Dr. James Nieman: Messages to the LSTC Community
Theological education and LSTC
On April 26, James Nieman made a presentation about "Theological education and LSTC" in response to the search committee’s request to discuss his vision for theological education and LSTC’s place in it. It is shared below.
Here’s the final exam question I was given: “Discuss your vision for theological education and LSTC’s place in that…and please do so in no more than twenty minutes.”
Easy. Easier still if I were allowed only a few seconds, in which case I’d say, “Theological education is entering a largely untried terrain where LSTC still has distinctive treasures to offer, but only if it can face significant and sometimes wrenching changes.”
Satisfied? Neither am I. It’s an accurate claim, but too cryptic to be helpful, and frankly a little bleak. On the other hand, an elaborate, two-hour answer would venture into fortune-telling (not my strength) and still fall short, not least of all because no one knows what surprises God has in store. I must strike a middle course, and one that, in the allotted time, will come to you with the same thirst-slaking gentleness as if, on a hot summer’s day, you took a cooling sip from a high-pressure fire hose.
My remarks involve three steps.
- I’ll start with the real purpose of theological education, and from a Lutheran perspective.
- Next, I’ll turn to the changed situation that makes theological education especially challenging today.
- Last, I’ll point out several focal concerns for LSTC to engage in light of that purpose and situation.
It’s not hard to foresee two perils in this plan. One is that you’ll disagree about the purpose of theological education and stop listening right away. The other is that you’ll agree, but gradually disbelieve that this vision is attainable. So the prospect is either initial rejection or eventual dismay—not a good way to begin! Even so, I hope my comments can stimulate our mutual conversation in various venues during the rest of today. I am very interested in what you have to say.
A long-standing trend in theological education, and especially in stressful times like today, is to substitute the penultimate for the ultimate, the close-at-hand for a wider horizon. So, we often say that the point of a seminary is to generate various kinds of leaders, which means our purpose becomes all about maintaining the institutional equipment for professional formation. But I think that’s to stop far short of what we’re all about, whether theological education in general or Lutheran seminaries in particular.
The real purpose of all our efforts is the fuller proclamation of the gospel in daily life by all the faithful. The ultimate aim is to identify and nurture the gifts of disciples whose lives and labors show the unearned mercy of God to a world that often knows nothing of this. Sure, this can sound like an idealized, pious answer, but step back and ask yourself: Why exactly did you come here to study, to teach, or otherwise to serve? Was it really just so you could wear peculiar clothes or read opaque books or enjoy the benefits of the major medical plan? Those, and many other nobler things to be sure, are the professional accoutrements of theological education, but they’re not the main event. I still recall that in my admission essay for seminary, with my twenty-three year old dreamy-eyed earnestness, I wrote about wanting “to help people live a life consonant with the gospel.” It’s kind of embarrassing to admit today, but that’s what I signed on for, and it’s been on my heart ever since as a pastor, as a teacher, even as an administrator.
LSTC has this ultimate aim firmly in mind when its mission statement asserts that this school “forms visionary leaders”—penultimate aim, yes, but don’t stop there—“to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.” Of course seminaries must form leaders, and of an ever more diverse variety, but the real point about leaders is that they in turn encourage and support bold, creative witness by every disciple in the many places those leaders will never go. The future of theological education relies on shifting the relative weight onto just such a witness to the gospel, with leadership formation in service to that. Without such a reweighting of our work, theological education represents just another route to careerism, and in a field that, in case you haven’t noticed, isn’t terribly well-paid by comparison to others.
You might well think that this larger purpose for theological education—proclamation of the gospel by all the faithful in daily life—sounds a lot like why the church itself exists, which is right. What we primarily try to do at a place like this isn’t self-generated and doesn’t drop from the sky. Theological education makes sense only when embedded in the larger movement of the church. It is this movement to which we are beholden and through which we engage our world—rather than other institutional forms like university, government, or profession, each of which has great value but none of which is centered upon making witness to Christ.
