In a time when so many are questioning the relevance of seminary education in its present forms, our editor, Forrest Inslee, reached out to Jimmy McGee, President and CEO of the Impact Movement—an organization committed to raising up “leaders of African descent.” As someone whose work entails offering guidance to Black students in particular, we wanted to understand his unique perspective on the question.
Forrest: Jimmy, in your work with the Impact Movement, I am sure that there are students you run across for whom the possibility of seminary comes up. Would you ever recommend the option of getting a seminary degree to some of them?
Jimmy: Yes—and no. It depends on what seminaries are offering. In most cases, I don’t recommend a Master’s of Divinity because, first, I find that the course load is almost equal to getting another BA or BS. So, it’s a lot of work and it’s very costly. Second, I think that many MDiv programs are about 25 to 28 years behind current times, and that bothers me; it means that they’re preparing people to be leaders of a church for 1987. We’re not dealing with 1987 issues now, we’re dealing with the 21st century. I would argue that we need to do a little revamping of our seminary education.
Let me give you a good example: Some seminaries offer a degree in Christian Education, but they don’t talk about pedagogy, they don’t talk about developmental models for adults or kids—they only talk about what information they deem important for people to learn in church. They don’t teach people to be critical thinkers of faith—even though that’s the biggest need for non-clergy professionals who are wrestling with real world issues. Such people need a substantive foundation in Scriptures with a substantive understanding of theology in order to engage the issues that they’re facing in the world today—and to not be afraid of doing that boldly. Now am I saying that, across the board, no seminaries do that? No. Some do it better than others, and it has little to do with whether they are progressive or not. I think there’s enough to be condemned in both categories.
My concern is the lack of imagination that allows seminaries to persist without paying much attention to the problems of this nation. For example, one could argue that this country is more segregated now in 2022 than we were in the early 50s. If that’s the case, what’s the deep problem we need to address? Or, just look at new demographics if you want to understand what seminaries ought to be talking about. Two years ago, for the first time in history, the majority of this country’s middle school children were nonwhite. The population has shifted, so we all need to critically think through what it is going to take to address the well-being of everybody and not just those of a historically dominant group. If I am going to encourage students to go to seminary, I would point them toward seminaries that are coming up with important programs that empower people to engage these critical issues.
To come back to my example of the student who is thinking about getting a degree in Christian Education, I said, don’t do that! Go get a Master’s in Education, and then get a certificate in theology, because an understanding of theology will inform the work you do as an educator.
Forrest: If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that if seminary does anything well—or could potentially do anything well—it would be teaching people how to think theologically rather than giving them a theology in a nice, neat package.
Jimmy: Exactly. But part of the process of learning to think theologically is to be exposed to a rich diversity of theologies. I think about the work of James Cone and his contributions to Black Liberation Theology. In his book God of the Oppressed, he tells stories about surviving in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era. He explains that the oppression he and his family faced because they were Black created a lens for reading Scripture. His life experiences, and even his biases, led him to argue that even Scripture tells us that God is the God of the oppressed. As a professor at Union Theological Seminary, the crucial questions he asked were: How is it that my white colleagues can’t admit that they, too, read the Bible through the lens of their experiences as white males? And why should those limited and biased interpretations of the Bible be presented in seminaries as the unadulterated word of God? As the pure reflection of God’s ideas?
I would argue that Cohn was spot on. We all need a collage of perspectives to help us learn how to think critically and theologically. And we need people like John McCarthy—a white Christian leader who had the humility to acknowledge that a white interpretation of Scripture should not be equated with “God’s truth,” and shouldn’t be assumed to be relevant and applicable to all humanity.
Forrest: I once interviewed Richard Twiss and he said something that had a powerful impact on me. He said that Native people have different ways of understanding Scripture—and a different way of thinking theologically—but that the mainstream church has relegated them to the “mission field.” And if you’re seen as an object of missionary efforts, then by definition you don’t have a voice with any sort of authority to speak to the wider church. Richard argued that because of this, the church as a whole is incomplete because it never hears the “corrective voice from the margins” that could help to make it complete.
Jimmy: I think you’re right on and it’s interesting you mentioned Richard’s name for two reasons: First, his name actually came to mind earlier when you asked your question. And second, because we’re coming close to the anniversary of when he died at the National Prayer Breakfast. I think Richard is spot on. In terms of marginalized perspectives, I think the same is true for Latino, Asian, and Black people. The problem, then, when my students go to seminary is that their Black bodies get filled up with white evangelical thinking, and that’s not good for anybody.
Now, am I saying white evangelical teaching is bad? No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that diverse perspectives are not getting enough shelf space on the seminary bookshelf. And that’s not just bad for people of color; nobody is helping white seminary students to understand the limits of their perspectives.
