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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ask The Matriarch:...Seminarianism!

Eschatology, exegesis and hermeneutics, OH MY! writes, somewhat tongue-in-cheekly:
I know I am only in my first semester, but I am wallowing in "seminarianism", or the use of all the "-ation" or "-ology" words to make one sound educated and "holy"... I don't talk that way. I don't relate my faith that way. Is it required that I sound like a walking Thesaurus to be an effective pastor? Somehow, I don't think so... but at the moment I am feeling fairly stupid.How does one combat the snarky little desire to throw out a little Greek or Hebrew or the massively impressive theological term in casual conversation to sound like a Reverend-WannaBe??Or am I just in a vocabulary learning curve?
And now for the Matriarchs' collective wisdom:
Susan advises:
I had a seminary professor who suggested that we learned all these fancy terms so we could sound smart at cocktail parties. Funny, I haven't been to that many cocktail parties.
I also knew a guy who used the Greek New Testament as his pulpit Bible. He translated as he went. Comment from the congregation: "He was so smart we couldn't understand him."
I told them that if he were really smart he would be able to help them understand the concepts and not have to use Greek or Hebrew or the massively impressive theological term.
revabi says:
LOL. We have all been there, and some of us still struggle with it. The "isms" get me. Part of being a Pastor is being the "Resident Theologian", or at least I was told that. I see it this way, I know that people come to us with tough questions or really want to know or understand something. My job as the "Resident Theologian" is knowing the resources to turn people to, helping them understand in a language they can understand, and often helping them with the questioning and wrestling they are doing with God.
Do I have to know it all, be able to expound it all? No, except when I served a church full of PHD's and they knew it all or thought they did, and I had to be on my toes. But seriously it is important to know the "ology" and "ation" and Greek and Hebrew to be informed to keep learning and to help inform our congregation and keep them growing as disciples.
I remember being told I would lose my faith by going to seminary, that they would strip it away for all the head knowledge. That was not what happened at all though, My faith grew as my knowledge base grew. I didn't just have a heart religion or feeling religion but a head and heart faith. I learned that I loved learning, and that I was being taught to think for myself, and not to be afraid to ask the big and hard questions. I learned I love NT and Greek and some other parts of my Divinity degree. Later on I have learned I have a love for the OT and Hebrew.
"Seminarianism," that's a funny title for it, I thought it was a cemetery. Develop your friends, read short stories and novels, have a hobby or sport, listen to your favorite music. Get a life, get off campus, I mean you are human aren't you? And when you serve a church you will be serving humans too, take a hint from Jesus, he treated them like human beings and acted like one himself.
I like what Jan said about spouting terms at parties, that's like the Doctor or Psychologist spouting clinical terms at parties. Yuck.
In the book Ministry is a High Calling (Aim Low) by Kurt R. Schuermann, He has a chapter titled "Don't ever use any word you learned in seminary". On page 4, he then lists the words as the following but not limited to:
  • Liturgical renewal
    The inner child
    Paradigm shift
    Sitz im leben
    Process thought
    The homiletical plot
    Tribal amphictyony
    Any Greek word
    The name of a German theologian
    The name of any theologian
Lord, I confess I have sinned and offended my sisters and brothers by using the words; visioning, the inner child, empower, and any greek word. Lord have mercy, I am guilty of "Seminary-ese."
Jan offers this:
Dear Seminarian,
Although denominational committees charged with overseeing seminarians might disagree, you are going to seminary to please God – not them. While they and your professors, and even a couple of obnoxious classmates, might find it impressive to say things like "I used to concur with Anselm's theory of atonement but now I'm more of an Abelardian" Jesus didn't talk like this any more than you do.
There's nothing worse than a pastor who is least likely to remind everybody of Christ.
The average parishioner is going to be more interested in your bedside manner, how real you are, and how much you love them even when they are unlovable.
You are called to make disciples of all nations and while it's good to know your theology, you will please God and find that people take you seriously as a pastor if you use your theology to serve not to show off. People who unnecessarily toss around words like "soteriology" never get invited to cocktails parties. (Or at least the fun ones.)

Me(Galley Cat):
I'm renowned for being a walking thesaurus, but as a layperson, when someone in clergy drops one of those words in my lap I find myself scrambling for a dictionary and annoyed that I'm "not smart enough." I can only imagine how it is for the layperson who hasn't studied Latin and Greek extensively (as I have) and isn't a professional editor (as I am). Now, I know you submitted this partly in lighthearted jest, but one of the reasons I thought to run it is that during a book discussion group recently, one of the priests leading the discussion dropped a ten-dollar word into the discussion and everyone in the room simultaneously did the blank-nod-vacant-smile face of incomprehension.
This isn't a problem peculiar to seminaries; its rampant in academia. And while we all shared a chuckle at your distress, there is something you can do. Come to understand these concepts in language that means something to you--by doing so, you'll be able to convey these concepts in language that means something to the people you are talking to. For the real gift of a true communicator isn't that she is a lexical heavyweight, it's that she can bring grander themes and issues into focus using language and diction that connects with people regardless of their backgrounds.
*runs off to look up "soteriology" again*
(And big thanks to RevAbi for helping me out this week.
Galley cat did the big work compiling the answers. I did the posting as she was detained momentarily by situations in her personal life, but says she will be back next time. And by the way Soteriology is the doctrine of the work of the Redeemer or doctrine of salvation as effected by Jesus. You can go to St. John Rev Abi to find some more links.)


