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Thinking Out Loud

A School for the Lord's Service

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 05, 2017

HumilityOne day this summer, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of our fall term, I decided to read The Rule of St. Benedict straight through.

What began as an act of discipline, and, frankly, a bit of a chore, quickly became a delight. I had never before read the whole thing in one sitting, but reading it that way, especially right before the school year began, I saw parallels I had never before noticed between the mission of Benedict's monastic community and that of the seminary.

Anyone who has been following the literature on theological schools for the past twenty-five years or so will know that our seminaries don't suffer from a lack of analysis. That can be helpful. But, then, as one leader quipped a few years ago, most organizations fail for "non-analytical reasons." (They don't do the things they know they ought to do.) Sometimes analysis keeps us paralyzed from taking action, particularly analysis that divides us into opposing camps. And anyone who has followed the literature on theological education also knows that we have been locked in something of a feud over exactly what a theological school is for a very long time.

One model of theological education sees a seminary as a "school of the church," primarily an institution where future ordained leaders in a denomination are taught what is expected of them by their tradition. Another model sees the seminary as a professional school, where men and women receive the educational qualifications they need to function in their chosen profession of ministry. Still another model understands the theological school as a graduate school, the purpose of which is to provide the latest and best academic scholarship and tools to conduct research in the various theological disciplines.

All of these models reflect realities. All of these models are reflected in one way or another in every good theological school. And all of them require not only that students be educated but also formed in various ways: churchly, professional and academic.

There is another model that I haven't yet mentioned, and it is the oldest by far. It is the model that lay the cornerstone for all future theological schools, and, indeed, for all the great universities. It is the model of theological education that is grounded in discipleship, forming persons in the faith with the understanding that such personal formation as Christians is essential to all the knowledge we acquire and every task we undertake.

This model need not be placed over/against the others, as though it is "the right" model. Really each model needs the others in order to achieve that balance essential for education and formation for ministry. But I would like to single out this last model today because the need is so great for seminaries to take on the role of passing on the faith and forming persons in it. We simply can't take this for granted any more. And to help us see better the potential of this model, I would like to return to its origin. This is the model that dominated St. Benedict's experience and was the result of his Rule, a small document from the sixth century consisting of seventy-three short chapters which, according to some, is second only to the Bible in the influence it has had in shaping Christian behavior for a millennium and a half.

Benedict envisioned a learning community of a very specific sort. God calls people, says Benedict. But they need to learn and to be formed in order to live the life God calls them to live and to do the work which the Lord calls them to do. "Therefore," Benedict writes in the Prologue to his Rule, "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service." With a clarity that has never again been achieved in an official church document, Benedict writes what he calls a "little rule ... for beginners." (Rule, p. 96)

As I think about the students who are just entering Louisville Seminary, Benedict's words, although intended for a monastic community, provide wise counsel to those of us in leadership and those of us who teach, as well as for our students.

"In drawing up [the community's] regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." (Rule, pp. 18-19)

Benedict's Rule sets its sights on the ends and purposes of the learning community. He writes:

"If you hear [God's call to follow] and your answer is, 'I do,' God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me, I will say to you: I am here." (Rule, 16-17)

Benedict's Rule not only casts a grand vision, it also gets into the nitty-gritty of the way his monastic community should live together. At first I suspected that the sections dedicated to the various offices of the monastery and other institutional details wouldn't be applicable to a seminary, but I was wrong. On virtually every page I discovered valuable lessons we would do well to learn.

Offices of the community are described (such as the abbot, deans, monastic cellarer and prior) with their responsibilities and authority; tools for living well together are provided in great detail; penalties for not living up to the community's covenant are explained, with restoration to community always the goal; orders for daily prayer, including which Psalms are sung when, are spelled out; principles of governance are laid down, placing a high value on what we would call a democratic approach, though reserving certain decisions for particular offices and bodies, tempered with a deep respect for order and a touch of political realism which I found surprising. The Scriptures provide the atmosphere the Rule of St. Benedict breathes, giving the motivation for virtually every regulation, from obedience to the abbot to the unconditional welcoming of guests (no matter what their faith or nationality or social status) into the monastery.

Members of the community are to place "the work of God" (that is, the services of daily prayer and worship) above every other duty, but they are also to engage in assigned manual work for the sake of the whole community and in study for their own edification. Repeatedly, woven into instructions in almost every section of the Rule, one finds a reminder that community members are to live together in humility, competing with one another in doing good. Again and again, particularly in what I have come to regard as the heart of the Rule, chapter 4, "The Tools for Good Works," Benedict marshals passages from every corner of Scripture to admonish the community members to love as Christ loved, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to never repay evil with evil, to refrain from judging others, to renounce yourself and to reject pride. Closing this section, Benedict describes the community as a workshop, what we might call a laboratory, where all of these virtues are practiced daily until they become habitual. (Rule, pp. 26-29)

It was while reading this section that I remembered something that happened several years ago, in the first years of my tenure as the academic dean at another Presbyterian seminary. I led that faculty into a revision of the school's curriculum. Before we began the fairly conventional work of looking directly at the curriculum, what we expected students to learn and how we envisioned that happening, we spent two years engaged in self-reflection and research, asking how we could better serve the church and society. In looking into the results of one of our research projects, as we disaggregated the findings of our study, isolating the responses of lay persons from those of ordained clergy and other groups, we found something fascinating.

When we asked the lay persons in congregations what they valued above all else in a church leader, they overwhelmingly said, "humility."

This was especially surprising because, given the variety of populations we were polling, this finding hadn't shown up before. The larger aggregated group included pastors, other church professionals such as Christian education directors, judicatory leaders and other religiously related professionals like chaplains, counsellors, leaders of social service agencies and so forth as well as the lay persons; these other categories of respondents simply had overwhelmed by their sheer numbers the findings from the lay people. The aggregated data told us that people value knowledge, expertise, and character in church leadership, but humility had only shown up way down the list of characteristics.

But the lay people, when their voices were allowed to be heard on their own, overwhelmingly, said that they wanted leaders who are humble. They said they wanted leaders who were not proud or puffed up. They wanted leaders who listened (as one lay person said) "as if I've got a brain too."

Someone in a group to which I presented this information asked, "So, how in the world is a seminary going to teach humility?" To which another member in the group responded, "I don't know, but we sure as fire have figured out how to teach arrogance in some schools. Why not humility?"

Maybe St. Benedict shows us a way to do what we need to do educationally and formatively to provide to the church and society the best leadership possible. We often say that seminary can't put in what God left out. But maybe it is more accurate, with Benedict, for us to say: "What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace." (Rule, p. 18)

Let us construct a life together in seminary that, while not short-changing the vital theological education we all value and the crucial knowledge that grants perspective and depth to our ministries, also provides the formation of character and Christian faith even more than professional formation, and which prefers wisdom over the mere acquisition of information, so that those who graduate from our theological seminaries will be the kind of persons from whom and beside whom and among whom the people of God will want to learn, worship and live.

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