The school year is about to go into full swing, which means that many are back to studying and showing themselves approved in the academic sense. Among that group are thousands of first-time and returning seminarians, people from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t just bound to be pastors, fill pulpits, and preach. But all of this is unbeknownst because most people have only known seminaries and theology schools to be the training ground for the future pastors and spiritual leaders of America. Today we will tackle some of the misconceptions that follow the seminarian. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will help shed some light on the fact that seminarians are not just holier than thou students. So without further ado, here are seven things that seminarians aren’t.
Maybe there are a few saints roaming the halls of your local seminary—doubtful considering the criteria for sainthood–but for the most part seminaries are full of everyday people who struggle with sin and salvation–especially when they are sitting in a class called “Sin and Salvation.” Their prayers don’t get to God any faster. They don’t walk around quoting the Bible—well not all of them and sometimes it’s necessary to quote and memorize scripture if you are about to walk into the Old or New Testament exam. They may not always be compelled to acts of charity and service—because the reality is their schedules might not permit for it. They are not always nice…Long story short, if there was a process for canonization available during a seminarian’s time in school, not many would make it. Blame it on the seminary or the seminarian, either way, saints are few and far between.
It is not uncommon for someone to step into seminary and step out of the prayer closet, this happens for a variety of reasons not limited to the fact that seminarian schedules are hectic. Between coursework, internships/residency, work, family, and life, prayer can become the last thing on anyone’s mind. I say this from firsthand experience, as someone who came to seminary as a fervent and frequent pray-er, and left as a periodic pray-er because my schedule and the rigor of my courses made prayer difficult–and lest I be remiss what I learned brought my previous understanding of the spiritual of discipline into question. To this latter point, the other thing about prayer in seminary is the practice is sometimes challenged by what is learned in class. How does one pray when they think about predestination, triple pre-destination, providence, reign of God, and all of those other big theological concepts? Why pray if everything was preordained at the beginning of creation? Does prayer change God or does it change us? Prayer can be complicated in seminary both theoretically and practically speaking.
Pastors in Training
It used to be that people came to seminary because they were called to pastor a church or go into another ministerial capacity but now only 4 in 10 MDiv—Master of Divinity—students plan to go into pastoral ministry full-time. More are considering a bi-vocational path and many more aren’t considering ministry, in the traditional sense, at all. Hundreds of thousands of people go to seminary as part of vocational discernment and then discover that they want to be professors, lawyers, marriage and family therapist and counselors, non-profit leaders, hospital or corporate business chaplains, and more. Or they just want to learn and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they took the seminary detour. And lest I be remiss, because I’ve spent some time around such people, some may want to reconsider who they heard calling them to pastoral ministry. Not all seminarians should be pastors and not all seminarians want to be pastors.
Saved…or even Christian
During my time in seminary I discovered that “saved” was not a term many people liked. This went for both students and faculty. The term reminded people of some factions of conservative Christianity whose primary goal is to save people and condemn the rest to hell. “Saved” language seemed exclusive and didn’t allow for a more open understanding of what life in the faith is. My Systematic Theology professor helped open some of us up to a different understanding of the term encouraging us to reflect on being “saved from something and saved for something.” But semantics aside, a popular misconception is that everyone who goes to seminary is “saved” in the same sense. Not to say that people don’t share a common salvific experience but they don’t use the same language—and sometimes not the same narrative of “coming to Christ”—to speak of the experience. It doesn’t make them any less “saved” as it may be popular known and constructed in Christian circles, there is just a difference in how people articulate their understanding of salvation personally and communally. Furthermore, not all seminarians are Christians. In a survey done by the Association of Theological Schools of 7,075 students across 174 schools, 0.5% were Buddhist, 0.2% were Muslim, 0.8% were Muslim and 4.5% were other. These may be small percentages but they still represent the fact that theology schools across the country are not just full of Christians but people from other traditions as well.
