Death of a seminary visionar

Early in his first pastorate, the Rev. Clyde McDowell was hit with one crisis after another and none of them seem to have been covered in his seminary textbooks.

The son of a church member got caught up in a bad drug deal. Then a girl ran away from home. Then a boy was tossed out of school for threatening someone with a hunting knife. Then there was a guilty wife and an angry husband and a messy sexual affair. Then McDowell had to climb out on a roof to talk to a suicidal member of the youth group, who was holding at shotgun.

His early sermons and church board meetings were tough, too.

"I felt like I was lost and nobody had given me a set of directions," he told me, a decade ago. "I knew a lot about the Bible, but I didn't know how to be a pastor."

McDowell survived and then thrived. Then, in 1996, the 46-year-old pastor accepted the challenge of being a seminary president. He was emerging as a new voice in a critical debate about the future of seminaries. But doctors discovered he had a brain tumor only 16 months after he became president of Denver Seminary. He died on June 7.

It's crucial to understand that McDowell did not want to "modernize" the process of seminary education, but to embrace an older model. He wanted ministers to do their studies while surrounded by flocks of real believers and the experienced shepherds who lead them.

Today, most seminaries are structured like graduate schools and teach clergy a specialized theological language that often makes it harder to talk to lay people, said the Rev. Leith Anderson, a nationally known author and megachurch pastor who is serving as Denver Seminary's interim president. It helps to contrast this with the approach used in medical schools, in which students are quickly given a white coats and, under the watch-care of mentors, asked to do case studies on real people while continuing classroom work.

"Would you want to go see a doctor who had been to med school and had taken all the right courses, but had never touched a patient the whole time he was there?", asked Anderson. "Would you want to be that first patient? I think not. So, would you want to be in somebody's first church if they had taken all the right seminary courses, but had never had any contact with real people and real pastors? I think not."

Nevertheless, many faculty members believe the core courses in the archetypal seminary curriculum have been carved in stone. Meanwhile, stressed-out pastors face media-saturated homes, workaholic parents and children who seem mature and frighteningly immature at the same time. When it comes to spiritual answers, their people are as likely to turn to Oprah and "The X-Files" as to church programs.

Many growing churches have responded to all of this by ceasing to hire seminary-educated men and women. Some train their new leaders on their own.

These issues were swirling around Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, when I taught courses there focusing on mass media and popular culture. I led a number of forums with McDowell at the nearby Mission Hills Baptist Church, which grew from 600 to 1,700 members during his 13-year tenure. His vision was already taking shape.

At some point, he said, people needed to know that pastors truly understood the issues they faced in daily life. This would require more than adding a few course titles in the seminary curriculum and increasing the amount of audio-visual equipment on campus. While he didn't what to short-change the study of doctrine, he had decided that seminaries couldn't settle for teaching truth as a list of statements on a test.

Competent, healthy pastors, he said, must be able to live the truth, as well as write academic papers about it.

"They must be truth implementers," stressed McDowell, in one 1997 essay. "They must know how the truth applies to this age whether it's the Age of Aquarius, the Age Wave or the New Age. In this age of unbelief, belief comes hard to those who only hear the words of preaching, but see little evidence in life."