Diving into the Deep End
The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle
Dean and President
The General Theological Seminary
For over a year now, I have done a lot of listening. Of all the constituencies, the one I have paid closest attention to is our customers. Yes, we have customers.
I hear from our customers – bishops, dioceses, our students, and significantly, our students’ future employers – that the greatest need they have in the 21st century Church is to have men and women graduate from seminary ready to “hit the ground running.” Frankly, I heard it so often that it’s almost like there is a conspiracy!
We have done a great job of turning out people who are smarter than when they arrived. We are home base for a learned clergy. For 197 years, we have excelled at this, but history is no guarantee of a successful future.
We – and all our seminary cousins – have largely ignored the final step in getting seminarians ready to hit the ground running. For 197 years, we have ended with education and formation and trusted the Church to fill in the final step of a seminarian’s development. But now, instead of gently wading into ministry, seminarians need to dive in head first – on the first day out.
It’s all about wisdom.
I have a theory about wisdom: it is only acquired two ways. First, you must authentically enter real life with all its dangers and have experiences which throw you up against others. Success and failure are key to this first part. We have all been there.
Second, you must practice making decisions. In order to walk in wisdom, you need to feel the weight of decision-making, make decisions, and then live with the consequences. Sometimes you will make good decisions, sometimes bad. It is a constant journey of learning from those decisions for the inevitable next decision.
Most importantly, you can’t teach wisdom; it must be learned. The only way to learn wisdom is to dive in. But seminary only provides a wading pool; real life in a parish or ministry is the deep end!
Our new initiative, The Way of Wisdom, is the deep end and its diving board is The Wisdom Year. Interested?
The Way of Wisdom
The Way of Wisdom is about total integration. Rather than separating education, formation and experience, The Way of Wisdom requires a complete blending of each. It is, as one noted theologian says, about creating a habitus. Simply put, it is a complete way of being.
Recognizing that The Way of Wisdom involves integrating all the disciplines of formation, our faculty has made a radical statement. It acknowledges the current state of seminary education everywhere and provides a proactive way forward. Read it fully at www.gts.edu/wisdom. I think it’s fantastic.
Through their work on The Way of Wisdom, beginning even last semester, we are erasing the lines between courses. Each offering will continue to be integrated with the next – and the one before it. Each will relate to what is happening in the real world, a world literally at our front door. Each will lead to a supervised and supported entry into that real world.
The Way of Wisdom is the deep end. Now for the diving board!
The Wisdom Year
As an integral part of The Way of Wisdom, in the Fall of 2015, we will embark on a radical change in seminary formation during the final year: The Wisdom Year.
Through partnerships with some of the 400 churches and dioceses in our area, third-year seminarians at General will get real jobs at real parishes and other ministry settings. More than field education, these part-time positions will be their first job using their seminary formation, full and rich with wisdom-developing experiences. Students will learn firsthand while being the pastor, preacher, and decision-maker. Wisdom year seminarians will struggle with – and act on – how to make the Church grow. In other words, they will immerse themselves in real life and begin to acquire real wisdom.
While in the first two years, students will have the classroom as their base; in the third year the dynamic will switch. The real-world experience will be the base, and the classroom will be the locus of integration of the theoretical and the practical. The aim will be the same: the formation of all according to the mind and heart of Christ, all within the context of the Church.
A delightful, unintended consequence of this plan is that these part-time positions will pay for about one year of seminary. Real leaders will work at real jobs for real income creating real servants. The price of a three-year degree at General just fell by 33%, and our students will be earning it while gaining the wisdom needed to hit the ground running.
The Church does not benefit from isolated, independent actors. As such, the entire Wisdom Year is supervised on multiple levels: at GTS where students will return each day, at the parish/ministry site, by active lay committees, by professional mentors, and, quite importantly, by each other with their own emerging clergy support groups.
The final piece – the perennial missing piece of seminary – is the development of practical skills. In addition to continuing academic preparation, seniors will learn from visiting experts. This partnering with the wider Church will allow Wisdom Year seminarians to have access to resources never offered before. For example:
- Experiencing leadership from leaders who actually lead;
- Designing a parish curriculum with the top Christian educator in the nation;
- Learning vestry practices from today’s vestry members;
- Practicing stewardship in a parish setting.
A leader of a major research university recently called these types of educators “Professors of the Practical.” I like that.
In a single revolutionary move, General Seminary will create an environment that goes way beyond knowledge while wading into wisdom, reducing the cost of seminary education by one-third, and meeting a growing need of the 400 Episcopal churches in the area for eager, theologically trained pastors and leaders on a rotating basis. Plus, like no other place, rather than hearing about leadership, General seminarians are doing leadership.
General has been through a protracted crisis. That’s no secret. But the gift of a crisis is that it sharpens your vision and forces a recognition of reality. Not a reality of what was or what might be, but a reality of what is – a reality of what can be if we have the courage to embrace it and listen to the Church – and to our customers.
Scripture says wisdom is elusive. But at General Seminary, we have found her. Come and see!