Solving the Case of the Missing Mojo (2): Institutions Matter!

An earlier entry on this blog (“How Conservative Presbyterianism Lost Its Mojo”) regarding the apparent lack of broader influence of conservative Presbyterian leadership has provoked some interesting discussion.  For example, Darryl Hart used his at bat to take a swipe at his bête noire, Tim Keller, but he also raises some good questions about historical perspective.  Scott Clark dismissed what I had to say on the curious grounds that I’m a “theologian” (like Clark, my doctoral work was in historical theology).  He went on to challenge the idea that objective standards of measurement indicate decline, and he seems to regard the proliferation of conservative Reformed seminaries as a good thing.  Not surprisingly,  he thinks the problems of the community stem from a lack of robust confessionalism.  Reading between the lines, a conviction underlying both of these posts seems to be that we as Reformed Christians are called to be faithful rather than successful and influential, and it’s difficult to argue with that.

Particularly interesting were Matt Tuininga’s extended thoughts on the issue.  He seems to concur with the basic thrust of the original post: “What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.”  Tuininga goes on to provocatively suggest that a “tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present.”  There was also some good give-and-take over on the Puritanboard.

Not surprisingly, this discussion seems to have touched a nerve.  After all, nobody welcomes marginalization and decline.  But as I noted at the end of the original post, description of the problem is one thing; solutions are quite another.   Reasons for this are multiple—the problems are both structural and ideological/theological, and these rather different sorts of problems are interrelated and thus cannot be discussed in isolation.

In a second post on the topic (“Solving the Case of the Missing Mojo [1]: Discernment and Interpretation Do Matter”) I focused on matters of theological method and style.  In a nutshell, my argument was that the broader cultural tensions have made us appear defensive, sectarian, and unpleasant, and have drawn some of  us into a series of theological moves that just dig us further and further into the hole of irrelevancy.  For instance, to the extent that we travel down theological cul-de-sacs such as literalistic views of origins (in the face of compelling exegetical considerations that have long been evident) we appear less than serious.  In this post we will focus more on the institutional dimension of the larger problem, with special attention to the status of denominations and the role of seminaries.

It should be obvious to most by now that the statistical state of the conservative Reformed community of churches is not terribly encouraging—the member churches of NAPARC are largely either plateaued or in slight decline (recent reports indicate relatively small gains and losses).  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.  The broader pattern is that of a community of churches failing to maintain place in the larger American context.  Ethnicity (or the functional equivalent of it) and narrow theological niche marketing continue to be decisive for the denominational identity of some of these groups, and those are not recipes for broader influence.

The reality is that in the broader scheme of things (e.g., as compared to the diversity of mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholics) the NAPARC churches are amazingly similar on the doctrinal level—they all take the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity seriously.  Furthermore, simple economy-of-scale and redundancy considerations suggest that separate existence doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Ironically, NAPARC was formed with the express intention to “hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.”  But aside from periodic urgings from the RPCNA and the URCNA and books from people like John Frame we don’t hear much about that these days.

So, if conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches want to have more influence, they need seriously to reconsider both the ongoing practical difficulties and the theological scandal of maintaining separate existence.

Another limiting factor is the way that broader Evangelicalism’s parachurch impulse is also reflected in the conservative Reformed context.  In his recent book Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ponders Evangelicalism’s lack of cultural clout.  He attributes this Evangelical “cultural deficit” in part to “an unwillingness or inability on the part of Evangelicals to build the kind of institutions necessary to a vibrant Christian culture,” and here he especially highlights the impulse toward parachurch organizations.   He adds, “This in turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the ‘para’ groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations.”

A partial exception to this parachurch pattern is the Presbyterian Church in America, which has had some notable success creating churchly synergy with, for example, Reformed University Ministries sending students to Covenant Seminary, and Covenant Seminary sending graduates back into RUM and other denominational agencies like Mission to North America.   But such thoughtful denominational infrastructure building has been more the exception than the rule in the NAPARC context, and we need soberly to consider how much creativity, time, and financial resources currently go into parachurch organizations, especially as such efforts are unlikely to have either decisive long-term impact or institutional staying power.  Again Douthat writes, “For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders.”  He’s right, and the fact that he is Roman Catholic doesn’t make it any less true.

