How often have you heard a new pastor, priest, or rabbi say, “Seminary was fabulous, even life-changing, but it didn’t prepare me for what I face in the local congregation”? Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, discovered that this was a common complaint across the professions. Students in law, engineering, and medicine described some gap between their education and professional practice. Being taught how to “think like a lawyer” through case studies in school, for example, was not enough to develop the intellectual dexterity, competencies, and professional identity required for a new member of the Bar. Seminarians who struggle to bridge the gap between their education and clergy practice face an uphill battle that is familiar to students in other professions.

So, what do seminaries do well? In a recent study of clergy education(1) sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, we found that effective seminaries begin to cultivate a “pastoral imagination” among new clergy. The “pastoral imagination” is shaped in part by learned subject matter and practical techniques, but it is chiefly an integrative ability to perceive, interpret, and engage the world with theological insight and practical wisdom. The pastoral imagination involves more than learning to “think like” a minister, priest, or rabbi; it also involves beginning to feel and act like a clergyperson through a growing sense of pastoral identity and competency. Forming the pastoral imagination requires a dynamic engagement between acquired knowledge, skills, and identity that William Sullivan has identified as the “three apprenticeships” found in all forms of professional education.(2)

How do seminaries form the pastoral, priestly, or rabbinic imagination? In our study of 18 seminaries from Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish traditions, we found that seminaries typically engage students with four “signature pedagogies”: interpretation, formation, contextualization, and performance. Unlike professional schools that focus on a single pedagogy—like case study in law—seminaries intertwine these four teaching practices in the classroom, curriculum, and culture of the school. Seminaries that are intentional about the relationship of the four pedagogies, we discovered, are more effective in helping students integrate the knowledge, skills, and norms of the profession.

Pedagogies of interpretation challenge students to engage sacred texts with historical and linguistic skill in order to shape human meaning within a given religious community or setting. Teaching the practice of interpretation involves the development of critical thinking, which is both shaped by and helps reconstruct the school’s religious and intellectual traditions.

Pedagogies of formation guide students into the spiritual practices of a tradition in order to nurture a sense of the holy and shape seminarians in their religious and pastoral identity. Formation can be taught through very intentional means, such as spiritual direction, presiding at prayer and table, or in community worship, but it can also be shown in the transparency that professors bring to the classroom about their own faith and spiritual commitments in relation to the subject matter.

Pedagogies of contextualization develop student awareness of the ways that local settings, cultures, and structures influence religious and clergy practice. Effective contextualization brings about the deeper understanding of contexts, creative encounters with them, and practices of transformation that can change them.

Pedagogies of performance develop complex pastoral skills and judgment through reenacting clergy roles and skills for the sake of increased competence and a commitment to set standards of excellence. Performance-practice becomes more intuitive and adaptive as students rehearse a given script or role, as they develop their own style of embodying it for a community, and as the purpose or inherent good of the practice is internalized through the enactment.

At the Carnegie Foundation, we were delighted to see how well exemplary teachers and seminaries integrate the four pedagogies for student learning: in the classroom, across the curriculum, and in the culture of the school. The patterns of integrative teaching and learning, we found, are keys to effective seminary education because they set up the optimal conditions for students to practice and internalize the integration of the knowledge, skills, and identity they will need in clergy practice. From this perspective, the entire school becomes a mentor in the three apprenticeships, so that “being there,” or being immersed in the school’s life, sustains and reinforces the integration of student learning in ways that commuter programs, on-line degrees, and local apprenticeships cannot.3

What can churches and synagogues expect from a seminary graduate? And how can they learn from the new pastor’s seminary formation so that he or she continues to grow in pastoral imagination and practice? Here are some implications of the Carnegie study for the local congregation and supporting judicatories as they call and welcome new clergy:

  • Not all seminaries are alike. We identified at least five historic traditions of seminary education in America, each with its own mission, pedagogies, and culture for the formation of clergy. Some seminaries are strictly academic institutions, while others serve ecclesial or denominational needs. Some are Bible or training schools, while others are “movement” seminaries that support a cross-denominational mission. Some are schools of emancipation dedicated to the social uplift of a particular people, while others train leaders in the mission or apostolate of a given religious order. It is important for congregations to research—via the Internet and other means—the seminary of a new candidate or clergyperson so they know more about the education he or she brings. They can also invite new clergy to share how seminary has (and has not) prepared them for clergy practice.
  • Seminaries only do so much, but they do it well. At their best, seminaries shape a pastoral imagination that begins to integrate the intellectual, skills, and identity apprenticeships in a creative way. But this pastoral imagination has not yet been stretched, challenged, or completely internalized by the daily experience of pastoral practice. The gap between seminary learning and the local parish for new clergy, we believe, is less about the lack of relevant knowledge or practical skills—as both are abundant in most seminaries—and more about the lack of “seasoning” required to develop a strong sense of pastoral identity and judgment to utilize seminary knowledge and skills in adaptive ways. Even the best seminaries only develop competent beginners in ministry, who must be honed, shaped, and polished by the pastoral experience in their first congregation or ministry site.
  • Congregations can extend and build upon the four pedagogies. Congregations can become intentional teachers, mentors, and learners of new seminary graduates in a number of ways. First, they can invite the new clergyperson to stretch his or her interpretive practices through teaching, public prayer, preaching, and pastoral care, and to offer thoughtful, collaborative feedback about how such meaning-making can shape the congregation. Second, congregations can support the ongoing formation of new clergy in collaborative ways, such as by asking these new pastors to guide members or minister peers into new spiritual practices they have learned, and to adapt them for building up the local faith community. Third, congregations can rely on the contextualizing abilities of a new pastor to strengthen connections with local neighborhoods, cultures, and institutions. The new pa
    stor can bring new energy and skills to mission studies, neighborhood plunges, and outreach initiatives that will invigorate both the faith community and the new leader. Finally, to strengthen performance-practice of the new clergy, congregations and their denominations can handpick constructive, thoughtful laity and clergy to form an advisory or mentoring team to help the new pastor polish his or her own style, identity, and sense of competence.

Almost any church or synagogue can become a “teaching congregation” with new clergy in these ways, provided they see it as part of their mission to nurture new pastors, priests, and rabbis beyond their seminary experience, for the sake of the wider church or faith community.

While seminaries do begin the cultivation of a pastoral imagination among new pastors, priests, and rabbis, this ability to integrate knowledge, skills, and identity through effective clergy practice only “gels” in a congregational or ministry context. While seminaries do a lot of things well, they cannot complete this process. How congregations and their judicatories can become more intentional about their teaching role and responsibility in this final stage of forming new clergy is a timely issue for most Christian and Jewish communities.

1. Charles R. Foster, Lisa E. Dahill, Lawrence A. Golemon, and Barbara Wang Tolentino, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
2. William Sullivan, Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).
3. The collective practices, ethos, and culture of a seminary have a profound influence upon seminarians’ professional and religious identity. See Jackson W. Carroll, Barbara G. Wheeler, Daniel O. Aleshire, and Penny Long Marler, Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).