All White Men
According to the same survey referenced above, seminaries aren’t full of white men. In fact, African Americans are the second largest enrolled group representing 16.9% of enrolled persons in MDiv programs with Asian students right behind them at 10.2%. The existence and thriving of historically black theological institutes such as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio also attests to the racial diversity present in theological institutions. In terms of gender diversity, women account for 34.7% of MDiv students, and, as we have bore witness to, they are also part of the burgeoning population of women preachers, spiritual leaders and leaders in the workforce in general.
Sane, Naïve, Sure, Ready…:
I posed the question of what seminarians aren’t to my fellow seminarians past and present and the responses were many and varied. Among those responses were one-word answers such as “Sane. Naïve. Sure. Ready.” There is a measure of truth to all of these. Practically speaking, the sanity level of some people is questioned when they leave a secure career, significant others, or a hometown to pursue a theological education that will, at one point or another, drain them of everything. Yet very few seminarians are naïve about the space they have walked into, recognizing that it is going to require much of them—and possibly “steal their Jesus” as the urban legends in seminary goes. Surety and readiness are also part of the seminarian’s struggle because answering a “call” to go to seminary doesn’t mean that the called individual is sure or ready for any particular role in ministry or elsewhere. But, that is the beauty of the seminary space, that individuals who answer and engage themselves in the work of theological education are also in a space to continue to discern their call and find surety and readiness.
One respondent to my question pointed out that seminarians aren’t just seminarians. Of this she said, “…because many of our fellow students were scientists, authors, talent agents, and business professionals, in addition to being parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.” Among some of my classmates were doctors still on call, pilots, business owners, and writers just to name a few. This was in addition to the pastors and preachers who were serving congregations and traveling out of state to preach every Sunday only to get back home late Sunday night and tackle hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of writing. And, lest I be remiss, there are the seminarians who are also parents—single, married, committed partnership, or other—whose other major task, aside from being a student, is raising a child or family and attending to their needs almost as much as they must attend to the seminary work.
In conclusion, while there are many things seminarians, or better put after this article, “people who attend seminary” aren’t, the argument can also be made that they are all of these things. And yet we know that they are more than can be lumped into these seven categories. They are saints and sinners, prayer warriors and prayer cowards, pastors in training and people still discerning, mostly white men and a rainbow of cultures, insane, sane, unsure, sure, ready, unprepared, etc. The moral of the story is that people who choose to go to seminary can’t be lumped into simple categories, aren’t easily defined, and do live lives similar to most everyday people. They are people who choose to make a theological institution their home for one or more years, and may use that education as a launching pad for their life in ministry or a point of departure for other endeavors, but that decision doesn’t make them unlike anyone else outside of a seminary context. Long story short—too late—people who go to seminary aren’t any one thing you think they are.
The following story was published in 2009, but we here at UrbanFaith.com still believe it captures the essence of Gardner C. Taylor. Dr. Melvin Banks, founder of Urban Ministries, Inc., had the privilege of hearing Taylor preach to the masses and counsel other ministers, making him a minister’s minister. Of this, Dr. Banks shared:
“It was my privilege to have heard Dr Taylor speak on several occasions, not only as a preacher but also as a counselor to ministers. I fully agree with the assessment that he was “the prince of preachers.” Not only was he always sound in his exegesis of the text, relevant in applying Scripture to the current social situation and personal needs of people; he had a pulpit demeanor that showed that he had been with Jesus. I learned that he always began on Monday morning preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. He studied each day of the week through Friday. He would take no appointments on Saturday, choosing rather to pray and reflect all day in preparation for his delivery on Sunday. Would to God that every minister of the Gospel follow his model. The world has lost a great spokesperson for the Gospel.”
The Urban Ministries, Inc. and UrbanFaith.com extends our condolences to the Taylor family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and more. We have certainly lost a great in our community.