This, in turn, leads us naturally to the issue of seminaries.  I’ve said it before, but it is at least interesting that, for all the blather about a high ecclesiology in conservative Reformed circles, the prevailing model of conservative Reformed theological education is a parachurch one.   By contrast, the presence of strong denominational seminaries is one of the reasons why Southern Baptist influence is what it is, while conservative Reformed seminaries tend to be small, tuition-driven, and struggling.

But the problems of seminary education extend well beyond the limitations inherent in the parachurch model.  Awhile back I posted a brief article on another site dealing with the prospects of seminary education (“Whither the Seminary Model?”).  In it I argued that the seminary model (which, lest we forget, is barely two centuries old) is in something of a crisis and that there are a number of persistent problems.  The first is that it has been an important contributor to the formal “professionalization” of the clergy, except that the gospel ministry is not a “profession” like law or medicine, and recent economic trends have simply reinforced that difference as ministerial compensation falls further and further behind (as Douthat and others have noted).

Second, there is the economic expense inherent in the model, as candidates for the ministry are expected to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree (with the debt that often entails) before undertaking three or four years of seminary (and incurring further debt).  And all this as preparation for a job that doesn’t pay all that much on average.

Third, there is the problem of educational quality.  This is an uncomfortable matter but it needs to be recognized.  Simply put, while excellent students still decide to go to seminary, the average seminary student now is not as academically strong as before, and seminaries have responded by lowering the bar.  And I’m not just talking about the sort of students who go to seminary for personal therapy reasons (this seems to be more of a problem at seminaries that service the liberal Protestant denominations).  Some seminaries have adapted to the new situation with open-admissions policies, distance-education options, and lowered grading standards—the net result of which is that seminary education is often less demanding than undergraduate work at quality liberal arts colleges.  I used to commiserate with a teaching colleague on this point.  With teaching experience on both the seminary and college levels, the two of us realized that we could challenge our college-level students academically in ways that simply did not work  with our seminary students.

Finally, there is the problem of redundancy.  Students from good undergraduate programs in Bible and Religion often find that a significant amount of their seminary work is  a rehash.  Though this is a topic for another post, I’m now pretty much convinced that we can do a qualitatively better and much more efficient job of preparing ministers with four years of well-thought-out undergraduate education plus an additional year of study and an internship.  Of course, making this work will require churches moving from a transcript-based model of ministerial education to a competency-based model, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or when that will happen.

Interestingly, the legal profession, which has long used a similar model of professional education, is now looking seriously at significant changes to the way attorneys are trained.  Given that it is a lot easier to pass an ordination examination in many conservative Presbyterian denominations than to pass the bar, it only makes sense to look at this issue of ministerial training carefully.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that the seminary model will disappear.  Nor should it.  It works wonderfully well for some students, and I remember my own seminary days in Philadelphia with gratitude.  But there need to be other appropriate academic options for ministerial training as well.

In short, the broader picture is at least disquieting, and something needs to be done.  In addition to problems of efficiency and effectiveness noted above, we now have a situation in which some seminaries are contributing to the theological Balkanization of the Reformed churches as they try to carve out ideological market niches, and that in turn undercuts the unity of the church.

To bring this post to a merciful conclusion, if we in the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches want to have more influence we need to think carefully and urgently about both denominational consolidation and building denominational infrastructure for the long haul.  To be sure, there are factors that will make this difficult.  Reformed denominations are social as well as doctrinal entities, with their own webs of personal ties, inertia, and institutional interests.  As a former moderator of a NAPARC denomination, I’m quite aware that this is difficult to overcome.

In addition, there is the too common Reformed penchant for theological hairsplitting that has all kinds of fissiparous ecclesiological implications.  Having been baptized in the PCUSA and successively a member of the RPCES, the PCA (by virtue of Joining and Receiving), the CRC, and the ARPC I understand all this.  This is the world that I inhabit.  But something needs to change.