A Seminary for Missionaries

Sergeant Joseph Lewis, A Missionary to America

Sergeant Joseph Lewis came to the United States as a refugee from Liberia, West Africa. He arrived during the civil war in Liberia; his mother’s family had family ties to the deposed president. The family had to leave his mother behind because of her relationship to the former president.

Once in the United States Joseph Lewis applied himself in school and did well. Unfortunately he had to leave school to earn money, to help support a family trying to make it in a new country, and to help fund his mother’s departure from Liberia.

There is not much work for a young refugee who has not finished school; his troubles piled up, and Joseph Lewis became homeless. He lived on the street. Eventually, out of compassion, a Christian friend’s family invited him to live with them. A brother of Lewis’ friend brought him to church, where he became involved to the point where he was asked to be a teacher and a leader in the congregation. Back on a good path, Joseph Lewis returned to school, and after years of hard work, was hired by the Baltimore Metro Transit Police Department.

Today Sergeant Joseph Lewis has a special calling to work with disaffected young people. He says, “People don’t understand us until we talk together.” He is especially drawn to those who see no purpose to their life. He told me, “You know, it makes a difference if someone from the community talks to them.”

When the pastor of  Lewis’ church left for another congregation, the members of Lewis’ church asked Lewis and another layman to lead them. Both were accepted into the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology, a program to prepare men and women in their communities for leadership in the church.  The difference between EIIT and most seminaries is that there is a strong distance education component. If the two men would have had to leave their congregation the church may well have died. This got me thinking again about the way we prepare women and men for ministry in the church.

It should be noted that in the early church it was not necessary to have a seminary education to lead a congregation. In earliest times potential leaders were identified by a local Christian community and proposed for mentoring by another church leader. It wasn’t until two hundred years after Jesus came alive and returned to His Father that formal preparation for public ministry began to be a requirement. I won’t go into a long history; many books have been written about this; information on the gradual rise of a professional clergy is readily available. It only seems “normal” to us because this is how it has been in recent history.

Gradually, as the church had more resources, buildings were able to be built and professional teachers were prepared to form church leaders. But maybe it is time to go back to an earlier day. The technology God has given us is allowing us to do that. Are classes given within “four walls” on a campus cut off from its community more effective than adult, action-reflection learning?

I originally began to think about this when I was the head of missions in the United States for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It was a challenge to find seminary graduates with the skill set needed to start a new mission. Many had good educational skills, but did not have the entrepreneurial spirit and faith needed to be the developer of a new mission. Furthermore, some who came from an ethnic group and a church tradition different from the norm at our seminary were not properly prepared for their ministry. I’ll give you an example.

Some of the African American men graduating from seminary had for four years been taught how to be the pastor of a white, middle class, suburban church. That is what the seminary taught us. None of these men I knew were ever assigned to such a church. All were sent back to an urban, African American community. However, when they used the skills they had learned in the traditional seminary, well, it took time to for them to figure out how to adapt to a style that wasn’t part of the seminary curriculum. To me, that was only not fair, it was wrong. To their credit, the seminaries have begun to recognize this.

More and more a strategy has been evolving that allows ministers raised up by their congregation to be educated and to remain in their context and serve. I see this as the difference between candidate “formation,” as the sems have defined their mission, and contextualization. Formation gets off the track when it assumes every communinty and every church is exactly the same. This results in teaching one style of ministry, which may or may not be appropriate to the needs of a congregation. Formation and contextualization respects the culture from which the leader is coming and in which they will finally lead. In my opinion, and that is what this blog is, that is being faithful to the mission of the church, to a congregation, and to the seminary student who wants to effectively serve their Lord and their community.

“You know, it makes a difference if someone from the community talks to them.”

To see a short video introduction to the full video interview click here

To see the full video interview click here