I’m not one of those people who likes to dunk on seminaries. By this point I’ve heard the publically-spoken question, “Why didn’t they teach me this in seminary?” to the point of nausea. Come on, brother, you really expected the seminary to have specialized classes in your niche ministry and specific problem-people? There’s a reason I never had a class in how to draw on a Melanesian MK upbringing to deal with a Central Asian wolf in sheep’s clothing in whose house we had just planted a church together with our Mexican partners (true story). There is no seminary professor who could or should teach that kind of specific material. Rather, professors should teach the theology and principles that equip diverse ministers of the gospel to apply God’s truth to infinitely varied ministry contexts around the globe.
My pro-seminary posture is also because I live in a part of the world where there is no access to theological training in the languages of people groups that are millions strong. It’s easy to take pot-shots at seminaries when they’ve been around forever and are taken for granted among your people group. I also don’t buy the whole “they’re not reproducible” line so popular in missiology. If they’re not reproducible, why have thousands of them taken root all around the world, even in ancient times and places like Sassanian Gondishapur where Christians were a persecuted minority? Perhaps there is a bit of a hidden and arbitrary definition to that term “reproducible” that so often functions as a trump card in discussions of methodology.
But it’s also easy to forget their weaknesses with the rose-tinted glasses that can come with distance. Some of the critiques do stick. God has given humans a remarkable ability to find patterns in things. And one of those unfortunate but true patterns is represented by the awkward and out-of-touch seminarian who struggles to notice the real people around him. There is a great need for those studying at seminary to accompany their classroom training with down-to-earth mentoring in people skills. Local church relationships that model for seminary students wise and practical ministry intuition and care are crucial for keeping these students effective in the real and messy world of actual people.
I’ll never forget the time I took my wife on a date during a particularly exhausting period of our newborn days. We were broke, had an infant with sleep issues, and were trying to mentor new believers and share the gospel with refugees. And we were desperately in need of an affordable date. I had the idea of going out to a discounted dinner and then making use of our free alumni access to the seminary pool and hot tub. My wife agreed to the plan and we were off in our beat up ’95 Honda Civic our Iraqi friends had christened Baby Camel because of its fantastic gas mileage and minuscule size.
Things were going swimmingly. We made it to the seminary, the pool area was nice and quiet, and the hot tub was empty – perfect! So we got in and began to have a good conversation, sharing our hearts with each other. But before long, a student and acquaintance from church entered the pool area. We waved and said a friendly hello, and strategically mentioned that we were on a date together. I turned back to my wife to continue our conversation. But the man plopped down in the hot tub next to me, eager for discussion.
Internally, I winced. How did he not pick up on the dynamics of this situation? But, resolving to be kind and hospitable, I turned and engaged him in friendly conversation. My wife had a not-so-subtle expression on her face, but held her tongue. The man didn’t seem to notice. Were I older and wiser, I would have said something direct about my wife and I needing this time so that we could connect in our sleep-deprived state and care for each other. Instead, I kept trying to drop hints in the conversation and with my body language to get the brother to move along to splashing in the pool or something.
But my talkative friend was not going anywhere. Instead, he stretched out his arms and relaxed and considered this the ideal moment to get into the depths of why he was actually a Thomist when it came to philosophy instead of a Van Tilian Preuppositionalist. I had only had one or two philosophy classes, so I knew just enough of this topic to drop a semi-informed comment here and there. But eventually I just stopped speaking to see how long the monologue would go. It kept going, and going, for quite an impressive length of time. I was perplexed. Why oh why did he feel like this particular conversation was at all fitting for this context? I shot a look back at my wife whose face conveyed a look of incredulity at what was going on in front of her.
“Can we go?” She mouthed in my direction. I nodded. Things had finally gotten awkwardly silent. It was time for a tactical retreat. We said our goodbyes to the hot tub philosopher and made our way back to the locker rooms.
I thought of my seminary – and of myself. The dangers of getting lost in the world of the mind and losing touch with practical kindness and social skills are real. I’ve felt the pull of these things when I get a little too excited about sharing about something I’m learning, only to realize those I’m sitting with have gone quiet and are fidgeting a bit. My brain can run away from me and I can stop tracking with the emotional state of those I’m supposedly conversing with. At that point I’m not really conversing with them in a loving way at all. I’m merely on a monologue.
While not neglecting the life of the mind, we must learn to ground it with an understanding of our flesh and blood neighbor. Yes, we must study the books. But we must also be students of people. We must be those who can get taken in by the beauty of an idea while still being conscious enough of the present to sense the body language of our hearers. What if, like me, the life of the mind comes more naturally than people intuition? How do we learn to study people? We can start by praying regularly that we will grow in this area. We can make a careful effort to study what God’s word says about the way people act and think. We can read great literature – after all, it’s great because it has been proven to be a window into human nature across many generations. We can read up on ways that hard-to-see things like cultures and personalities have been mapped and categorized by others. Finally, we can get some good feedback and tools on our particular God-given wiring. After all, if we don’t really understand ourselves, we won’t be great at understanding others either.
I would be remiss not to also mention what can be learned by shadowing those who are pastors in the truest sense of that term. Much skill in this area must be caught, rather than taught. And catching it often means accompanying those older and more experienced than we are, observing how they wisely interact with these wonderfully complex and broken beings called humans. Watching how and when an experienced pastor says, “I’m so sorry” can be a powerful lesson in what effective empathy actually looks like.
Plus, mentors like this also tell us when something is simply awkward or weird – like climbing in the hot tub with a couple on a date in order to talk Thomist philosophy. We all need someone in our life who will put their arm around us and simply say, “Brother, that’s weird. Don’t do that.”