Forrest: I like the metaphor of shelf space. There are people who would defend the status quo seminary model and not really understand the value of diversified perspective. While they might begrudgingly make room on the shelf for alternative theologies, I think what is missing is the sensibility that, in the long run, that’s what is going to save them. In defending what they think is “orthodoxy,” they are cutting themselves off from new understanding. When the church is guided by a bounded perspective, shaped by dominant culture, its understanding of God and Scripture and the world is “woefully incomplete,” to use Richard’s term.
Jimmy: It’s so true. I’ve been married for over 30 years. I wash the dishes. My wife doesn’t do the wash in my house—I’ve been doing the wash since I’ve been married and I cook half the time. But let me just tell you this: Even though I do those things, it only gives me this much knowledge of what it means to be a woman…and I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m probably going to die not knowing fully what it means to be a woman in the world. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and I don’t learn. I don’t want to stay where I am. I want to be a better husband—I really do—and that means I’ve got to further understand my wife and her friends, and other women, as well, so I can continue to learn and grow.
It seems like the white evangelical world, they hit a ceiling and they got happy about it. There doesn’t seem to be a value of learning from difference.
Forrest: When you think about the ways that the seminary system could change, what you’re talking about is not something that’s achievable by little adjustments here and there. I wonder if it is going to take anything less than the wholesale dismantling and rebuilding of the institution. Still, if you were to dream a little bit about the kind of seminary that you would actually be happy to send your students to, what would be the signs that a particular school is on the path toward, say, being a place that equips people for critical and theological thinking for every vocation? Or that truly values diversity of perspective as essential to Christian formation?
Jimmy: A lot of us in campus ministry eventually think about graduate school and, more specifically, seminary. In my work with InterVarsity’s Urban Programs I was engaged in urban issues, environmental issues, and race issues. But when I started looking at seminary degree programs, I saw that I would have to take a lot of classes like homiletics and hermeneutics and Greek and Hebrew—pretty much standard stuff. But maybe you’d have one elective on race issues, maybe one in urban ministry—very few courses that spoke directly to my experience and the issues I faced in my job, so it didn’t make sense to me.
When I looked at what it would take to get a Master’s in Anthropology—well, it was only thirteen courses and a thesis. And I would get to do research on issues I cared most about! So, I took thirteen courses, did some research, and wrote a thesis—and that made me a master of anthropology.
That kind of experience isn’t easy to find in a Western seminary. These days I encourage my students and staff to go to an accredited school in Ghana, where they can get a Master’s in Theology by taking just 11 or 12 courses and presenting a thesis. You take classes both online and in person, so you don’t have to leave your job to get a degree. I encourage my students to do at least some of it in residence, though, because that gives them broader experience and deeper understanding of some subjects. I want them to go to Ghana so they can understand the importance of being in a country that was the first colonial sub-Saharan state to be liberated—and I want them to understand the powerful influence of Kwame Nkrumah in that movement, and his ideas of personal freedom and self-rule. I want them to go to the castles and fortresses where the slaves were shipped out and to be able to touch and see those symbols of oppression. They need to be in a place that reveres Scripture and loves Jesus, but isn’t caught up in the divisions and arguments happening in this country right now. Most importantly, though, I want these students to get an education in a nonwestern theological space that’s not constrained by the values of a single story.
We’ve seen so many seminaries close in the last ten years. That decline is only going to continue because the students in this new generation are more interested in education that allows them to engage the issues that are important to them—like climate change, environmental destruction, racial tensions, ethnicity and identity.
Students in Impact are struggling, honestly, with how the church has responded to these issues. Think about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, for example. Eventually the men who murdered him were given life in prison. But how do you make sense of the fact that the GoFundMe campaign that was set up to pay for their defense was heavily funded by white evangelicals? Students in Impact are asking: Why would I want to have a relationship with the God that is reflected in an evangelical world that perpetuates fragmentation and evil? I’m sorry, but that needs to be heard. It doesn’t have anything to do with social justice, critical race theory, or wokeness—it has everything to do with being right.
Seminaries have got to be in the business of truth-telling. We recently lost Desmond Tutu, and we need to remember his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That work was about telling the truth of the evils of Apartheid and making sure it became part of the permanent story of South Africa. Canada, as a nation, has done something similar, and their pursuit of truth and reconciliation meant naming the historical oppression of First Nations people. They exposed the stories of pain, abuse, and cultural destruction and made it part of history so that it couldn’t be forgotten. In the U.S., there isn’t the same honest confrontation of history. In this country, we contain the oppression of slaves in the forms of hearsay and mythology. And that has everything to do with the current struggles of Black people. But mythologies also hide the truth about the oppression of Native people, Latinos, and Asians—so we don’t have a foundation of historical truth to support the struggle for justice today.
You asked me, what kind of seminary would I feel good about sending my students to? A seminary that had the courage to honestly engage hard issues like these and one that taught students to do the same.
Cover photo credit: Redd