If Religious Education Was In Crisis Would Anyone Notice?

Are Seminaries In Touch with Today’s Church?

I read a blog post today about the alarming state of education in the field of marketing. Keep in mind that marketing and evangelism are very much alike.

It seems that the field of marketing is changing so fast that academia has not kept up. Tenured professors are teaching marketing the way it was ten and twenty years ago to students who no longer live in that world. Scratch that. They NEVER lived in that world.

Businesses are interviewing the top students and finding them wholly unprepared for real business challenges.

How did this happen?

The world of marketing began to change at a very fast pace within the last 15 years—too fast for the accrediting process to keep up.

It is quite possible that the Church faces the same problem. But it may take even longer to identify and fix it.

The Church is, after all, 2000 years old. We know what we are doing. Thank you very much.

But perhaps we face the same problems.

Keeping in Touch with the Neighborhood Church

Seminary faculties may be filled with professors who haven’t served a congregation during the most recent decades of change. The Church is ill-prepared to cope with the technological and economic challenges. They spend lots of time and resources analyzing but they use old measures. The outcomes predictably favor managerial thinking and not creative thinking.

Consequently, we may be teaching evangelism and pastoral methods that will not reach today’s communities, today’s Christians, or today’s unchurched.

If a congregation can’t find a pastor with the skills they need, what’s the usual advice? Change or close. There are few leadership candidates prepared to lead change. They, like most students, get where they are by complying with the institutions in which they are enrolled.

The type of change administrators are looking for may be impossible given the state of leadership. Managing churches (an expensive undertaking) usually means closing churches.

The people who are in closest touch with the changes in neighborhood churches are the people who serve on church councils and know what skills their churches need and how hard they are to find. They face modern challenges alone. Inadequate leadership drains resources and morale.

Lay leaders are not paid so their only horse in the race is their faith and passion. If they don’t accept the leadership presented to them by their regional body, they may be labeled as “difficult” or “resistant.” Neither are bad words but that is how they are perceived. More positive words might be “persevering,” “resourceful,” or “faithful.” They may simply be insisting on leadership skills that they need—but don’t exist.

Lay leaders struggle to keep up economically. The offering plate is the only recommended solution—and lots of people these days want a piece of that pie (including seminaries and regional bodies). Many lay leaders have developed  skills that those teaching in seminaries may not know exist.

The Marketing Answer

The marketing blogger applauded one university program that opened their marketing classes to business people. They make it easy for seasoned business people to return to school. They schedule classes so that business people can attend. They create a forum with young students and professionals that is resulting in what he claimed was the only program he could recommend as truly preparing students for the real world of marketing. He actually invited his readers to enroll in some classes at a discount!

Hmm!

What if seminaries made an effort to put students side by side with the lay leaders of the churches they will one day be serving.

This would differ from the usual field experience, which is under the tutelage of clergy.

Finding a more direct way to connect lay people with tomorrow’s leaders might help pastoral candidates learn before they have relationships to protect.

They might begin to see that many parishes are not dying from the most frequently cited reason—demographics. We just haven’t found ways to deal with changing demographics. (Isn’t this our mission?)

Congregations might, in reality, be dying from leadership that is not prepared for the work that needs to be done.

What If?

Putting seminarians and lay people together in this way is not a big “what if?” It wouldn’t be that hard to try.

  • Evening or weekend forums could have seminary students sitting next to lay church leaders and discussing the issues of local churches.
  • You want the congregational leaders from the trenches—not the accredited lay leaders who routinely serve on church boards and are part of the approved way of doing things.
  • You want small churches to be well represented. Most churches are small.
  • Some of the forums might actually be held in the small churches!

This dialog would occur on neutral ground. No one would be protecting sacred turf or answering to hierarchical authority. There would be no paycheck or career trajectory to consider.  Students and lay leaders would be discussing the real problems of today’s congregations.

And they might—together—find some solutions.

We might grow some new leadership all around—both clergy and lay!

What the Church needs (and needs desperately) is some new thinking. New thinking comes from new understanding.

Worth a try?

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About Judith Gotwald

journalist, graphic designer, problem solver
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