Rev. Gardner C. Taylor
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” summed up his philosophy of preaching this way: “Above all, [the preacher] must put heart work into his preaching. He must feel what he preaches. It must never be with him an easy thing to deliver a sermon. He must feel as if he could preach his very life away before the sermon is done.” Gardner C. Taylor knows something about this kind of preaching. For more than 50 years he has “preached his life away.” In 1979, Time named him “the dean of the nation’s black preachers,” and in a recent issue of the Christian Century, he was dubbed the “poet laureate of American Protestantism.”
“Gardner Taylor is a consummate communicator,” says William Pannell, professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, concurs: “More than anybody else I have heard in my life, Gardner Taylor combines eloquence and passion in the endeavor of preaching.”
As pastor of the 14,000-member Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Taylor, 77, labored as shepherd and prophet in Brooklyn’s rugged Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for 42 years until his retirement in 1990. Today, as Concord’s pastor emeritus, Taylor is called upon to fill pulpits, give lectures, and provide keynote addresses at churches and educational institutions throughout the country. Though the legend of Gardner Taylor is great, those who know him readily admit the actual man is even greater.
Taylor is a grand, stately figure, so it is odd to see him behind the wheel of his late-model Ford rather than perched behind a pulpit. As he drives by Concord Baptist Church, I call out the street name on the corner sign: “Rev. Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard.”
“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he chimes in. “But I come from Louisiana, where they named the state law school for former governor Richard Leche. His name was placed high up on the building, engraved in stone. However, when he was sent to the penitentiary, they took it down.”
Such wry, self-deprecating humor is customary with Taylor, who regularly uses anecdotes and personal remembrances to deflect attention away from himself and toward the business of preaching the gospel.
Baptist Genes and a Defining Moment
Born on June 18, 1918, to the Reverend Washington and Selina Taylor, Gardner Calvin Taylor inherited “Baptist genes” that many assumed would lead him to pastoral ministry. But he recalls, “I recoiled from the thought of being a preacher. I wanted to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer. My boyhood friends in Louisiana tried to discourage me from that idea, though; at that time, no black person had ever been admitted to the Louisiana bar.”
Taylor, nevertheless, continued his plans and gained admission to the University of Michigan Law School. But in 1937, prior to leaving for Michigan, Taylor was involved in a tragic car accident. As he drove one night in rural Louisiana, a Model T Ford suddenly cut across his path. “I tried to avoid them, but I couldn’t,” he recalls. Both of the passengers in the other car died. And, though Taylor survived, he was left “shaken at my roots.” Not only were two men dead, but they were two white men. And the only witnesses to the accident were a white farmer and a white oil refinery worker.
“In that day, for a white person to tell the truth about a black person in that situation was incredible; but those men told the truth. I would not be here today if they had not.”
Through that jarring event, Taylor received his call to the ministry. “I was surprised by God’s grace. I had been brooding about my future for a long time, but that was the defining moment.”
Taylor went on to three “bright years” at the Oberlin School of Theology, where he developed a scholarly appreciation for a wide range of subjects. While at Oberlin, Taylor met his wife and pastored a church in Elyria, Ohio. Following Oberlin, he served pastorates in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finally at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church. Taylor was only 30 years old when he arrived on the scene at Concord, which in 1948 was already a flourishing congregation of over 5,000.
Taylor deepened Concord’s now 148-year tradition as a prestigious and vital presence in the heart of New York’s inner city. He not only filled pews on Sunday morning, but he took faith out onto the streets. “One must get out of life and into the Bible,” he says. “But there are also times when one must get out of the Bible and into people’s lives.”
In Spite of the Preacher
Taylor’s holistic grasp of the gospel has resulted in a church that serves as a model for urban congregations across the nation with its commitment to community outreach and development. With Taylor at the helm, Concord established a senior citizens’ home, a fully accredited Christian grade school, a professionally staffed nursing home, and an economic-development program that draws on a $1 million endowment to provide grants to various social projects in the Brooklyn area.
