Response to J.R. Briggs’s Presentation at May 4, 2022 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Presentation Question: What new shape of ministry leadership and innovations in ministry are required in the post-pandemic world, and what is required of theological education institutions to address these needs?
The church and, in turn, the educational institutions serving it, have undergone seismic shifts in the recent past. Post-Christendom has left the church in decline, seemingly on a trajectory toward death, and a global pandemic has generated even further crisis for local congregations. Rather than despair, however, Briggs helps us look with eyes of hope, viewing these destabilizing and disorienting forces through the lens of new creation. Through his article, he effectively invites us to examine how these forces may be an invitation to let old forms of education die so the hope of new resurrection life might spring up in its wake.
Briggs shows his own ability to exegete a context in his diagnosis of the “old order” of theological education. I am among those who have spoken the words Briggs mentions: “Seminary did not train me for what I am doing in ministry.” Outside of one course on spiritual formation, nearly every other class used an Enlightenment model that tested our ability to retain information, very little of which I utilize in my present context. To show to what extent our seminary had embodied a “neck-up” approach to discipleship, I knew of one classmate who did not profess a belief in Jesus Christ by the end of their time in seminary, but graduated with a degree, as they were able to answer in accordance with orthodox thought on their exams.
For this reason, and many more, I find Briggs’s suggestion that we move toward a new praxeological approach, where the whole student is engaged in experiential learning, training them to be contextually-literate missionary-theologians, an absolutely vital one. Equipping ministry leaders to “connect the dots” of seminary, sanctuary, and street will allow for a much more integrated life in ministry.1 Through this new frame, Briggs offers a creative corrective that I believe will allow students to grow personally in the life of Jesus Christ, live more sustainable lives in ministry, and express their faith in ways that are even more deeply transformative than the forces of COVID and post-Christendom surrounding them.
While I found a wealth of wise guidance in Briggs’s essay, there were a few suggestions that I found particularly crucial and creative in building this future for our seminaries. One is his emphasis on soul care and healing. I agree whole-heartedly that this is of the utmost importance, as it invites vibrant, tangible experiences of Jesus’ work in the lives of students, rather than leave them with abstract generalities that do not nourish their whole selves. Jesus renews our mind, which is critical, but our ministry leaders need the holistic work of healing in their hearts and bodies as well. I am convinced that the number of moral failures we have seen in church leadership is rooted in past pain that remains unhealed in leaders’ stories. Considering the massive, collective trauma in the recent past, I fundamentally believe the only way by which we can really build the resilience necessary to survive in ministry, much less healthily thrive, is if we open ourselves to the deep healing power of Jesus in all areas of our life.
In recognizing this reality, I am also very glad Briggs prioritizes resilience as an explicit area of study in seminary, which he pairs directly with an equally important emphasis: innovation. Once again, Briggs diagnosed my own seminary experience, as it, by and large, “trained me for the past,” explaining the history of our denomination’s theological perspectives, rather than equipping students to delve creatively into the pressing issues of our day. It did little to form the “vintage mindset” Briggs encourages, looking to the early church, which understood living at the margins of society, for how to approach our modern moment. If we do not learn how to adopt an “away-game mentality,”2 as Briggs calls it, learning to exist in spaces in which Christians are not the center of attention, and our discipleship has no touchpoint in the lived realities of those growing up in this cultural moment, there will be little new belief. Having worked closely with youth, I can experientially attest that the space they have been the most open to hearing about Jesus is a music studio, rather than a church building. They have a spiritual hunger, but are also trying to figure out what that means in the virtual and physical spaces of social networking that they most deeply know and enjoy. We must meet them here, in these rapidly-changing places of innovation, inviting them to consider how Jesus might be present in them, and how he might be doing his work of healing transformation in and through them.