  1. We've all been guilty of Seminarianism from time to time but the best pastors and pastor wannabes are the ones who can take the heady conversations of the seminary into real life applications. The mother's who work in Children's Ministry with me don't care that my thesis explored the commicatio idiomatum but they do care if I can teach their children reasons why to have faith in God. And really, that is the more important task anyway. Revel in the seminary life, take it all in, but remember to translate it to real life from time to time and you'll do fine!

  2. This second-year student thanks you for this post!

  3. LutherLiz said everything I wanted to. This was a great post. I wish I would have read when I was still in seminary. :)

  4. As a relatively recent div-school grad and a 4th-year minister, I feel I have to come to the defense of "Seminarianism," as it's being referred to here. It's true that used wrongly these ideas and concepts can stand in the way of good communication and learning. But it's also true that they're often the best, if not the only, words to use.

    I was at a conference about a year ago where we addressed these problems, and we settled on dual roles for the minister: minister as theologian and minister as translator. The truth is that scripture and theology are not always self-evident. Faith is not always simple. There are entire disciplines of thought devoted to these things, and it's never a bad thing for a minister to be familiar with these disciplines. "Minister as translator" implies that the minister understands the academic and theological arguments, and is capable of drawing a bridge between these ideas and the average layperson.

    So while it may be tempting to rail against your seminary experience, I advise you not to do it. Seminaries exist because for hundreds of years, they've been preparing people just like you to translate between theology and everyday experience. But you can't do that if you don't know the language.

  5. And that right there is why I hesitate to go back for my D.Min. I cannot take another round of 'my words are bigger than yours, am I worthy now?'

  6. Great answer to a question that's also on my mind!

    One thing I also have to watch (due to studying in a very liturgical tradition) is the use of baffling liturgical words with people who have no reason to know what I'm talking about. Words like ciborium, cope, dalmatic, purificator, rood screen, reredos, lavabo, invitatory... you get the idea.

    It seems like it's important both to absorb as much as possible while here and to stay connected to the real world at the same time.

  7. Yeah, boys howdy, all of the above.

    I tend to use large words myself, simply because that's how I think; but I have learned to translate them, as Jessesfella said.

    Of course, sometimes I have half a conversation in "churchese" with my deacon or musician (the latter has a divinity degree) and then half in "memberese" with a congregant...

    The "fancy" seminary words have remained alive for a reason--they express a concept concisely. The issue is, I think, that not everyone knows which concept is being referred to, and that's where the sense of exclusion comes in. The challenge is to educate and communicate at the same time. I don't want to "dumb down" worship or my sermons; but I don't want to exclude either.

    I am especially sensitive to this because many of my congregants grew up in a tradition that did not teach its members much about theology or why things were done in the liturgy, or do much Bible study, for that matter. I can take nothing for granted when it comes to Bible references, the liturgical year or worship in general.

    Bottom line--the words and terms are tools. Dont't get tricked into thinking they are the substance of the seminary experience or that learning them is the reason for seminary. They aren't. They should help you understand, and then you can use other words if you want (and you probably will, LOL).

  8. What jessasfella said...and..., not that we want to speak falsely in any way, but what is wrong with using such terms? As long as we can define them somehow, explain them somehow, then there is no falsehood in it.

    I think of it in terms of a medical doctor's work. They have names for things we did not know we has scooting around in our bodies. There are glands and organs and all that mess. We want them to know what the names are, to know that they have learned a language and a school of thought.

    Why not ask the same for our theologians? Our pastors? Our language moves far afield of pneumos as well...we speak of being Abrahams's children, as the vine...all these need explanation and time lived in a community as well. Somehow we have to talk about our tradition.

    I have met Christians who find the word resurrection off putting...and though there are always very understandable reasons for this, such experiences have me leaning more and more toward traditional theological terms and not farther away.

    P.T. Forsyth says that "theology is faith thinking." Cannot there be a language for such a thing?

  9. Minister as translator sounds a lot like minister on high horse to me.

  10. As a well-educated pastor serving a considerably less well-educated congregation, I was on the watch from day one that I not fall into the habit of speaking seminary language. The people at Small Church are already disinclined to ask questions for fear of seeming stupid, a communal attitude that long precedes my presence there. So, if I want to explain high vs. low Christology, I don't. I simply talk about how we experience and understand Jesus. And so forth.
    Yes, doctors have special language, and it is exactly that language that creates a barrier between "us" and "them." I'm not saying we have to speak to our congregants as if they were in kindergarten, but we must not assume a level of vocabulary, much less Biblical literacy, that is not there.
    Introit may be a perfectly cromulent word, but if you don't know what it means, it doesn't mean anything. Are we called to reach the people, to communicate to them the love and forgiveness of God? I'm far more interested in being sure people feel loved by God than that they have a snappy definition of soteriology.
    I don't see this point of view as slamming seminary in any way. I loved seminary, and I enjoyed learning big words, but they don't make for good bedside manner in the hospital or kitchen table manner on a pastoral call or preaching manner on Sunday morning, at least not in my particular context.

