Thinking and serving

Students of theology often get caught up in throwing around jargon. As we study, we learn new concepts and the words that go with those concepts. Part of the process of learning this new language is using it. Sometimes when words are used out of context, however, they fail to communicate meaning. The very tools we use to communicate can fail us if we use them in ways that are not understood. It takes a bit of time and skill to learn how to use specialized language to enhance understanding rather than as a tool to separate one from others. I remember being in my mid-twenties, filled with new knowledge and confident in my use of language and thinking that part of what I had learned was so specialized that it separated me from those who lacked a similar education. A wise advisor suggested that I offset my academic preparation with a few years of serving as a pastor of a local congregation in order to round out my preparation for ministry. The advice was solid. Seven years serving two small congregations in Southwest North Dakota did a lot to teach me about the role of humility and the power of using the language of the people I serve.

I didn’t stop reading or thinking theologically. On the contrary, I studied as hard or harder than I had when I was in school. However, as I honed sermons each week, I also learned to think in the terms and concepts of those I was called to serve so that the ideas of my academic education would be communicated to those people clearly.

Early in my formal education, I learned about the process called exegesis. The literal translation of this concept is “to lead out.” Its application means to allow ones self to be led by the Biblical text. Exegesis is a process of careful, objective analysis of scripture, a deep seeking of the meaning that is contained in the text. We were taught to analyze the language carefully, considering the effects of translation, history and culture on our understanding of the words. We considered all of the sources that were available to us, including the commentaries of other scholars and students in a process of trying to determine the meaning that is inherent in the texts that we studied.

We also learned another word that describes an opposite approach to holy texts: eisegesis means to lead into. In theology it is used to describe a subjective, non-analytical reading of the text. Eisegesis is a process of having a conviction or meaning in one’s mind and literally reading that meaning into the text, resulting in an interpretation of the text that is consistent with the beliefs that one held before encountering the text. A common form of eisegesis is having a concept that one wants to communicate then looking for bible quotes to back up that particular opinion. Coming out of seminary, I was surprised at how often people asked me for eisegesis. They would come to me and ask me “where in the Bible does it say . . . ?” looking for biblical texts to back up their convictions. It is exactly the opposite of the way I was taught to approach scripture.

One doesn’t, however, have to resort to using the words exegesis and eisegesis in order to speak of how scripture is approached. When I take time to explain to people that I am disciplined about studying the whole of scripture and that I follow a lectionary that gives me the texts for preaching rather than coming up with a sermon and looking for texts to illustrate my point of view, people are generally appreciative of my approach. It makes sense to them that if one wants to discover the truth in scripture, one must start with scripture itself and carefully study it.

I was fortunate to have attended seminary in a time when theological education was deeply based on collaborative learning. We were expected to be full-time residential students, that is, we lived in the seminary with other students as we studied. We read the same texts at the same time as our classmates and we discussed those texts not only in class but also around the meal table and in our homes. We understood that the perspectives of our classmates were critical to our understanding of the difficult and challenging books we were reading. As we wrestled with theological concepts, we formed community that worshipped together. Lifelong relationships started in our years of study.

That is quite different from current theological education, which is primarily taught in commuter schools, to which students travel for short times of common study, living in separate places. Increasingly theological education is conducted online with students acting independently and communicating primarily with teachers while remaining isolated from other students. The academic rigor may be as intense as was the case in our formal education, but the development of community is different and, in some cases, completely lacking.

The result is pastors who are probably better grounded in the communities they serve than we were immediately following our years of academic study. There is probably less jargon and fewer temptations to use specialized language. On the other hand, academic skills may be less well developed and critical thinking less honed than was the case in the style of education we experienced. It may be that just as we graduated from the academy needing a few years of practical experience to become fully developed as pastors, graduates of theological educations these days need additional academic work and exposure in order to become fully effective. The current fashion of forming clergy accountability groups seems to be the model for holding pastors academically responsible as the practice ministry. We were given those groups in seminary as an essential part of our academic practice. These days the group is formed after the pastor is serving in a congregation.

However it works, careful study is a group process in which the ideas of one individual need to encounter the ideas of another to be tested and refined. Study and learning become a lifestyle and not just a part of one’s preparation. The wisdom of the community continues to inform the practice of ministry.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!