Monday, September 04, 2006

Toward a More Monastic Education

Well, my first week of graduate studies at Denver Seminary is behind me now. It was a good week, all in all, and it certainly looks as though I'll be busy enough here. Perhaps the common theme I've picked up on in conversations about beginning seminary is the expectation of an almost insurmountable workload of reading and writing. And while it certainly is a fearsome amount of work, I think it should be manageable.
What struck me as ironic, though, was that one of the first articles we were given to read for a monthly scholars' forum was "The Contemplative Pastor", by Eugene Peterson. In it, Peterson argues and urges that pastors should not, at any costs, allow busyness to dominate their schedules. The pastor, he says, must always find and make time for contemplative prayer, for those soul-forming moments before the throne of God. It is there that character is born, and there that the peace of God can settle into our souls in a whole new way.
This is good advice from Peterson, and hopefully when I become a pastor I will have the discipline and the desire to journey into prayer like that. But the irony of it is that here at seminary, many of us are being trained to be pastors. If having time for contemplative prayer really is one of the foundational practices of ministry (and I believe it is), then why does seminary, with its sizeable workload, almost preclude that possibility? I say 'almost' because most students can and should be able to find at least some time for a rich devotional life. But seminaries, in focusing largely on the academic side of pastoral preparation, do foster a 'busyness' that makes time for rich contemplative prayer a difficult asset to find.
Part of it, I think, is that in American culture we value our independence, even come to expect it. So the seminary assumes that its students should be able to organize their own priorities and strike a balance between studies and devotional practices. In some respects that's good, but speaking for myself (and I doubt I'm alone in this), I have to confess that I don't have the sort of self-discipline it takes to consistently measure up to that kind of mandate. And in some ways, if we are to do the amount of work which seminary demands of us and do it well, some other aspects of our life--relational or devotional--will suffer. This is true even in a terrific place like Denver Seminary, which really does strive in many ways (such as mentoring programs) to provide spiritual guidance and formation for is students.
To my mind (and probably not many would agree with me), the ideal situation for pastoral training would be much more communitarian, a little more authoritarian, and significantly more balanced. That is, I would like to see seminaries become a whole lot more like missional monasteries, fervently dedicated to solid academics, passionately seeking a deeper devotional life together, and consistently reaching out to the world around them. This would mean that academic studies would have to take a lower priority, or at least that some way would have to be found to reduce workloads while preserving the quality of the education. But beyond academics, it would mean that students would submit to the spiritual authority of the teachers and mentors, and that time would be allotted every day for both communal and individual devotions. If that is the sort of daily round that will build us up into better pastors, then we ought to be beginning it now. It probably won't happen here in the States (though some Bible colleges and seminaries overseas work more along those lines), but I think it would be grand if it did.