  11. great post- someone at my college suggested we'd all end up with a ology in ologies; funny I've just posted on our use of and need for words whilst reflecting on 3 assignments I have to write!:


  12. Seminarianism - I love it.

    I am always struck when I read the Gospel of John how many one-syllable words he uses, and how profound the text is.

    I just had occasion to get out the statement of faith I wrote when I began my journey toward ordination. My comment was that I would not change the ideas, but I would make the sentences shorter. The big words and long sentences do not communicate to people whose expertise is in other areas.

    One of the things I do every year is read the standard ordination exams my denomination inflicts on candidates for ministry. Those who write the exams are constantly being advised that they are writing for laypeople. The papers that pass are the ones that ordinary people can read and understand.

    Yes, we need to learn the language. Eschatology and teleology and all the other ologies in our vocabulary are part of the language. But you grow into them. You don't hand a child who asks about "the facts of life" a medical text, any more than you hand a parishioner who asks about resurrection a theology book.

    Now back to writing my sermon for Sunday on teleology (yes, for real, but I'm not using that word).

  13. I call it seminaryspeak. I slip into it while on campus, but I usually don't use it elsewhere (well, not much!)

    When I was in science, I use the jargon when around other scientists; faster, easier, efficient. Precise use of language. However, one of the tasks of a minster is to make the gospel available for their congregation. At Glenn Memorial (where most of the Emory Profs worship), USE the language. They probably wouldn't bat an eye at 'soteriology.'

    But in rural Georgia, when I used the word "invictive," there was a man who literally started rubbing his forehead. Use the language of your people.

    After all, Paul did it. When he preached to the Jews in Jerusalem, he used their language and images. When he preached in Athens, he used the language and images of the Greek philosophers. (It's in Acts somewhere...)

    When in Rome, do as the Romans.

  14. Behind these words are concepts that I had not fully (or even paritally) explored before seminary. It is important that we know and understand the concepts, in order to be able to preach, speak, and teach for our congregations. However, we do not need to use the big long word in order to discuss the concept with parishioners.

    At the same time, I have found use of some of these words crucial in my papers for my ordination committees. Another good reason to learn them.

    At this time, I am serving in a hospital setting where many patients speak languages other than English. Very few of them have education beyond high school if that. With these patients and families, I deal with concepts such has why God allows such deep suffering, or does God cause it? I help some find answers to whether or not they can be forgiven. These are concepts I explored in Systematic Theology class using many seminarianisms. Here they are just life questions addressed in everyday language.

    Sorry I rambled. To make a long answer very short: Study the words and their meanings. Then figure out what they mean to everyday life and faith.

  15. I haven't heard and probably haven't read the word soteriology since seminary, and my heart just fluttered. It's like word candy.

    I miss academia. I love the parish, but I miss academia.

  16. Soteriology isn't academia. Soteriology is matrix illusion.

  17. To those who linked to the post at St. John's Rev Abi, I apologize. I had the worse time with blogger yesterday. It ate parts of my post, linked links that weren't write, had people writers of books they didn't write, and all kinds of things. I deleted the post, reposted with corrections and darn it if blogger didn't do the same thing again. Tried to correct the new post, but nothing changed. I finally gave up, and decided I would repost today. So sorry for the mistakes and bloggers consumption needs.

    I have really enjoyed reading the posts with the differing views. It is helpful to see both sides. Good discussion.

  18. Ouch! I resemble the remarks, and I'm not even a seminarian...just a lay geek who reads a lot of theology.

    I don't think that the problem is in the jargon itself, but rather in using it in appropriate circumstances (with other church geeks) and/or for appropriate purposes (to communicate complex ideas in shorthand form, not as a means of showing off, or even as a means of trying to demonstrate to others that I's bin to collidge and dun that fancy larnin').

  19. this was seriously good :) and I laughed at the pastor and his Greek NT ... but maybe I should have cried :(

    I like the thought that theology is heart and head ... it's what the disciples found too - (see John) - they saw with their own eyes, touched with their own hands - it's all impiricial and I get a bit cross with the tendancy to quote Heb 11 only and say that faith is not seeing. It's both.

    sorry .. that probably wasn't needed here, just blurted out ...

    as preachers, pastors, men and women of God we have to talk the language of the people and bring Him to them, and vice versa. Hiding behind isms never ever helps reach that goal.

  20. Or Her, as the case may be...

  21. what a great discussion. I agree with mid-life rookie that it's the concepts that are important, not the words as "words". Understanding the tradition of faith in the language of academia can help one to develop a more full comittment to the faith. I'm a linguistic theologian, so the words do express a lot for me, but I know not to use them with teenagers unless they are asking why and wherefore and the deeper questions about tradition.

    What a great disputatio.

  22. Koinonia and justification mean "Fellowship" and "grace, not works". I just had it out with Hubby over this!
    Y'all crack me up!


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