Seminary and Real World Praxis


When Lee Spitzer offered the four presenters today a number of options for our 15 minutes of fame, I immediately embraced this topic: “The Seminary and Real World Praxis.” I did so because I wanted to explore two phrases- “real world” and “real world praxis.” For you see, the world of the seminary and the world of the church, or as the title states, “the real world”, has all too often been seen as different universes. Indeed, there are those who refer to the world of the seminary as the “ivory tower world” and all of the rest of where we live, “the real world.” As I enter my 40th year of ministry, 22 of those years spent as a congregational pastor, I am eager to find connections between the world in which I now live and serve and the “real world.” When I was a parish pastor the term “real world” often referred to world outside our front doors. So sometimes a business person would talk about the real world as the place where he or she worked, not the church where they worshipped. Sometimes, a family in trouble would come and talk with me about the real world of unpaid bills and martial tension in a tone of voice that implied that I lived in an “unreal world.” And so when I was serving a congregation I was made to feel like the real world was somewhere else.

Now that I am a seminary president, I have discovered that the term “real world” is often utilized by pastors and chaplains and a number of our graduates as the description of where they work rather than where the seminary spends its time. The real world to which they are referring is filled with groaning parishioners, unpaid bills, difficult meetings and weary pastors and parishioners.

As you can sense, the definition of “real world” is important. I have come to believe that in a strange, mysterious way, things that are unseen are more real than those that can be seen. I have also been led to believe that the world of love is more real than world of hatred, humility more real than pride, selflessness more real than selfishness, hope more real than all of the pain we see day in and day out. I have come to believe that the invisible world of God is more real than the visible world. Let me be clear I am not suggesting that the physical world is a mirage- rather I am suggesting that the real world of God is often found deep inside the visible world in which we live and work.

Allow me to share a story all of us know well. It is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain and there they watch as Jesus has a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Peter has the courage to suggest that they ought to build a seminary on the top of the mountain so they could live there permanently and have an eternal conversation with the Law and the Prophets. It was on the mountaintop that Luke observes that Moses, Elijah and Jesus appeared in “glory.” They appeared in DOXA- glory or majesty.

When Jesus, Peter, James and John came down the mountain in Luke they are confronted by a child who convulses and foams at the mouth. They traveled from the pure air of the mountaintop to the valley of mud. And when Jesus heals the child the crowd which has gathered around him is “astounded by the ‘greatness’ of God.” Again the majesty, the glory of God, shines through- first on the mountaintop and then in the valley. And I keep waiting for Peter to exclaim that they ought to build a seminary in the valley mud!

Where do we see REAL WORLD PRAXIS? On the mountaintop or in the valley- in the transfiguring glory of God with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, or in the transformative power of God in the simple life of a possessed child who couldn’t help but crawl through the mud of the valley? Allow me to suggest that we witness “real world praxis” in both places. We can see real world praxis in the theological poetry of Calvin, Luther and Wesley and in the practical prose of week in and week out congregational and community ministry. God’s glory shines through on mountaintops and in valleys.

This is observation number one- real world praxis, the real world practice of the faith and God’s grace, happens in mountaintop seminaries and mud splatted valleys. Indeed, it is possible that seminaries live in mud splattered valleys and congregational and public ministries can find their home at times on mountaintops. The real world of God’s glory is not limited to mountaintop seminaries or valley ministries. The real world invades our dreams and visions and our daily ministry. The real world is not only who we are, but who God is calling us to become. Nursing home rooms and lecture halls can all sparkle with the “real world” where God works.

Before we leave this first observation, allow me to say a brief word about so many of our seminary classes that meet to struggle with real world problems, students who are required to participate in real world ministries as part of their field education and candidates for ministry who find the real world in CPE programs. You get the picture- I truly believe that all too often the so called” ivory tower world” is filled with real world mud, and valley ministries reveal the sparkling glory of God in incredible ways. I am just not prepared to suggest that the “real world” begins after one leaves our doors. And I am not prepared to suggest that mountaintop visions don’t invade ministries of mud in the valleys.

