This semester I’ve been working for the divinity school by doing some on-the-road recruiting across parts of the southeast. My target group has specifically been small colleges that get overlooked by other divinity schools and seminaries. Last week, however, I represented Wake Div at Baylor University’s expansive recruiting event where there were theological schools from across the country. Fuller Seminary was on my right. Three of the six Southern Baptist seminaries were around me. Down the row were McAfee, Duke, Brite, Perkins, as well as a slew of denominationally-affiliated seminaries. During my own trips I have put on the “dog and pony show” for prospective students, trying to sell them on Wake Div by attempting to be all things to all people. It wasn’t until this most recent trip to Baylor that I finally realized how Wake should claim it stands apart from all of these other schools.
Approximately 90% of the other theological schools pandering to prospective students across the country have gone in the direction of allowing students to “specialize.” Through tracks, certificates, specialties, and customized degrees, theological institutions across the country quite convincingly mislead their students by telling them that these courses and their schooling will give them all of the information they need to be a “master” on the topic, subject, or event. Want to be a youth minister? Enroll in our Master of Arts in Youth Ministry, Theology, and Creativity degree. Want to do missions? Enroll in our Master of Arts in Cross-Cultural Missiology and then get a certificate in your target geographic area or regional prominent world religion. OR become a Master of Arts in Apologetics, Theology, & Ministry. Are you working and want to do school on the side? No problem, you can do your program completely online and never spend a day interacting with any other people and your degree in ministry will be equally credible.
As a student in Wake Forest religion professor Dr. Ulrike Wiethaus’ course entitled “Native American Cosmovision,” my assigned research project has been on former WF president Ralph Scales and his Cherokee heritage, activism, and influence. In my research I came across a recurring theme within Indian education and the differences between indigenous forms of education and colonialist education programs intended to “civilize” Native Americans. The most telling difference between the two is that European colonization was built around the school—i.e., lecture-centric and abstract—while indigenous education has been thoroughly experiential, requiring the student to be an active learner. “Civilization,” as it were, was built on an education that was abstract, theoretical, and passive.
I want to propose that Wake Div should become the first school to actively claim the high ground when it comes to theological education. Specialization through formal classroom education is a myth! The best pastors, priests, ministers, and activists—the best agents of justice, reconciliation, and compassion—aren’t “wet behind the ears,” possessing only idealistic theories or abstract renderings of real-life experiences. Moreover, they are not specialists. The pastors who make a difference don’t specialize in funerals or weddings or Sunday mornings. Successful, meaningful missionaries don’t specialize in evangelizing. Successful activists don’t show up to their affected group and speak down to them from their speculative knowledge-base. Our best and brightest—our most theologically-attuned, our most compassionate & just, our most community-invested—are marvelous GENERALISTS. They transition with ease from preaching to washing dishes to visiting hospital patients to gardening to counseling to celebrating. They never say, “that’s not my area of expertise” because they don’t claim to be experts. These bright spots in our communities know that “specializing” in ministry is like “specializing” in living. Nobody says, “I’m really good at being in my twenties but I won’t be good at being in my thirties” or, “I specialize in dinner but not in lunch.” Ministry is like life in that whether we think we can “specialize” or not, that artificial distinction does not prevent us from encountering both ministry and life in their totality—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So what is it that makes Wake Div so special after all? Wake Div begins and ends with on-the-job training. Education in the classroom is always an informative compliment to ministerial realities. Community lunches, biweekly chapels, multicultural immersion trips, (and most importantly) the Art of Ministry component, are at the core of our Master of Divinity program. We realize that school is one piece of education but it is not the exclusive realm of educating. We recognize that ministry MUST be informed by the lived experience of ministers. Access to and involvement with ministers who have a finger on the pulse of ministerial life is ESSENTIAL to being a theological institution with any integrity. Our ecumenical commitment is not a wide-ranging ideological unity; it is a far-reaching and all-consuming belief that the best way to become an effective minister is to spend time with effective ministers. Our multi-denominationalist approach is not founded in our commitment to denominations; rather, it is rooted in our conviction that every church needs well-equipped generalists and that “specialists” do not actually exist. We believe that familiarity breeds ATTEMPT instead of contempt. We believe that successful ministers dare great students to be daring. We believe that effective activists tempt aspiring activists to be risky. Ministry is not something one finds out about on a bookshelf. It’s something they observe in the community. That’s why Wake Div’s greatest successes will be found not in the abstract stacks in the library (although we do have success there as well) but in the historical sections because we intend on making history rather than merely theorizing about it. We plan on changing the world by being effective agents of justice, reconciliation, and compassion. And we’ll do that by being active learners; by being in the world more than merely learning about it.
Our Pro Humanitate core won’t allow us, our moral integrity won’t permit us to be silent any longer. There are no such things as specialists in ministry. There is no certificate, no range of classes that qualifies you as an expert on day one. Ministry must be learned by actually doing it and at Wake Div we do just that: we learn by doing. We get our hands dirty and our feet wet and we lend serious reflection to it when we’re finished for the day. So when someone asks what sets Wake Div apart, we should only point to the abundance of ministers—agents of justice, reconciliation, and compassion—who are changing the world a little more each day. And then we should point out that none of them “specialized.”