I would like to think that I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the refrain that passes among clergy: “Divinity school sure didn’t prepare us for this.” Or sometimes, from seasoned laypeople to clergy with the ink still wet on their diplomas: “I bet you didn’t learn that in seminary!” Maybe this has to do with my personality, my love of the academic study of religion, and a lifelong love of school in general. I did, after all, enter divinity school with more than half a mind to continue in PhD work, and my mind still wanders to going “back to school.” But my impatience with that refrain has also stemmed from a conviction that my divinity school did an excellent job of preparing me and my colleagues for ministry because it gave us the tools to think theologically about all aspects of Christian life and ministry. Such formation helps us to reflect on the implications of budgets, whether of governments or congregations, as moral documents. To think about and talk about stewardship as more than just another fund-raising drive, as an essential aspect of Christian faithfulness. To share with baptism and confirmation candidates the richness of the tradition they’re considering claiming for their own. To realize that each of us is just one member of the body of Christ, and we can’t do it all – so we need to call on the gifts of other members at times, whether it’s when the boiler breaks or when someone needs more visiting than the pastor can provide, or when the church needs education that’s beyond our areas of expertise (be it financial planning, or that Old Testament book we never did understand, even in Hebrew). To remember to think about the broader implications of the kind of coffee we brew in the church kitchen and the palms we wave in worship on Palm Sunday.
Certainly, there are limits to theological education, and we could all name things we didn’t learn. But from where I’m serving right now, working with a poor church in a poor country – La Misión Cristiana (the Christian Mission Church) in Nicaragua, that refrain is almost painful. I cringe to recall the times I’ve uttered it myself, because I know I have. Right now, I’m teaching a theology class for undergraduates, sweating and stumbling to communicate some of the riches of the New Testament in my still very basic Spanish. My students are in the third year of a five-year program, and they are “sabatinos,” attending class every Saturday ten months of the year. They take all their classes in a 5-hour block, starting at 8 am. The reason this program holds its classes on Saturday is that most of the students work a full-time job, pastor a church, and are studying for their degree. Many have families as well, and I honestly don’t know how they find all the hours in the week. Some of my students travel 2 hours or more each way to be in class. They hunger and thirst for the theological education that we so easily take for granted. They work so hard because they believe that this education, this formation in the texts and traditions of Christianity will allow them to be better preachers, better pastors, and better leaders of their congregations. I hope and pray (and work really hard preparing my class!) that my teaching will be worthy of that faith.
Next month, I’ll begin collaborating on the primary task the church called me here to do: the development of a comprehensive program of ministerial formation that will be accessible to pastors and leaders in La Misión Cristiana who have not necessarily completed high school or even primary school. Even though the existing program of the theological faculty is an incredible resource for the Protestant churches of Nicaragua, it’s not available to everyone. Students have to be able to travel to Managua (or another regional center that has a critical mass of students) every weekend, devote a significant amount of time to these studies, pay a modest tuition or get a scholarship (of which funds are limited), and have finished high school. The new program aims to make theological education more broadly available.
In addition, the national leadership of La Misión is very interested in forming their pastors, leaders, and potential future pastors in their particular identity – a Nicaraguan, Pentecostal church committed to ministry with the marginalized and most vulnerable members of society. This commitment is reflected not only in lovely statements of identity, but also in the many projects of the national, regional and local church. These range from schools and after-school programs in poor neighborhoods to a cow-gifting program for rural families, from distribution of food and clothing after natural disasters to food security programs like seed banks and family garden plots. The church wants to form its rising leaders to consider these projects as central to their faith as their frequent and exuberant worship services.
There are a lot of ideas floating around in the Nicaraguan Pentecostal scene, and one of the things that theological education and spiritual formation can do is give folks the tools to discern which ones are consistent with the other things their church professes. In this context, theological dangers (a phrase that might sound ridiculous in many congregations further north) can have serious consequences. Two of these dangers, our Nicaraguan friends tell us, are imported directly from the United States: prosperity theology and a belief in faith healing that leads to a rejection of medical treatment. The danger of being persuaded by a charismatic lecturer from the United States to pray for healing instead of going to the doctor for heart problems or cancer is obvious. Prosperity theology is more subtle, but for a church that embraces the teaching of James 2:5 that the poor will inherit God’s kingdom and believes itself to be filled by the same Spirit that was in Jesus (Luke 4:18), anointing him to “bring good news to the poor,” the belief that God blesses only by means of material resources threatens to erode the very foundations of their faith. Strong theological education will help leaders in this church recognize and combat these dangers.
So it happened that when La Misión Cristiana decided to ask Global Ministries to send them a missionary, they asked for someone who could work with them in developing and teaching a systematic program of theological formation, rooted in their own identity. Since my arrival, almost every pastor I have met in our travels around the country has told me how excited they are about this opportunity. The demand to participate is so great that our initial plan to teach one group has expanded to four groups. The pastors and leaders of this church hunger and thirst for this education. My hope is that this longing will inspire in us a deeper gratitude for what we have been given, and an appreciation for its value. Maybe the next time we confront a difficult situation in ministry, we can think about what we did learn in seminary, and how it might help us to understand what God is calling us to in the present moment.