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Dock Hollingsworth and Brett Younger: Mind the gap

Two professors at McAfee School of Theology explore the gulf between what students learn in seminary and what they remember when they serve in congregations.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

June 5, 2012

Sometimes gaps open between institutions that depend on one another.

The gap between churches and seminaries, as two colleagues explained recently to a gathering of pastors and professors, becomes most evident in the language each uses.

Dock Hollingsworth, assistant dean and assistant professor of supervised ministry at McAfee School of Theology, and Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching, remind us, with a bit of cheek, what gets lost in translation when Christian institutional leaders don’t mind the gap.

Dock Hollingsworth: One reason people go into ministry is because they know preparation for it includes as many years as they can get their spouses to put up with living in a tiny apartment eating mac and cheese while they attend a scintillating seminary. Yet gifted, caring faculty teach seminarians so much they will struggle to translate into the congregational context.

For instance, in the course “Greek Exegesis,” students receive an introduction to New Testament Greek.

Brett Younger: Church translation: There are three New Testament words for love -- phileo, fraternal love; agape, self-giving love; and eros, love outside the church (unless there’s not enough supervision at the youth lock-in).

Hollingsworth: “Hebrew Exegesis” introduces the study of biblical Hebrew. Students will learn syntax and grammar.

Younger: A decade later, here’s what they still have: Hebrew is read right to left. This makes not remembering any Hebrew more excusable.

Hollingsworth: Most seminaries have a class that explores the classics of Christian devotion. This course introduces students to Christian devotional classics through the disciplines of history, spirituality and personal reflection.

Younger: Augustine felt really guilty and took way too many pages writing about it. Brother Lawrence loved working in the kitchen. He was Paula Deen on Prozac.

Hollingsworth: The course “Theological Approaches to Christian Education” integrates and probes the disciplines of education and theology and the processes by which Christian faith is embodied and communicated within the church and culture.

Younger: Pick a topic, form small groups, then share what you discussed with the large group.

Hollingsworth: Courses on church and community examine issues of contextualization and intentional adjacencies with attention to the processes of urbanization, the impact of global urbanization on the church and strategies for congregational effectiveness in the urban context.

Younger: Ministers in inner-city churches have a hard time. Ministers in suburban churches have to play golf. Ministers in rural churches learn to love barbecue.

Hollingsworth: Counseling courses address appropriate counseling techniques. Students are taught to respond sensitively to pastoral needs.

Younger: “Dock, how does that make you feel?” is an acceptable question. “Dock, you little jerk, how do you think that makes me feel?” is not.

Hollingsworth: The pastoral care course integrates theology and pastoral care in both the personal and congregational dimensions of the minister’s life in order to improve both theory and practice for ministry effectiveness.

Younger: Don’t sit on the hospital bed. If they’re asleep, leave a business card so you get credit.

Hollingsworth: The evangelism course gives the student an introduction to evangelism through biblical theology, history and practical theology. Students are exposed to research in sociology and contextualization issues that relate to evangelism.

Younger: Program evangelism doesn’t work. In every church, there are three people, two of whom are married to each other and want to revive the bus ministry, and one who will never admit this.

Hollingsworth: The course on the New Testament enables students to become more-informed readers and more-skilled interpreters of the Gospels. It engages historical questions about the writing of the Gospels.

Younger: The Synoptics were Matthew, Mark and Luke. John wanted to be a Synoptic but was 20 years too late. Phylacteries aren’t what they sound like.

Hollingsworth: In “Old Testament,” special attention is given to history, canonical formation, language and translation, literary form and reading, and history of interpretation.

Younger: The Pentateuch, the highest point of the temple, was written by four friends nicknamed J, E, P and D. In the book of Ruth, we read, “Ruth came softly and uncovered his feet and laid her down. … And Ruth said, ‘Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid.’” Don’t ever speculate on what this means.

Hollingsworth: Mark Twain probably wasn’t thinking about seminaries when he argued that education is what’s left after we’ve forgotten the facts, but let’s hope he was right.

Younger: Even if students remembered everything, they would leave seminary with a wonderful lack of understanding of how much they don’t know.

This sense of bewilderment is excellent preparation for ministry. We understand that students will not remember all the facts, but we pray that they will remember that our shared calling is to love the church, love one another and love God with all our heart, soul and mind.