into this new unknown was Pastoral Care.
    Because the fact is, fear of the unknown requires a pastoral care response first. Until the anxiety in a system is managed, the shift won’t take place.


  3. Liz Rolf Kanerva

    I graduated from seminary in 1995. Is all lost for pastors like me who were trained to serve churches that are fading away, but not interested in the role of chaplain. Is there a place (or other avenues) where I could hone my skills or develop new skills sets without going back to school full time?


    • Liz – all is most definitely not lost. We simply have to learn new tools.

      Not only are seminaries not teaching this, but there are too few opportunities to learn these skills post-seminary. Most of us are self-taught and frankly, that is taking too long in terms of the urgency of serving our people before churches are “too far gone.”

      Another issue is that many churches do not want to change to the point that they will keep doing ministry the way it’s been done for the past 50+ years, even if it means that their congregations will die.


  4. I posted on my own blog just this morning about my confusion over leadership in the mainline church. I’ve been ordained for 10 years, and I’d like to learn some “culture shifting” myself. I know Chicago Presbytery is doing some work with IAF style community organizing; is that an asset for teaching how to shift a church’s culture? Also, I know two people who have done DMin’s at George Fox seminary, which focuses on “semiotics” and cultural interpretation for church leaders. Have you seen any of that?


  5. Reblogged this on katyandtheword and commented:
    I was just thinking about this, what if seminaries taught us how to meet the next culture…what if we could (maybe not get a ahead) but get onboard with those who are growing up now….We don’t need anymore classically trained pastors who have no idea how to navigate a culture change in their congregations.


  6. Hartford Seminary (CT) offers a DMin in Congregational Studies which does this. In addition, Andover Newton Theological School has courses in congregational studies; I can’t imagine that Boston University School of Theology doesn’t have them, as Nancy Ammerman (one of the leading church sociologists in the US) is on the faculty there. That said, the question isn’t just “who’s teaching this?” but who’s making sure students think it’s more important than a class in religious art (or some other good, but not necessarily central) course??? Who’s teaching not just how to recognize culture change, but how to LEAD change? And, which school, recognizing culture change, is teaching progressive Christian apologetics — once we get new people in the church, how do we teach them about being Christian????


  7. A note about “culture shifts” – I’m not talking here about the shift from VHS to Netflix or kids playing on playgrounds to kids playing only on organized teams. I’m not talking about popular culture. I’m talking about the necessary cultural shifts for a church. We are taught to be in the world but not of the world and I take that seriously. Just wanted to clarify.

    I love popular culture, but that’s not what I’m talking about. (e.g. putting screens in a sanctuary showing clips of The Good Wife doesn’t change the church culture.)


  8. Jan- My partner, Jim Kitchens, and I are doing this very work in Presbyteries – comprehensive Adaptive Chance engagements within Presbyteries that also trains a bench of adaptive change leaders – such as yourself – to continue the work after we are gone. Capacity and implementation are the keys. One of the Cultural change models we use is Positive Deviance theory, which we find especially suited to our reformed theology and Presby. ecclesiology. We do belive the best approach is radically contextual – within presbyteries rather than school settings – and yes, with case study methodologies. Jim and I are keynoting the NEXT conference in Minneapolis the end of this month. Are you perhaps going to be there – we’d love to talk more.


  9. I recently graduated from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. We are a part of the Graduate Theological Union which includes several other seminaries of various denominations. One of our required courses is “Ministry Across Cultures.” This course challenged us to explore a variety of cultures and struggle with ways to address the very issues the author of this article talks about. We also are required to participate in a 3 week cultural immersion program (there are a variety of experiences). One of our final courses deals with “Public Ministry” -how to reach out beyond our walls to serve others in advocacy, social justice, etc. I am sure that there is always more to learn, but I feel confident that I have some tools to begin with. Blessings to you all.


  10. Pingback: Katy’s Seminary Class | katyandtheword

  11. I teach this through a ministry called Bridgebuilders and my seminary, Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay OH and Scotland PA) have begun doing this as instructors like myself and Dr. Gwen Ebner share these concepts in the classroom.


  12. Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley, CA, a partner to PLTS in Kirsten’s post above, is very aware of the necessity of this work. Any of their congregational development courses (esp those taught by Susanna Singer) focus on developing the changework skills of their students. They’ve also started contracting IAF to do Jan term courses.


  13. Pingback: Teaching Culture Shifts the HBS Way | achurchforstarvingartists

  14. I love culture shifting. It’s part of who I am and what I do. I’ve had a variety of different contexts over the years in which to hone skills in this area. I am also currently in seminary taking courses to become a pastor. I think case studies are fine and classes are fine, but the most effective classroom is the parish. Until seminaries figure out how to let go of the classroom, there will be little room in seminary for this kind of learning. An earlier poster noted her immersion experience. I couldn’t agree more.

    I would recommend that seminaries change their model significantly. Students should spend the first six months in a classroom getting some basics and then spend the next two years in a full-time context. These contexts would need to be facilitated by people the church trusts to teach. Students could take online courses during that time (only one at a time) to cover theology, language, biblical studies, and pastoral care.

    Students can then come back together in the last six months (or every six months for 2 weeks?) to “interpret” their contextual learning with one another and help each other with strategies using contexts that are real. Preaching classes become more effective when you have videos of actual sermons that can be reviewed and refined. The same could be said for theology courses because it is in context that you discover if what you say you believe and what you practice actually fit with one another.

    Church bodies can ordain pastors at that point contingent upon their continuing education (say for 5 years?) in areas that they specifically need or desire, history, theology, biblical studies, pastoral care, etc.


  15. Virginia Theological Seminary is moving actively in this direction, for both MDiv and DMin curriculum. Of course, in order to learn the art of shifting or transforming culture, one must first learn the skills and arts of reading culture. And “culture” extends beyond the congregation to the larger surrounding neighborhood / regional context. This is the focus of core required courses in our degree programs.


  16. The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology has multiple courses in culture (some I’ve taken are Theories of Culture, Pop Culture & The Kingdom of God, leadership courses that teach systems thinking…), and it’s also a part of every course taught. Really, every single one. The school’s “line” is “Study at at the intersection of text, soul, and culture,” and it’s kept in mind when drafting syllabi, choosing books, and leading classes.


  17. Greetings all. I am a new seminarian with the Community of Christ. I am reading this as part of my last official course, Contemporary Cultures and Theologies. I have to say, I hope my other professors are not reading this blog, that this class is the most interesting and I would hope applicable for me and my future ministry. I am hoping to continue my preparation and studies,as I am very passionate about gaping the cultural sea we encounter in our missions throughout the world. I would like to be one the links of this chain that is helping bridge the cultural, social, and religious differences between the people we serve. Thank you all for your comments and suggestions.


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