Towards an Urban Seminary

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 21, 2005

I’d like to direct your attention to a series of intriguing posts by the newest addition to my blogroll, Jamie Arpin-Ricci.  He’s written several posts on "imagining" an urban seminary (post 1, post 2, post 3).  Now, some of you may say, "there already ARE urban seminaries!" Yes indeed.  To this, Jamie says:

"Throughout North American, many seminaries are either not urban or, if
they are in urban locations, function in a bubble. This isn”t true of
all schools…but it
is still a discouraging trend.  I also think that more school needs to integrated with the urban poor.
I know that I mentioned that urban ministry is more than inner city
ministry, but there is a still a great imbalance in the Church in their
emphasis (or lack thereof) on the poor & marginalized."

Here’s more of what Jamie has to say:

As the world is becoming increasingly
urbanized, the locality of the Church, including its missional
communities, educational institutions, etc. must intentionally respond
by alligning themselves with this new reality, both in emphasis and
physical locality.  However, we must understand that this is more than
proximity of buildings and ministries, but by necessity is a calling
for the radical relocation of our lives to urban contexts…

Part of the challenge with having Seminaries which speak to urban contexts is that Seminaries are almost inherently separated from context.  If we want to have urban Seminaries that are authentically shaped by their urban contexts, we’ll need the following:

  1. Seminary education should be longer, and have its internship components woven throughout the seminary experience. 
  2. Seminaries need to resist the impulse to become completely commuter campuses.  Living on campus could be utilized to help foster a truly missional education, but only if living on campus meant "living in the neighborhood" rather than "living within the bubble."
  3. Seminaries need to be set free from its captivity to the Academy.  I’m saying this as someone who intends to start a PhD in the near future.  I realize that intellectual rigor is important, but some of the academic structures work against the ideal of a contextualized urban seminary.  Some of these are: having only PhDs as professors, requiring that students be conversant with well-known Western theologians, when their time may be better spent conversing with other global voices, and the emphasis on writing and research rather than on ministry development projects.
  4. We need to broaden our standards.  Too often, we assume that quality ministry leadership requires a formal seminary education.  If I were to start the ideal urban seminary, odds are it wouldn’t pass accreditation standards.  In other words, someone could go through the ideal urban ministry training, which is filled with hands on experience and rigorous constructive theological training, and not be an "M.Div." We need to find alternative ways of evaluating someone’s education…perhaps a tougher application process.

These are just a few of my thoughts.  Anyone want to chime in?

for further reading . . .

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7 Responses to “Towards an Urban Seminary”

  1. Jamie Arpin-Ricci on December 21st, 2005 9:55 pm

    Thanks for the shout out. Great blog!


  2. Chris B. on December 22nd, 2005 2:09 pm

    I’m usually with people when they talk about reforming theological education. There are so many things wrong with seminary education right now, I think it’s easy to see what needs to be changed.

    Where most people lose me, and where you just lost me, Mark, is when people attack the idea of accreditation and PhD level professorship. There are plenty of people out there who have PhD level educations through self-study or some other method outside academia (real world experience, for example). But it doesn’t matter how well educated or experienced they are if they don’t have credentials to prove it. I could be ready to win the gold medal in the 200 meter dash at the 2008 Olympics, but if I don’t qualify for the Olympics, I won’t run. The system of accreditation is a really terrible one, but you can’t decide to bypass it or ignore it and expect your vision of an urban seminary to pass muster in the realm of ideas. Now, I’m not against the idea of the seminary itself having different internal measures of success, I just think you have to connect those measures to the accreditation system if you want them to matter outside that seminary. That is, incidentally, why PhD work matters. It may be an arbitrary measure on some level, even the level you’re talking about. But in most ways, it is not, because it represents countless more hours of study and work than any other level of education.

  3. Van S on December 22nd, 2005 4:35 pm

    I don’t think we’re as far a part on this matter as you think, Chris. I’m not in favor of completely dismissing the accreditation system. You and I have talked about having different “tracks” for scholarly students and those who want to focus on ministry. I’m basically asking for something similar. If the goal of an organization, or a particular program, is to prepare godly leaders for contextual ministry, I think we need to ask how to do that in the best way possible before we hamstring ourselves with accreditation. It may mean that we have some programs that are accredited for continued education, but I suspect we’d end up with some terminal seminary degrees which aren’t useful except for simply training people for ministry. I guess I’m asking for more options, rather than a dismantling of our current options. Am I making sense?