Without embarrassment or regret, we share in the concrete patterns and practices of the flawed yet faithful church, as but one part of a larger evangelical movement. Theological education is the portion of this movement charged with the intentional development of people for an informed witness in the world. And of course, there are many specific organizations through which this intentional development for informed witness happens, such as camps, schools, colleges, and other formative groups. Seminaries play one distinctive role in the ensemble of theological education amidst the wider movement of the church.
Something else comes with this, too. Embedded in the church, theological education recognizes its debts. We sail within a stream of ecclesial tradition that bears long-held wisdom to guide and sustain us. So, LSTC says it is a Lutheran seminary, which isn’t about the brand name on a franchise marquee, but refers to its particular voice within a larger chorus, the way it sings the good news. A Lutheran seminary should affirm and engage a Lutheran sense of being church. Now, that can include many things and much variation, but for me it centrally means becoming an ecclesia crucis, a church that bears the cross.
As Douglas John Hall so beautifully put it, the cross opens us “to manifest something like a new nonchalance about self and a new attention to the other.” For Lutherans, being ecclesia crucis means not staying at arm’s length from the world. Instead, we embrace the wounded, draw near the unlovely, have solidarity with the humiliated. If the church is like that, then seminaries are not for training repair crews to mend what’s broken or euthanize what’s moribund. What is learned here should instead propel us through the church toward those with whom Christ daily keeps company. I would want LSTC to equip that kind of discipleship in just such a church of the cross.
Of course, no matter how compelling the purpose of theological education, it contends today with a challenging new situation. Each of us could recite our own list of these challenges, from economic disarray, to eroded authority, to mainline decline, and so on. But notice what these problems have in common: they’re all about us. The stress in seminaries, so the story goes, is due to our financial condition, or our diminished respect, or our dwindling membership. And while there’s truth in that, I don’t think this is the most helpful way to look at the situation. As long as we name the challenges in this self-focused way, we imagine there’s something we could actually do that would really fix these problems, if we just tried harder, or invented a program, or hired the right person.
When we approach our situation this way, though, we’re only making matters worse. For a very long time, seminaries held what’s called a “closed systems” view of their work. They had a rather narrow task and operated in fairly cloistered settings—like when Hartford Seminary was founded in the early nineteenth century as a farming commune. For much of this history, seminaries faced solely internal problems: how to get along, how to convey ideas, how to avoid impure influences. But around the time LSTC was founded in Hyde Park, schools adopted more of an “open systems” perspective. They recognized a somewhat wider ecology of social forces they needed to face.
Even so, new challenges were still framed from within a seminary’s own purview: how we fit into the neighborhood, how we build ecumenical partners, how we stem external problems. And this is still how many seminaries view their situation, from the inside looking out—but it’s of diminished if not depleted usefulness. What “neo-institutional theory” now shows us (and isn’t that an unglamorous name?) is that the challenges seminaries face are inherent to the institutional webs in which we are entangled. We intersect and often compete with other groups, interests, constituencies in a field where no one holds sway.
We aren’t at the center of an orderly solar system, a stable point from which to fix what ails us. Instead, it’s like we’re in a crowded, unpredictable asteroid belt, pulled by and bumping into those around us, local to global, and unable to chart our own course simply by dint of will.
That doesn’t sound very encouraging, but such realism can move us toward an honest and hopeful response. It’s not just that we need to look at our situation differently, but that the situation itself is now massively more complex. In light of this, seminaries can no longer view their problems from the inside looking out, as if we could chart our independent course toward a solution. Equally fruitless is the persistent fantasy that the major problems seminaries face are even “solvable” in any conventional sense.
Neo-institutionalism shows how multilayered and decentered our actual situation is, and thus the problems that roost there. Only rarely do seminaries face what are called technical problems. A technical problem is one you have the power to address through a single, simple solution that corrects it decisively, like flipping on a light switch when it’s dark, adjusting the thermostat when it’s cold, or (a seminary favorite) just having more cash. What seminaries usually face, though, are known as adaptive challenges. These involve conditions you can’t really change at all. There’s nothing to be fixed simply—only a situation you have to accept and engage.
