Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Ministers as Public Theologians

I'm flattered that my Boy In the Bands has referenced me twice in the past two days:

His movie reviews are fun, but I'd like to call your attention to his response to a conversation we're having in the comments section over at Philocrites.

In the original conversation, Philocrites posted about the Commission on Appraisal's study of theological unity within Unitarian Universalism, which led to a wider discussion of who might be able to, or called to, or empowered to, articulate such a unity. Should it be the staff at 25 Beacon Street leading the charge? The seminaries? Currently active ministers? Laymen and women?
And who finances such an effort? I know from personal experience that a $60K debt from my M.Div. leaves a Ph.D or Th.D impossible to pursue, unless I manage to hook some really rich guy who wants to support me and pay back the U.S. Dept. of Education while I study.

I'm not even sure I'd be able to quit the parish even if that happened -- I love it too much. And shouldn't a theologian be firmly located within the community of faith? IMHO, we don't need more academic theologians. We need living theology, worked out and tested against the realities of the church.

So you all know what I'm doing: I'm going at snail's pace for a D.Min., a much lighter-weight degree that will be earned in painful inches over late nights and early mornings between other ministerial duties. I hope to be able to make some small contribution to a richer Unitarian Universalist life through my doctoral project, but I certainly don't expect to add anything original or brilliant to the theological conversation.

In the comment section over at Philocrites, Fausto snottily charges that although our current crop of ministers are "wonderful and compassionate people," (talk about damning praise!) he doubts that our theological talent is wide or deep. From the sound of it, we're good at holding hands in the hospital and going to rallies, but our preaching is theologically vapid.

I had a few things to say about that, which you can read here:


But really. Not only is this assessment bone-headed because of its broad and unkind generalization (I immediately wondered how many sermons Fausto could possibly have heard or even read by a great sampling of our ministers), it shows a remarkable lack of acquaintance with the expectations placed on ministers which actively interfere with their ability to act as serious theologians.

I know dozens and dozens of ministers who have so much more theological erudition than is ever revealed in their sermons, or in their conversation. Whether Unitarian Universalist or other, I can say for sure that the ministers of my acquaintance barely dare reveal how much they know, how much they understand, how deeply they resonate with particular theological concepts, how hard they've thought about it, how much they think about it, and where they specifically locate themselves within their various traditions. Again and again, ministers find that to do so opens them to risks of accusation that they are elitist, that they are just showing off their "book larnin'," and that all this deep thinking is of no use to the everyday arts of ministry. So most ministers I know find two or three laymen or women they know also treasure theological rumination and go deeply into such exploration with them or with colleagues, while otherwise hiding their theological lights under the bushel of professional survival.

I doubt that this is true for rabbis, which may be exactly why Judaism manages to survive despite the world's ardent efforts to violently eradicate it, and Jews themselves.


Blogger fausto said...

I responded at length over at Philocrites.

I think you're responding to a different proposition than what I'm trying to say. I didn't mean to suggest that all UU ministers are shallow, which is what you seem to think I wanted to say.

I did mean to say that some are, and that this can be even graver weakness in a denomination like ours that does not rest on a shared theological foundation than in one that does. I think our lack of a common theological orientation makes the minister's own theological fluency more important than in other denoms, not less.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Dearheart, when you make a comment about "our present body of clergy," there ain't no way you're not suggesting that we're all shallow.

Next time, use qualifiers. The word "some" or "in my experience" would have achieved your purpose.

The rest of what you say, I'm hip to. But keep in mind that many UUs are going to scream "CREEDAL" the minute anyone tries to suggest that we have a theological foundation, or tries to move us beyond that blobby fluidity that comforts so many of our orthodoxy-allergic members.

Blogger fausto said...

As I also said on the Philo thread, that's not what I meant, even if it's how it sounded, and I apologize.

I spoke to the "creedal" point on the Philo thread, too. It may be that before we can reclaim the substantive depth we once possessed but more recently seem to have abandoned, we'll have to drive a stake through the heart of the creedlessness-as-dogma attitude that seems so prevalent today.

We should be a home for many theologies, rather than none.

Blogger res publica said...

In my experience, the theological erudition of UU ministers is roughly the same as that of other mainline Protestant clergy, which is to say: uneven. I have known UU ministers who were dippy flakes, as well as some who I would count among the wisest people I have ever known. Since I decamped from the UUA for the Episcopal Church, I have observed approximately the same spread of sages and fools among Episcopal priests. And since the educational requirements for the clergy of the mainline churches are basically the same (M.Div. and CPE, with some sort of congregational or diocesan sponsorship), that's no surprise.

I think PeaceBang is also right to point out how few social/congregational rewards usually await the preacher who demonstrates theological rigor and calls her congregation to depth. Certainly, this is not universally true, but in liberal congregations, the generally anti-intellectual thrust of American culture meets the Whitmanesque strain of romanticism that, "Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticism" (a.k.a. “graduate school”), believes that the soul's truth is invariably simple and found on the "open road". This meeting can issue forth in a subtle but pernicious anti-theological bias.

Finally, I would gently suggest that there is a tiny grain of truth in Fausto’s argument, although I doubt it’s in any way special to Unitarian Universalism. Despite having generally high academic standards for their clergy, I do think that the mainline denominations have a slight preference for interpersonal skills. In the final analysis, that’s probably for the best. Most parish clergy will serve small-to-midsize churches where they will be the only minister on staff. They will necessarily be pastors more than theologians. There will be exceptions, of course. I am happy to say that my own rector is such an exception: a preacher of unusual depth and thoughtfulness. He is, I might add, almost painfully dull and distant in one-on-one conversation, but since he is the rector of a large historic church with five other priests on staff, he can get away with that.

Ministers who are both great pastors and great theologians are rare indeed, and blessings to their churches. Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth come to mind, but I don’t think you can make some adjustment to the seminary curriculum such that all or even a predictable proportion of graduates demonstrate such rare and timely gifts. In the mean time, most of the others do their best, and with grace, that is enough.

Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

I applaud your choice of D.Min as opposed to a Ph.D or Th.D.

While the later 2 are important i disagree that in order for our ministers to be affective and relevant to our faith they need to also be theologians. A D.Min is one of applicaition and process.

I wish you the best!

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Res, of *course* there's a grain of truth -- and more than that -- in Fausto's claims. I just felt it was my responsibility to point out that (1) he way over-generalized, and unfairly and (2)the shallowness problem is every bit as much the fault of a theology-resistant laity as it is a clerical weakness and (3) there is a Secret Life of Ministers that, in my fairly broad experience, has a lot to do with a passion for theology that is considered impolitic to reveal.

I'm glad Philocrites' original post has generated so much discussion.

Blogger Adam Tierney-Eliot said...

Hey There!

I posted a not-so-coherent ramble at philocrities about thise. However, there is another thing I have been wondering about...

I have found that my experience in the ministry has pushed me to think theologically much more than my experience at seminary which pushed me to get papers done. (I was going to comment on King Kongs but just couldn't so it, PB!) Is this the case with others as well, or did I just miss the boat in school?

Also, I hear much about these "study groups" from my colleagues but do not belong to one. Is there a way to get their papers?


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