Briggs displays his own capacities for innovation in his suggestion to look toward alternative financial models to support leaders in ministry, a suggestion I found tremendously encouraging. Formal seminary training has historically been notoriously difficult to access for marginalized persons, particularly those who have grown up in poverty, and, as Briggs notes, even wealthy congregations are having an increasingly difficult time funding pastors to pay off debt. So, I agree we must quickly normalize co-vocationality. Having been bi-vocational for six years, I have also found other strong benefits to this model. Working another job has allowed me to inhabit more missional spaces to introduce others to Jesus. It has also encouraged me to embrace a leadership that is shared between multiple hands and utilizes the full range of gifts that the Spirit gives. A bi-vocational model moves past one pastor being the resident professional on all matters–a great burden to carry–and allows for a more sustainable, evangelistic way forward that might stand in our current cultural and economic climate.
Briggs shows further innovation, as well as a surprising humility, in suggesting that we might look to other institutions for help in training for such bi-vocational realities. If seminaries try to be the sole provider of resources, this will, in turn, produce churches and leaders that attempt to be the sole provider of resources. This perpetuates the Christendom mindset that has shown itself ineffective. In encouraging partnerships beyond the walls of the seminary for training, as well as intentionally rooting students in incarnational laboratories where different ministries and expressions of church are doing innovative work, seminaries will form students toward deeper contextual intelligence and Kingdom collaboration. It will build in them an outward-looking posture that builds healthy interdependence, a key building block to participation in their wider communities, and a core value of the earliest days of the church.
While I endorse all of the shifts that Briggs lays out in this work, I found myself wondering about assessment in this new seminary framework. If we make the vital shift toward measuring spiritual growth and character formation, a fundamental reimagining of our current metrics for measuring progress will need to accompany it. If a standard, grade-based system were applied to the practices of character formation, it could form students to seek to “earn” merit through performance, which would seem quite contrary to the rhythms of the gospel. Not to mention, it would perpetuate the Enlightenment emphasis on information retention. It also seems very difficult to conceptualize a standard, academic measure for something so personal as prayer, especially when Jesus’ criteria for prayer was the posture of the heart when done in secret. Yet I find it crucial that we know that the leaders we are sending out actually have a vital life of prayer.
Thus, I would love to hear Briggs’s thoughts on what a new evaluation system that prizes the whole person, rather than mere information retention, might look like. What would a system of measuring progress look like that, rather than encouraging an upward ascent toward perfect performance and greater intellect, promotes an ever-deepening growth in the cruciform, sacrificial life of Jesus? While it will take creativity to imagine such a system, I think it is a necessary and noble work.
I also would appreciate hearing what Briggs means for a seminary to “directly address” pressing issues that we are wrestling with culturally. Is this “address” dialogue, debate, or declaring orthodox teaching about these topics? I have seen many seminaries “address” such issues by doing the latter: giving a declarative theological position on hot-button topics. I have also witnessed, however, how this approach leaves seminarians with little experience in how to disciple those who are directly experiencing such matters. If we are hoping to move beyond mere “neck-up” discipleship toward a more fully embodied model that engages heart and soul, theological declarations from the ivory towers of Christendom will not suffice. We need the opportunity to reflect on life and blood incarnational experiences as Briggs rightly encourages, examining them from the standpoint of discipleship and mission.
In sum, I find Briggs’s vision for the future of theological education very persuasive, refreshing, and downright encouraging after my own experience of seminary. It is a robust, holistic vision for seminary education that I believe could bring about the type of growth needed in this time of dramatic change. I pray that Missio, as well as all of us who are invested in theological education, are willing to heed Briggs’s call to follow Jesus, the Great Disruptor, through death and the cross to experience the reality of new, resurrection life on the other side.
1 One small note of constructive criticism: I don’t know that we want to form students to be missionaries “cleverly disguised as good neighbors,” so much as we want them to point to Jesus through the ways in which we are actually good neighbors.
2 I think this is a helpful metaphor, though I wonder if there is another that could be less oppositional in its orientation.