Curtis Freeman: Should seminary graduates avoid the church?

If young people want to make a difference, should they avoid, or embrace, the local church?

“Students don’t want to serve in the local church when they graduate; they want to do something more exciting.” So began a recent column on theological education at Ethicsdaily.com. Young people generally often hear the advice, “If you want to make a difference don’t go into the ministry.”

I used to think this was just a problem in mainline churches, but after visiting some of the campuses of conservative denominations, it seems that lots of seminarians across the spectrum are headed somewhere other than the church. Theological schools may not be the problem, but too often they reinforce the opinion that Christians who are serious about the faith do something other than serve in the church.

But this raises the question of what’s really worth getting excited about. How might our desires be affected by a sustained engagement with the received wisdom of the Christian tradition? Could such a study result in our imagination being turned in a different direction and perhaps drawn to a deeper sort of excitement?

When I ask soon to be graduates in exit interviews how they’ve changed during their theological study, one of the answers I am consistently amazed by is that they have learned to love the church. When I ask where and how they learned this, they indicate it’s systemic: from the faculty, to the curriculum, to spiritual formation groups, to field education. And it’s not just the church as a sort of platonic ideal. It’s the church on the corner.

There was a point in my life when I was one of the ecclesial critics. That changed when as a young pastor I read Will Willimon’s book What’s Right with the Church. It reaffirmed the teaching of Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop in North Africa: “One cannot have God for one’s Father who does not have the Church for one’s Mother.” I resolved to stop talking bad about my momma, and I urge my students to do the same.

Sure we’ve got family problems. Some of us are pretty dysfunctional. But in spite of its shortcomings, the church is the womb of new birth. And its web of relations is still where we discern the direction of our call.

The well being of the church of the future depends on theological schools that serve as a seed bed for young ministers where the germinating love of the church is intentionally and systemically cultivated. I hope and pray that a lot of folks are committed to tending the ecclesial garden.

Curtis Freeman teaches theology and directs the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.