Chutney rants (correctly) about ministry

Chutney (Making Chutney) has a little rant about ministerial ordination and education where he throws a big wet blanket on the conventional mainline ministerial formation process. I read it in context of some of the tight-sphinctered replies at the infamous post at PeaceBang’s Beauty Tips for Ministers. For the record, he and I both have seminary M.Div.s.

Let me riff on where Chuts was going, though he might disagree with my output. I am high-church enough (but just barely) to believe that there can be no substantive Christian formation outside the church. I don’t truck with some Reaganesque tickle-down idea of formation from a pontiff, synod or central office, but private notions of Christianity in full bloom grow in weird, dysfunctional and sometimes harmful ways. Pass the Kool Aid. (I’ve long heard that Jim Jones tried to be a Unitarian Universalist minister but was sloughed out of the process. Does anyone know if there’s any truth in that? The Disciples of Christ ended up with him — I went to a Disciples seminary — which has since caused a great deal of soul-searching and accountability-making.)

Behind the people who demonstrate grace and wisdom to help make Christian believers is the church: the support system and conduit of tradition and story. Sometimes the behind the scenes part of the church is hard to identify. I take my own experience as one example. I was brought up unchurched. Almost. My recently deceased paternal grandmother saw to it that my brother and I were baptized and I held on to my baptism when I had nothing else (and little understanding) Christian to fall back on. The church, particularly the Baptists and Lutherans, provided the cultural images that supplemented my parents’ moral sense.

Sometimes Christians — especially on the Evangelical side of things — harbor a “Great Man” view of Christian formation. Something like John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. Sure it’s grace that coverts the sinner, but it sounds like grace plus, with the plus being some particular effort or strength of character. Every time I hear the story of Wesley’s conversion or read the snow storm passage in Emerson’s Divinity School Address, I get the feeling that the other people in worship are completely incidental — “merely spectral” — to Truth. Not a healthy way to be Christian, if it is Christian at all. (I can forbear John Wesley more than Emerson considering how each ministry turned out.)

In a related point, the peril of Christianity in the UUA is that the ties to the Church Universal can be stretched but only to a point. After two generations or so, the cord snaps. Either the remaining Christians will need to find some deep communion with a Christian body — mainly through the reaffiliation or plural affiliation of churches, I guess; church planting seems hopeless — or it will die out in my lifetime.

This has rather gone on farther than I planned and I have strayed from the matter of ministerial formation; I blame my rhuemy eyes and headcold. Let me be plain. Better a minister unschooled but nurtured at length by a church than a minister seminary-trained but oblivious to the charism of the church. I’ve seen both; they exist. The former can pick up an education — and often do — and the latter can be “re-tooled” to be churchly and often do.

My objection is thinking that the seminary degree is, of itself, sufficient and exclusive formation for anyone doing God’s ordained work beacuse that’s what it sounds like some people are saying. And I bet that’s what the laity hear.

This is post #1500.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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