Wallace Alston, Jr. the former director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, wrote in one of his books that the gap between the academy and the local parish is widening. His reference was to the distinction between academic theology and practical theology and he suggested that clergy are leaving seminaries today more steeped in theology from an academic perspective but less prepared to deal with the practical reality of people in spiritual crisis and need. I am sure there is a ring of truth to his words.
My wife was schooled in the old manor of teaching nursing to students. She worked the floors in the hospital from day one and had an immense practical aspect to her academic training. The lament today is that nurses come out with bachelor's degrees but have given shots mostly to oranges, started IVs only a couple of times, and have little experience in the daily life of the nurse at the beside.
My concern is somewhat different. The disconnect between seminary and parish that concerns me is that which centers upon the confession, life, and liturgical identity of Lutheranism. Honestly, the seminarian heading to his first call is more likely to find a mishmash of catechetical and liturgical realities. This is in contrast to the rich liturgical life and to the confessional focus of the training provided him in seminary. This is not a new divide. I found it when I entered my first parish some 33 years ago. The congregation had actually been thinking about jettisoning the name Lutheran because they did not think it communicated anything positive -- not to them or to the people in the community. Thankfully some saner heads prevailed here but the reality was that my first years were spent catechizing the people as if none of them knew what a Lutheran was. It was formative for me and prepared me to the same in my second and current parish.
What troubles me is that this gulf has widened. Contemporary worship and music has invaded the church culture and life of Lutheran parishes to the point that many seminarians find that their first worship services as Pastors are conducted in a physical setting, language, and context alien to Lutheran confessional identity. It is more and more likely that the new Pastor will find that the liturgical life of his first call will look more like the non-denominational church down the block than the koinonia expected by the confessional standard named in the parish constitution.
In addition, we have lived through Bible studies that speculate more than teach so that the people listening to the new Pastor have been led to believe and now accept pretty much as truth the idea that the Scriptures are a muddled book, that their truth is adjustable and flexible, and that no one can really say anymore "Thus saith the Lord." Personal opinion has become at least as powerful as this is what has been believed, confessed, and taught through the ages. Contrast this with the high degree of confidence in Scripture and tradition which the seminarian learns in his academic training.
Finally, it is more likely now than ever that the first parish will expect that diversity and flexibility are as important as faithfulness to the life and ministry of the congregation and the Pastor. This has grave implications for who communes, how we do the work of the Lord, and who we connect with in mission and Christian identity. Congregations are often divided by personal taste in worship (contemporary or traditional) and by what has come to be known as missional vs maintenance orientation.
It is no wonder that there is more disillusionment among new Pastors than ever before and more conflict in parishes. Now there are those who suggest that the seminary needs to adjust its training to account for this. Perhaps St. Louis leans more toward this than Ft. Wayne does. But the real issue is the question of Lutheran identity and practice itself. The seminary teaches the candidate to have confidence in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, in the liturgy, and in the evangelical and catholic tradition. Is this a bad thing? Is this not the very thing that the parish ought to expect from a Lutheran Pastor?
My fear is not that we will end up with an academic clergy unable to provide honest pastoral care. My fear is that we will end up with two seminaries -- one for those who with to be Lutheran in style as well as substance and the other willing to be flexible. I say this not because I believe that one or the other seminary wants to head in that direction. I say this because I believe the pressure mounts upon the seminaries to produce candidates to fit their constituencies. Already we have the stereotype that one seminary produces high church candidates steeped in Lutheran orthodoxy and the other produces open and flexible candidates who know how to make it happen. The bigger issue is not whether or not this is true but why we have such divergent expectations in the first place.
The goal and the outcome should be a seamless theology and practice, formed by Scripture and the evangelical catholic tradition, and adept at providing pastoral care to people in the real world around them but in an authentic and faithful manner.