Secondly, allow me to spend to some time on the phrase “real world praxis” and what it has to do with those who dig wells and build houses. It is important at the outset to say a word about the word “praxis” which is all too often simply defined as “practice” but is closer to the word “process.” Praxis is the process by which skills are practiced is the definition that works best for me.

Because New Brunswick Seminary is filled with second career and bi-vocational people, indeed more than 70 % of our students would identify themselves in these ways; I often ask why a student is returning to school after 20 or 30 years away from the classroom. Often the response is that while their present ministry is an important one, person after person talk about the need to dig the well deeper from which they draw their gospel water. They have found their wells to be too shallow. They return to seminary to dig deeper wells. They return because the water they draw week in and week out has become stale and predictable, and they yearn for a well that is deeper and fresher. They yearn for a well of living water. They want their “praxis” to include the process of an ever-deepening well from which to draw ministry water.

Allow me for a moment to leave my picture of a well, and to move to a picture of a carpenter and an architect. Carpenters know how to construct houses- architects know how to imagine homes. They are both “practicing” the art of ministry. For those who return after many years away from the classroom, they often observe that they are tired of building the same house over and over again. They observe that their sermons are the same just in different words and that their pastoral care is less insightful than it should be and that their bible studies suffer from lack of imagination.

At the moment I am adding to our house upstate New York a screened in porch underneath the deck. Because there is already a ceiling and posts to hold up the deck, our carpenter friend who is named Howie, simply needed to figure out the best way to build a frame for the screening, put in two screen doors and help us figure out what kind of blue stone or shale would be best to cover the bare cement. Howie has been a carpenter for forty years, and so he will wire the new fan in the ceiling and probably paint the whole porch next spring. He is a person who has many skills which he uses extraordinarily well.

However, if we were to have begun the process of building a new deck and screened patio from scratch, I suspect we would have wedded Howie’s skills with those of an architect who could have helped us to imagine quite dramatically different ways to attach some new spaces to our home. An architect would know what Howie could do, and if we needed an electrician and plumber and brick layer, but she or he would also have the skill to think about our context in the woods and our view of the small lake on which we live and the ways our present house could bear new additions in aesthetically pleasing ways. You see, for us to imagine a new praxis, a new process by which we practiced the skill of construction, both a carpenter and an architect would be helpful, indeed, there would be many who would say essential.

Seminaries that want to engage in conversation about “praxis” need the ability to form ministers as both carpenters and architects. Candidates for ministry need to have the skills to construct sermons and pastoral calls and manage conflict in church council meetings. But they also need the skill to imagine the real world in which they work in dramatically new ways. Carpenters do their best work from the ground floor of our sanctuaries and architects do their best work from the balcony where new perspectives regarding the church and the real world that surrounds us.

There are some who would describe seminaries as places where to learn ministerial skills and I would say AMEN. But the skill of a carpenter has to be wedded to the art of an architect so we are inspired to imagine new houses. Praxis is the process by which a skill is practiced- and sometimes that skill is preaching and pastoral care and management, and sometimes it is strategic planning and dreaming and seeing the world not as it is by as it should be. It was Robert Kennedy who was fond of exclaiming “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

And so I observe that PRAXIS is what happens in congregations and seminaries- in the real world of the mountaintop and the valley- what we do with our hands and our feet and our minds and our hearts.

The “Seminary and Real World Praxis” points to a bridge that stretches from the classroom to the sanctuary and from the sanctuary to the classroom, and from sanctuaries and classrooms to the real world that surrounds us. These are bridges that are essential in keeping seminary worlds earth bound and the congregational world heaven sent. It is a bridge that keeps our seminaries and our congregations and all of our ministries real and vital and graced with God’s very real world touch.