Leaders of the Association of Theological Schools noticed in all the discussion that followed this announcement, hardly any religious leaders were interviewed about this issue or commented on it. Why not? they wondered. How come fewer religious leaders today exercise public leadership than in the past? And what role do—and should—theological seminaries have in interpreting public events and in training persons to provide public leadership?
To help find answers, the ATS, with Lilly Foundation funding, asked four groups to explore the issue from the perspectives, respectively, of evangelical, university-related, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant seminaries. I was one of four UCC members in a small conference of mainline church folk, chaired by the Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck of Andover Newton Theological School. Our group included three seminary presidents and four seminary faculty.
We learned that all 15 of us had a passionate concern for the ordering of a civil community. But we also heard from a seminary president that most seminary applicants today do not have a sense of social conscience or a commitment to the common good. We learned that "defining moments" had helped shape who most of us are—and that "defining practices" (daily meditation, singing in the choir, tithing) help us maintain our identity. We agreed that theological education ought to be a transforming activity and seminaries ought to embody counter-cultural realities. We discovered how important mentors had been in our development as well as curricula, field education and internships that had pointed us outside the church. And we learned that all of us self-consciously ground our public ministry in theology (e.g., creation, baptism, incarnation).
Some of our recommendations? That seminaries' mission statements include a commitment to public leadership, that seminary boards support this commitment, that seminary faculties model public leadership, that seminary curricula and training opportunities prepare students for community leadership as well as (or as part of) parish ministry, and that seminary budgets support training for public leadership.
Seminaries too often train students for an out-of-date mandate. Besides traditional courses, today's religious leaders need skills training in advocacy, organizational life and media. They also need practice in using their imaginations to apply basic biblical and theological values to previously unthinkable situations, such as the Internet and cloning. That way perhaps they can comment intelligently on the cloning of sheep rather than following the crowd like so many sheep themselves.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.