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Follow the Money

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A few months ago I heard a genuinely shocking statement at a leadership conference for pastors. The individual was saying that he wanted people in his community to think of his church before any others in the local area, and said quite matter-of-factly, "I'm after market share. And I don't apologise for that." I have no idea whether anyone else in the room was troubled by it (though I hope so); I certainly was, and it has come back to trouble me on and off ever since. What sort of pastors (or churches) are we, when someone can use the language of market-based competition to describe partnership in the gospel, and think nothing of it?

Recently, however, I heard a provocative lecture by Carl Trueman entitled “Follow the Money,” which gives a helpful perspective on this (presumably not unprecedented) phenomenon. Trueman channels Marx, Freud and others to make the case that there is a tension between the catholicity of the Church, and the way in which seminaries—his immediate audience for the lecture—market themselves. And it struck me as I listened to it that many, if not all, of the points he raises are also applicable to churches, denominations and families of churches. If you want to understand the competitive nature of modern seminaries (and alas, as in the case of the pastors conference I mentioned, churches), you have to read a bit of Marx and follow the money.

Trueman identifies a number of ways in which this tension plays out, and you can listen to the lecture here. Here’s my quick summary.

First—and this will not have escaped the notice of most people who have attended a few vision and values courses, or even read a few church websites—there is an ecclesial version of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences:

Free markets demand distinctives, for the purpose of protecting market share, and perhaps annexing areas of the market held by others ... So a potential contradiction exists between a shared confessional theology, and a competitive marketplace relationship. And that, I think, manifests itself in a sometimes subtle, but definite, subversion of the catholicty of the confessions by the emergence and marketing of distinctives that are only of intra-confessional importance. In other words, it is in seminaries’ interests to bring that which is actually a minor difference, tolerated within the bounds of the confession, and place it centre stage, in order to say: you need to study here because this is the really important thing.

Second, there is a tendency for all institutions to exaggerate the significance of their own “bigwigs” in contrast to everyone else’s. That is not necessarily sinful, and it may well be inevitable, but it is important not to believe your own propaganda. If you live in a small bubble, then your leading lights loom very large. If you live in a big one, they get a lot smaller.

Third: intellectual incest breeds idiot children. If you only read people from within your own tradition, you become stultified, narrow and ultimately harmed. (My enthusiasm for this point will probably not be news to anyone who has read this blog for a while.)

Fourth: at times, the seminary’s commitment to serve and resource the local church is merely rhetorical. Trueman brings some pretty striking challenges to the students here (particularly since he’s speaking at a seminary!): How often do seminaries allow themselves to be thrown under the bus to protect the local church, rather than the other way around? How many of your professors are serving on the kids ministry or cleaning rotas in their local churches? How many of you are?

Fifth: the wages of debt is spin. Seminaries were originally there for the purpose of training men for pulpit ministry. But as seminaries expanded, their costs increased, which means their income streams had to expand, which means that “the need for numerical expansion presses in hard. The most obvious way of expanding income streams is to recruit more students … More students means more degree programmes.” But this raises important questions. The multiplication of degree programmes does have ministry implications; if 80% of the students at a seminary are not training for pastoral ministry, it will obviously shape the culture and balance of the institution. It will affect what is taught, how often, who is hired, the focus of the seminary as a whole, and how the church is served by all this. Trueman also raises some sticky moral questions about the marketing of seminary degrees that will make the students (and perhaps their churches) poorer, through fees and the consequent debt. Admittedly, it is good that people want to learn more about the Bible—“but the people making that argument aren’t the people paying for that, they are the people being paid because of that.” Ouch.

As I say, his immediate context is that of a seminary, although I suspect that most of these points apply, mutatis mutandis, to churches. It’s a really fascinating lecture, and applicable to people who are involved in pastoral leadership, hosting conferences and running training courses (or, in my case, all three). Follow the money.

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