But despite his tireless work in the roles of pastor and community activist, the wider world will always see his oratorical gifts as his defining quality. And understandably so.
“Often, in spite of the preacher, the people are ministered to,” he says. “The Word of God breaks through the preacher by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Taylor recounts a story from his days as a fledgling minister in Baton Rouge. In that Depression-ravaged era, he was in the midst of a sermon one Sunday evening when suddenly the electricity in his small church building flickered out. Encased in darkness, the young Taylor stood motionless, not knowing what to do. Finally, an elder deacon yelled out from the congregation, “Preach on, preacher, we can still see Jesus in the dark.” And that’s what the preacher has been doing ever since: proclaiming the Word into and amid the darkness.
Listening to Gardner Taylor preach is like “hearing the voice of God,” a colleague of Taylor’s has said. As quoted in Time, Richard John Neuhaus, now editor-in-chief of First Things, expressed amazement at Taylor’s ability to “[play] with a single word. … He whispers it, and then he shouts it; he pats, pinches and probes it.”
Listening to Taylor speak over an informal meal, like our lunchtime meeting, or under any circumstance is akin to hearing him on a Sunday morning. Even his common language is colored with rich poetic rhythm and imagery. He is not a preacher by profession but by nature; it’s who he is.
Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at the Duke Divinity School, says Taylor can draw applause from his listeners by simply reading a text. In his book The Preacher King, Lischer writes, “On one occasion as [Taylor] read some of the proper names in Luke 3 (Tiberius, Ituraiea, Trachonitis), members of the congregation began responding, ‘My Lord, My Lord!’ ”
Noted preaching scholar James Earl Massey believes Taylor has “one of the best working vocabularies of any minister alive.” Massey, who recently retired as dean of the Anderson (Ind.) School of Theology, has been a friend of Taylor’s for more than 20 years. He says Taylor’s command lies in his breadth of cultural knowledge. “He has a firm understanding of the best of both African-American and Anglo-Saxon culture,” he explains. “The best preaching is that which can go beyond one’s self and one’s own culture to touch others who are from different backgrounds — and that’s what Dr. Taylor does.”
“Dr. Taylor is a person who is able to move effortlessly across denominational and social boundaries to touch people’s lives,” adds Timothy George, who was introduced to Taylor as a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early seventies when the school flew Taylor in once a week to teach a homiletics course. But George remembers it being more of a course on life. “He has such great wisdom and tremendous theological depth and insight.”
Indeed, “wisdom,” “depth,” and “insight” are woven through all of Taylor’s preaching. The force of his sermons exercise both mind and soul. Like many traditional African-American pulpiteers, Taylor applies a meandering introduction that is as much a mental warm-up for the preacher as it is a preface for the sermon topic. But once Taylor launches into the body of the message, the congregation is transfixed by his skillful handling of the scriptural text. Both sound and content combine to propel the sermon to its roaring climax.
One is immediately gripped by Taylor’s flair for cunning exposition. He is at once storyteller and theologian. Thus the apostle Paul is presented as “a deformed wanderer with the label of Tarsus on his baggage.” And familiar passages are reenvisioned with profound implication: “Paul was filled with competence and commitment, on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem. … But on that road where he was, Somebody else was on that road. Because Somebody else is on every road. I don’t know what road you’re traveling today — it may be a road of great joy, it may be a road of sorrow — but Somebody else is on it.”
Taylor himself is less certain about the mechanics of his preaching. “Black preachers used to have a formula for delivering a sermon,” he told Leadership journal in 1981. “Start low, go slow, get high, strike fire, retire. But I can’t offer a formula for how I deliver a sermon; it depends on the sermon, on the mood of the preacher, on the mood of the congregation.”
Taylor insists that, whatever a sermon does, it must bring humanity in touch with its Creator. “There’s no excuse for the preacher if he or she is not speaking to people for God,” he says. “Preaching that does not bring in the vertical aspect of the sermon — the impact of God upon human life — cannot be called a sermon.”