  4. Chris B. on December 23rd, 2005 1:49 am

    I see what you’re saying, I would probably have to see how it worked out in the actual curriculum though. If there were a combination of accredited and non-accredited degrees, then you may risk having basically two seminaries in one organization. I also balk at the idea of having a distinction between “scholarly” students and those focused on “ministry.” In the end, we can’t throw the baby (theological education) out with the bathwater (accreditation), even though the bathwater is extremely filthy and full of various diseases. Wait, it’s got to be your baby…

  5. Van S on December 23rd, 2005 5:46 am

    Yeah, I would have the same concerns. My thoughts in this post were pretty introductory…trying to get some thoughts flowing. I’m not a fan of having basically two seminaries. And I don’t like the idea of having ministry students fluffing through without dealing with difficult scholarly issues and scholars fluffing through without dealing with difficult matters of praxis. However, there are some inherent flaws with the system. It is based upon a very fractured, segmented way of learning. It also helps feed the clergy/laity distinction.

    And even if one tries to obliterate teh clergy/laity distinction on paper, you’re still left with a huge functional divide between the learned and not-learned. Even if you have a very egalitarian church model, you’re still left with a form of clericism within the academy and seminary.

    I think monastic approaches or intensives approaches hold promise. I also think seminary as it is has a role to play, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the extractionistic approach seminaries are forced to have (take the student out of a ministry context). I’m also frustrated that once you train someone for 4 years, they carry so much debt that they are basically forced to become functional clergy. Those of us who don’t like the idea of being “clergy” might say “well, I’ll just go ahead and get a PhD so that I can teach for my job.” But in the end, this is basically as much a priestly role as clergy.

    So, how do we proceed?

  6. Arloa on December 26th, 2005 12:02 am

    Thanks for bringing up the topic. I think it warrants a lot of discussion. I am presently writing my dissertation for a DMin from the Bakke Graduate University in Seattle and just finished writing the following…

    The “Urban Ministries” Training Challenge–

    Those of us who are not from the city are the ones who have created the categorical definition of “urban ministry”. To those who have lived and worked in the city all of their lives it is just “ministry”. Similarly, I did not consider the ministry at the little rural church in Ashton, Iowa where I grew up to be a “rural ministry”. It was simply “ministry”.

    Since those of us who are outsiders have created “urban ministry” the ones who most often teach and participate in “urban ministry” studies, tend to be relative outsiders to the urban environment. Most of my “urban ministry” training has been taught to me by relative newcomers to the city. The participants have also been primarily white and of rural or suburban background.

    In designing BUILD, the Breakthrough Urban Institute of Leadership Development, it seemed to makes sense that those who best know and understand a culture, those who have lived it and who know it from the inside, would be best equipped to teach outsiders about their culture. Rather than me, from a farm in Iowa, trying to train suburban or rural transplants to the city, it seemed it would be more productive for all of us to listen to those who know the culture as they in turn are emboldened to describe their experience and share their perspectives in a safe environment.

    We decided this type of training could be best accomplished by adopting the Tranformative Learning Approach developed and pioneered by adult learning theorist, Jack Mezirow, author of Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning and Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. Mezirow?s theory is built upon the philosophy of Paulo Friere who wrote the books, Pedagogy of Hope and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

    We designed a twelve week course based upon the experience of participating in a diverse group with ample representation of minorities and lifelong city dwellers. We are not presently accredited, but hope to link up with seminaries near Chicago to provide BUILD as an accredited elective course.

  7. snoble on December 27th, 2005 10:55 am

    Good post. This topic reminds me of a discussion I had recently with a friend. We lamented the close relationship many evangelicals have with power structures in society.

    And, related to this, the role of the Church in relating to society (very Yoderian emphasis). Which makes me wonder if the role of the Seminary shouldn’t be more a function of the Church–and not as a separate entity. I don’t have a clue how we would go about establishing this, but I wonder if Seminaries (and those who its students minister to) would be better suited if the Church played a more central role in their existence.

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