What you then try to discern is a way through a challenge by interpreting it anew, or minimizing its burdens, or generating a compromise. The net result is that no one is ever fully satisfied with the outcome. It’s just the best that can happen right now given an intractable reality and its inevitable consequences. My point is not that seminaries now face an impossible situation, but that addressing this situation calls for partnerships more than solitary action, and adaptive responses more than technical fixes. This also highlights why a seminary must be guided by a clear sense of its purpose, one that draws upon the wisdom and community of the church.
Given the purpose of theological education and the situation it faces today, what does that suggest about the concerns LSTC should address in the next few years? I’m actually a bit hesitant to outline this, not because I lack for concrete proposals but because these should never be arrived at unilaterally. Please receive these ideas, then, as gestures toward a future conversation rather than goods deposited as my “take it or leave it” position. So, if LSTC’s work would be not just forming leaders but ones who discern and develop a witness to Christ by all the faithful in daily life, and if this participates in Lutheran church practices, forms, and wisdom, then what concerns should be addressed as soon as possible? I’ll name just five, understanding these to be both research concerns for the seminary as an intellectual space in the church and formative concerns in preparing leaders for our church.
First, LSTC should reclaim a public voice that can intelligently, helpfully intersect with other discourses that shape our common life. The church’s native, theological discourse should inform the work of every rostered leader, so that all disciples might grow in the competence and confidence to render an account of the faith within them, wherever their vocations are found. We have an alternative story to offer, one that is honest about our false and deadly ways, and that shows a Christ who brings not judgment or annihilation but abundant life.
Second, LSTC should model a peaceful manner in engaging other people in our tense and fractured world. So many forms of social interaction today are marred by the reduction of people to single-stranded identities, using bellicose rhetoric to amplify differences and shout demands. This school could study practices that lead to patient, irenic engagement with others, so that differences are valued in a spirit of kindness and generosity. It could also teach practices that contribute to healing for those who have been traumatized by such hostile encounters.
Third, LSTC should embody a deeply Lutheran form of community as ecclesia crucis. This could be exemplified in relation to the school’s own actual neighbors, as well as being the standard for assessing its varied forms of contextual education, internship, and ecclesial partnerships. Not only should the emphasis be how to prepare leaders for a church that bears the cross, but also how to prepare congregations to receive just those kinds of leaders. I think this also extends to rethinking how Christian community interacts with neighbors of other faith traditions.
Fourth, LSTC should explore forms of authentic discipleship beyond typical membership and participation. Many faithful people, especially the youngest ones, are dubious of religious groups and yet hunger for a meaningful community beyond their private spiritual inclinations. What will religious participation mean in the coming years, and what forms of religious leadership will identify and cultivate such involvement? The school could pioneer new ways to participate and to lead that leave room for seeking, doubt, experimentation, and varied forms of discipleship.
Finally, and in service to these other concerns, LSTC should orient its educational program toward acquiring a ministry phronesis—the practical judgment that religious leaders need to face unforeseen situations and demands. While courses and curricula must continue to draw from the insights of various scholarly fields, such disciplines aren’t so helpful for arranging what is taught or how, unless you simply wish to reproduce the academic guild. If the aim instead is leaders who can discern and develop a wider witness by all, then the plan for learning should promote that wisdom.
You might have named other concerns besides (or entirely!) to which LSTC should turn, but these are mine for now: to speak publicly, to manifest peace, to bear sorrows, to nurture faithfulness, to garner wisdom. I’m not saying that these would become new programs here. They’re more like distinct musical notes, a chord that resonates with the history and gifts of this school while setting the tone for what happens from this point on, in research and in teaching, whether at prayer or in community life or through formation.
While there’s much more to be said about the intricate challenges seminaries face, you’ll be relieved to learn I will restrain myself, trusting these will arise in later conversations. Instead, as one of the nicest narcissists I ever knew was fond of saying: “Well, enough about me. Now you talk about me.” Okay, not about me really, but about what we’re all doing here—and not just that, but about that not-so-simple question on the future of theological education and LSTC’s faithful place in that. For now, I am thankful for your attention to my words, and yet more eager than before to hear yours.