To be honest, I had high hopes from Bowyer, but after reading this piece, I left disappointed. It isn’t that he has nothing important to say, but that he appears to be naive on what his solutions can accomplish. What does he propose? After defending himself too much (and unnecessarily, in my opinion) against some critics who accuse him of gender bias, he goes on to propose two ways to burst the seminary bubble: return to a model of apprenticeship and make use of online sources for learning.
On apprenticeship, he says:
I would say that time spent in tow to an actual working pastor is vastly more valuable than time spent at school. Leading a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm while at the death bed of their loved one is worth more than a hundred hours of class time.
I agree that apprenticeship ought to be a vital part of pastoral formation. I, too, would hope that all aspiring pastors would have the opportunity to work under the tutelage of a more seasoned individual. However, what I have a problem with is how Bowyers sets apprenticeship into opposition with the classroom. Indeed, he fails to consider that even Jesus sat his disciples down to teach them, even while they participated and learned with him in his day-to-day ministry.
Now imagine if we took this scenario into another field–medicine. Would we really be willing to say that an hour spent in the clinic underneath the supervision of an experienced physician is worth more than 100 hours learning anatomy? Indeed, the ability to learn well under the doctor presumes a whole host of theoretical proficiencies which simply can’t be gained by observing. The intern doctor certainly needs to learn how to do a medical examination and how properly to interact with a patient (though it seems many still are failing here–but I digress). But what is invisible to that hour of experience is that the intern has already spent hundreds of hours in classroom instruction long before he or she engages in “practice.”
Back to the pastor/apprentice. Bowyer’s example is simply naive: Watching someone walk a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm is important for pastoral formation, but do we really want a pastor who has never studied what the Psalms are or what their theology is or even how to interpret a Psalm? Learning good bedside manners cannot compensate for a lack of a whole different skills which include understanding what a Psalm is, how the 23rd Psalm was meant to function in the Hebrew Psalter, let alone the Hebrew language in which the Psalm was written. On that matter, learning Hebrew may seem like an unnecessary pastoral skill to many. But let me ask: Would you be happy if you found out that your doctor attended a medical school that only taught “practical skills” over against things those theoretical subjects like anatomy and pharmacology?
Sorry–no hour of observing a pastor at the bedside will teach the prerequisite knowledge of someone who is supposedly supposed to be a minister of the Word of God. Sure, I wish there were such shortcuts, but frankly, I don’t know that there is. Learning Hebrew–for better or for worse–takes hundreds of hours and frankly, even if it is done online instead of a classroom (which I’m actually fine with), it cannot be done quickly and it cannot be done simply “observing” another person. In short, Bowyer fails to acknowledge that there are simply some things that cannot be learned in “practical” situations.
Bower’s second solution is to make use of online resources for theological learning. Again, I have no problem with making use of the many, many good online resources we have at our fingertips. By all means, download that Church History course to your Smartphone and listen while commuting or jogging. But please: don’t tell me that listening to a course while doing something else is the same thing as actually having actually to engage professors and peers face-to-face or even in a formal online course where written interaction is required. Please don’t tell me that listening to a course at the end of your “day job” when the majority of your energy is already consumed for the day is the same thing as setting time aside and being compelled to put your research and thoughts into writing that will be evaluated by someone else! Listening to your IPod and actually doing a class are not the same thing!
Bower is right, though, to ask the financial question and it is one I, too, have struggled to answer. At least if one is working one’s way through a law, medical, business, or engineering degree, there is some hope that the resultant career will eventually suffice to pay off one’s student debt. Entrance into ministry with tens of thousands of student loans, well, seems less of a promising venture.
It is precisely here that I wish I knew a way forward: How should the funding of seminary education take place such that students who are genuinely called to ministry can prepare without taking on the unhealthy burden of financial debt? You would think that an author writing for a magazine devoted to financial matters (Forbes.com) could have at least came up with some suggestions for that. Now that’s something I’d certainly be willing to listen to Bowyer’s on.