Theological Inbreeding


Recently I was sitting in one of my D.Min. cohorts when several of my colleagues were discussing our educational backgrounds and why we chose this particular school.  I’m attending a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), and while most in the group are Presbys, not all are.  Most of the Presby’s did their MDiv there as well. Some even did their undergrad studies there, too.  But then there’s me (the lone Disciple), a UCC pastor, a Congregationalist, and an American Baptist to stir up some trouble.

Most of us went to schools affiliated with our denomination somewhere along the way.  But I intentionally chose not to do my DMin at the same place I did my MDiv studies and not to stay within my denomination because I wanted to see a different religious landscape.  Another student said it better:  “Why would I want to go back to the same school or stay in my own denomination?  That’s inbreeding!”

Inbreeding it is.  But that seems to be the norm in theological education.  I see institutions hiring, sometimes exclusively, faculty that were educated at their institution or one identical in principle as theirs.  Or I see bios of people that have 2, 3, or more degrees all from the same school and I wonder how they could stand it.  I went to multiple schools for practical reasons, but I realize now subconsciously I may have done so in order to stay sane.  First, I tried a state university, then a private Mennonite College, then a Disciples seminary, and now a PC(USA) seminary.  I have found a unique voice in each experience.  Each has played a critical role in shaping my development, education, and pastoral vocation.  And in journeying from one landscape to another I realize how valuable having different perspectives is.

But sometimes Christians only want to hear what they already believe.  I remember being warned by some people about attending certain schools.  These same people would encourage me to attend another school that, of course, agreed with all of their ideas.  Sometimes our denominational systems strongly encourage us to stay within because when we venture off to other learning environments we might venture out of the realm of their control.  And sometimes we’re just lazy in our choices.  Whatever our vice, inbreeding is becoming the norm in our denominational theological institutions.  And the Church is suffering because of it.

It’s time to encourage some sowing of wild oats and encourage exploration of theological education beyond the shelter of our denominational systems.  We need to begin to hear the voices that are different from our own, and to explore ideas that may seem foreign to us.  And we need to trust that God will speak and form and equip for ministry in the unexpected places.  Some of the best gifts for Disciples ministry I have received came from Presbyterians and Mennonites.

By Dan Mayes

Dan Mayes is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He currently serves as pastor of First Christian Church in Spencer, IA.  He has served congregations in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma.  His own blog is located at danmayes.net

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4 thoughts on “Theological Inbreeding

  1. Dan,

    Thanks for your comments. It is possible to experience theological inbreeding, though I will say that most seminaries hire people that have at least a portion of their education outside their own ranks. That being said, I have both my M.Div and Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary. Of course Fuller is multi-denominational and I was able to experience faculty from a variety of traditions without leaving the seminary. I had Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, AGs, and more.

    I think we attend schools for a variety of reasons, some of which are convenience.

    All that said, as far as theology goes, once we’ve learned how to do theology, then it’s really our responsibility to pursue multiple venues — including readings outside one’s own tradition!

  2. Stopping theological inbreeding is all good and well IF it includes the courage to implement cross-pollination in our congregations.

    How many ministers-with-congregations get advised to not rock the boat, don’t risk the job by advocating progressive theology, liberation theology, or social justice advocacy.

    Do seminaries and denominations teach and support courage? Without that, how is living the Good News going to be the defiant life it is suppose to be?

  3. As ordinary members of a congregation, my wife and I have experienced something of a blossoming since we moved from RC to CofE, so I can see what you’re saying in my own context.

  4. To fully live our Disciples heritage, we must work with, and learn from, other Christian traditions. Frankly, I think we do this very well. I’m also excited as I see us engaging in richer and deeper relationships with other religions as well.

    I’ll brag on Christian Theological Seminary (once again). In class you will find yourself sitting next to American Baptists, Unitarian Universalists, Presbies, Episcopalians, Quakers, AME, and others. It makes for great conversations. More importantly, it makes for great friends.

    Peace,
    Brian

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