Saturday, January 8, 2011

Does seminary formation develop skills aligned with those needed for priestly ministry?

A few years ago I earned a master degree in theology, specifically a Master of Pastoral Studies degree (MPS).  At the graduation ceremony a priest also graduating from the program turned to me and said, “This program should be mandatory for priests.  It really opened my eyes.  My God, I was arrogant!” 

His statement surprised me.  I assumed the MPS program duplicated much of his seminary training.  He confirmed that the program's theological dimension overlapped topics covered in the seminary.  However, though a priest for 20 years, this program was the first effective pastoral formation he’d received.   

Because we were organizing for the commencement procession, he elaborated only briefly.   However, our conversation seeded questions about seminary curriculum and priestly formation.  What skills do priests need?  What skills do seminaries develop?

A priest’s pastoral ministry includes leading, counseling and teaching.

In the seminary, priests earn a Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) versus an MPS.  Unlike an MPS’ requirement to synthesize each course’s theological concepts into practical interpersonal ministerial activities, an MDiv provides academic theological information.  Seminaries hope seminarians develop connections between theology, people and ministry during summer parish internships.

Internships’ success forging theology with interpersonal ministerial skills varies significantly.  For example, the last seminarian interning at my parish did parish landscaping and building maintenance projects.  Such activities give me confidence to have him mow my lawn but not seek his advice on personal or spiritual matters.

Priests lead and counsel, yet most seminary programs include zero courses on leadership or organizational development, and just one course in pastoral counseling.  How does this level of training impact individual people and the church, given the volume of leading and counseling priests do?

Priests’ duties include teaching, yet the seminary includes zero teaching methods courses.  Seminarians develop teaching skills by teaching religious education supervised by another priest, who likely lacks formal training in teaching methods also.  Contrast this with secular teachers’ requirements of 21 teaching methods credits for a bachelor degree and 30 additional credits for a master degree.  Also, to retain certification teachers must earn professional development credits throughout their career.

On a micro level, priests’ individual teaching skills impact the church as they operate in their parishes and communities.  Due to the important Magisterial "teaching office" of the church, priests’ collective teaching skills impact church culture at a macro level too.  The church's teaching office is comprised of ordained men, most of whom lack formal education in teaching methods.  Why does membership in the church’s authoritative teaching body not require teaching skills?

Perhaps this explains the Magisterium’s current tone that seems to equate “teaching” with pouring “proper” thoughts into people’s brains while penalizing people who explore unauthorized ones.  However, the word “educate” comes from two Latin words meaning “to draw out” not “to pour in”.  Thus, as a great educator once said regarding her teaching vocation, “I don’t want to mold them into acceptable students – I don’t want to mold them into anything.  I want to help them uncork their brains.”  How does the Magisterium encourage uncorking versus molding people’s brains or, more importantly, their relationship with God?

If priests are supposed to lead, teach and counsel within a theological context, why is their formation almost void of these topics?  If pastoral ministry requires synthesizing theology with the human condition, why do they learn academic theology isolated in seminaries, removed from humanity?

How does the Magisterium's current approach to teaching color their lived interpretation of Jesus' directive to, “…Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'…?” (MT 9:13, Micah 6:6)

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