What has seminary education to do with the actual practice of faith?

By Asante Todd

In 2006 I began doctoral work in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. In addition to this program, I am a member of Vanderbilt’s "Program in Theology and Practice." Students admitted to the Graduate Department of Religion may apply to the program. If accepted, program requirements are completed along with doctoral requirements. It is designed for doctoral students who wish to teach in seminaries and divinity schools. Specifically, it trains two kinds of scholars: those in fields directly related to congregational ministry (homiletics, worship) and those who wish to connect their academic work to the practice of ministry, even if this work is not directly related to congregational ministry. The ultimate aim of the program is to help MDiv students resolve the gap between seemingly irrelevant academic theory and the practical issues of ministry. What has seminary education to do with the actual practice of faith? As many seminary graduates and parishioners know, it is often difficult to answer this question.   

Indeed, there are some knowledges that remain properly under the auspice of practical wisdom, especially as it relates to things divine. There is no necessary or intrinsic relation between theology and an understanding of the nature and character of God, between ethical theory and the laws or commands of God, or between communications theory and a more spirit-filled sermon. However, my teaching experiences to date have also shown me that a fundamental contrast between these two ways of knowing does not negate the possibility of their positive relation. More, it is possible that one type enhances the other.

So why does the gap exist? As it relates to teaching, perhaps this gap exists because of how one teaches, not what they teach; the issue may be method, not content. In many of my classes, I try to address this issue by discussing theories and arguments in relation to concrete issues of ministry, and I provide opportunities for students to discuss and write on such issues if they are so inclined.

However, even as I implement this method, I am also increasingly persuaded that part of the problem is that we understand the gap between theory and practice to be problematic. We live in an increasingly complex, challenging, and pluralistic world, and I shudder to think of ministers in such a world that have not given sustained reflection to important issues such as world religions, moral and theological diversity within and beyond the Christian faith, the contextual nature of pastoral counseling, or theories of biblical hermeneutics. Each of these theoretically-oriented topics has serious implications for how we practice our faith. Perhaps it is a good thing that we critically reflect on what might otherwise be taken for granted. Even in the age of practice, ideas matter.

Conversely, while graduate education does a great job of laying the intellectual groundwork for one’s vocation, there is no substitute for practical training in one’s area of ministry. Perhaps this is obvious to many, but less obvious is the cojoined necessity that one’s field of practical training be prepared to receive and train the novice practitioner. Austin Seminary colleagues, administrators, and students have been patient with me, and are clearly invested in my success. As a result, I’m a better teacher, researcher, and writer. Certainly this is something that local congregations, nonprofits, and other vocations should note. Austin Seminary is home to a host of promising, gifted candidates for ministry. However, these gifts can only be given to receptive hands, and promises fulfilled only in spaces of support, trust, and cooperation. I’m grateful to Vanderbilt, Austin Seminary, and the Lilly Foundation for this transformative opportunity.

Asante Uzuri Todd(MDiv'06) is the first teaching fellow through a new partnership program between Vanderbilt University and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The program, funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc., and Vanderbilt University, helps prepare doctoral students at Vanderbilt for vocations as teachers and scholars in theological education.

Todd will serve as visiting lecturer in Christian ethics during academic year 2011-2012. He is completing his PhD at Vanderbilt, writing a dissertation on the works of Cornel West. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, Todd received his master of divinity from Austin Seminary in 2006 and served as Student Body President.