Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On the Subject of Sheepskin

John Hood's editorial today, "Not Just More of the Same", is right on target. If a student has decided school's of no use by the time he turns 16, two more years of compulsory attendance are unlikely to light a fire for learning.

It reminded me of an interesting conversation I had recently. I just got backfrom the Uniting Church & Family Conference in St. Louis. This is sponsored by an organization, the National Council of Family Integrated Churches, which promotes a return to simplicity in the church, where families worship together and serve together, rather than fracturing into a dozen splinter groups segregated by age, gender, or interests. In a time of megachurches and programmatic ministries, it's a refreshingly iconoclastic movement.

One side conversation I engaged was on the subject of seminary training. Is it necessary for a healthy pastoral ministry that the preacher possess a masters of divinity? I would say not necessary, though it can be helpful; it depends on the kind of ministry that candidate has in mind. I have always appreciated a pastor who could open up the Greek and Hebrew of the original scriptures, and much mischief has resulted from preachers with plenty of zeal and not enough doctrinal wisdom to stay out of the quagmires of error.

Yet it is also quite true that many young seminary students would benefit more from practical experience in life than entering the halls of academic theological study. In my own life, the theological studies gained relevance when I passed through phases of life -- marriage, the birth of my children, the death of parents, sickness, health, and all the rest. A freshly minted M.Div in the hands of an unmarried 24-year-old can be a dangerous thing.

My friend in the discussion took that position to say that seminaries were probably not a positive good. They promote credential seeking, he said, which doesn't amount to wisdom or godliness. Better they should be trained under a local minister's discipleship.

But there is another path. The church we enjoyed for nearly ten years had connections with a theological school sponsored by a local Reformed Baptist church in New Jersey. Trinity Ministerial Academy gave many young men a rigorous doctrinal training but did not grant degrees. The instructors were first rate men with years of pastoral experience, but when you completed your time at TMA, all you had to show for it was wisdom, knowlege, and practical guidance.

And that, after all, should be the purpose of all education. I confess to a love for certificates, but they're just paper. At best, they are a pat on back for diligence (or successful skulduggery) navigating a required course of study. Frequently they are used by employers as substitutes for truly knowing a candidate for a job. As George Leef at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy would point out, they are also used to restrict entry into fields of work, such as law, which can be learned as well by practical study as the classroom experience.

So what if we kept the school, but did away with the diploma? And the student only came to learn something, and only left when he had it? Isn't that how the new round of certifications go, as computer professionals pick up their classes with Cisco, Nortel, Microsoft, and Oracle?

An iconoclastic thought, to be sure, but some idols do need breaking. Or at least, a good looking over.


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