“To teach is to create a space where obedience to truth is practiced.”
(Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known)
Despite all anecdotal evidence to the contrary, traffic circles do not exist to test the skill of drivers or the agility of their vehicles, or to cause the premature greying of any passengers within those vehicles. Whether they are called circles, roundabouts, or rotaries, a traffic circle is designed to facilitate multiple streams of traffic occupying a single juncture, allowing vehicles to change direction and stay on their intended course without forcing a yield or halting the flow of traffic as it moves through the circle.
Likewise, despite the old joke that seminary equals cemetery, graduate theological education is not designed to kill the faith of those who enter their hallowed halls (whether they be onsite or virtual), run up student loans, or hold back people from entering the ministry. Whether they are called seminary, divinity schools, or theological colleges, the purpose of Christian theological graduate studies is to educate persons in matters of Christian faith so that they might better engage the world around them. Most seminaries today offer multiple degree and certificate programs that can be earned in a variety of ways (onsite, online, and hybrid) so persons can be more thoroughly equipped to pursue God’s calling into Christian ministry.
Neither traffic circles nor formal theological education is for the faint of heart. A driver approaching a traffic circle not only needs to know where they are headed along with the rules of the road to navigate the circle, but they also benefit from a certain confidence in their driving abilities, combined with a healthy respect for other vehicles so that they might successfully navigate the circle. For those contemplating a formal theological education, it is helpful to have an intended goal for their chosen degree or certificate program as well as commitments or a plan for managing resources (time as much as money) as they navigate coursework. And for all the confidence they need that their seminary pursuits are worthwhile and achievable, students also benefit from an awareness that they will encounter ideas that will help them think in new ways, which may, in turn, alter their understanding of the world that they might better serve God and the world as a result. Whereas vehicles exiting traffic circles are meant to be in the same roadworthy condition as when they entered the circle, a person who has completed seminary has hopefully encountered the profound truth of God in deeply penetrating ways so that they are changed as a result.
Of course, Christian seminaries want such a change to be positive—one that builds up both the church and the academy for the sake of God’s kingdom. Seminary education is positioned to do just that: host a space in which the things of God are not simply known cognitively but encountered and experienced. When such encounters and experiences happen in community, we are afforded greater insights into the deep truth of the goodness of God. Our experience of the eternal truth of God’s love will always be finite, but our perspective for understanding the wideness of God’s mercy is increased when we include others.
At the beginning of each course, I ask my seminary students to write down their personal goals for the class. Most share that they are looking forward to the opportunity to read and study a particular theologian or explore a tradition that they might discover relevant applications for their ministry setting. Then, toward the end of class, I ask them to reflect on those goals and evaluate them. The answers vary, but I can regularly anticipate a cadre of students who have invested themselves in the class and in one another throughout the semester to report that they have learned something they hadn’t expected. Often, this new insight is illuminating and exciting, especially helpful because they see more clearly or expansively than before because of engaged conversation with one another. And when this insight is complimented with practical application within their ministry context, whether it be preaching preparation, a pivotal conversation with a congregant, or evaluating a community event, the experience is particularly rewarding for both student and teacher as they have seen how learning serves the church. I seldom know where their learning is going to lead them—or what new insights and avenues will open up for me—but I trust that our encounter with God isn’t over when final grades are posted.
Graduate theological education is a formal opportunity for faith to seek understanding. It is a faithful act of discipleship for those called to lead others in Christian ministry. No doubt, there are alternative routes that avoid seminary and traffic circles. But the opportunity to navigate through them affords us insights, skills, and understanding about God that will have residual returns as we continue the journey.