Preaching in the Real World
Preaching “the impact of God upon human life” is an admirable aim. But often the human life becomes so complex, so messy that pat theological answers seem inadequate for speaking to a congregation’s concerns.
Taylor remembers countless instances when he was called upon to minister against the backdrop of both personal and national crises, such as World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil-rights revolution. “As I preached during those difficult days, I wanted people to know that God is still on the throne,” he says. “I couldn’t predict the future; I could only give them the assertion made by my old theology dean, Thomas Graham: ‘Faith is reason gone courageous.’ ”
Taylor’s own darkest night came earlier this year when his wife of 52 years, Laura Scott Taylor, an accomplished intellectual and community leader in her own right, was tragically killed by a city vehicle while crossing a Brooklyn street.
Laura Taylor was the founder of the Concord Baptist Elementary School, where she served as principal for 32 years without pay. “She was a very fine scholar and intellectual herself,” says William Pannell. “She was the one who exposed him to the theater and a much broader cultural and artistic pallet.”
“She was a very sharp and classy woman,” Taylor says of his wife. “At one point, I had gotten too involved in Brooklyn politics because of the size of the church. After a while, my wife said to me, ‘Your preaching is getting very thin.’ It was one of the most scathing things I’ve ever heard. I soon got out of preaching too much about politics.”
Taylor has now lived through the pain and grief about which he has consoled so many others. “They told me, ‘You have to listen to what you told us now, Pastor,’ ” he says. “The assurances that I passed out to people before — I thought I was sincere, and I thought I understood what they were going through. But I did not.”
In a recent address to his former parishioners at Concord, Taylor’s sorrow was visibly evident. “We are grateful to you [for your kindness during our loss],” he prefaced his message. “But I must not dwell on that now, because sometimes the heart is so sore — incurably so — that it cannot stand the touch of memory. So I will go forward.”
Through his forward journey, Taylor has gained an even greater appreciation of his faith. “When you come to personal crises in your life, as I have, I don’t know what people do without faith,” he observes. “I don’t always have a calm assurance about it, but I believe in all my heart that God will not do us evil. And when I understand what he is doing, I will appreciate it.”
Lately, Taylor speaks often of “the illusion of permanence.” He says, “I don’t think the young could live very well without that illusion. But as one gets older, this life begins to show its true quality of impermanence and unreliability. I believe God has ordained it so that as we must leave this world, it becomes less attractive.”
Besides being recognized as the senior statesman of African-American preachers, Taylor was a close friend and ally of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he supported during a particularly tense period in black Baptist circles. During that chaotic time 35 years ago, Taylor, King, and other ministers were involved in a controversial split from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBC, currently the largest black denomination in the U.S.) after a fierce debate over King’s civil-rights agenda. Some within the NBC felt it was too politically liberal. As a result, Taylor and others, led by the important work of Cincinnati pastor L. Venchael Booth, went on to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which today has a membership of 2.5 million.
Taylor is one of the few surviving Baptists who were involved in that ugly dispute. “Younger Baptists don’t talk about it much anymore,” he says, “but it was a very difficult time in my life. I lost many friends.”
A Classical Evangelical
Despite being so intimately tied to modern African-American history and despite his stature as a gifted orator, Taylor remains largely unknown within the evangelical community today. “It’s just another sign,” says Timothy George, “of the ghettoization of the church.”
Perhaps Taylor’s ability to move in and out of diverse Protestant circles — both mainline and conservative — has contributed to his lack of recognition among evangelicals. But, as Lischer notes, while Taylor “infuses his sermons with principles drawn from the liberal view of human nature and history,” he “holds to an explicitly evangelical doctrine of salvation centered in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”
But does Taylor consider himself an evangelical? Only in “the European sense,” he says. “European evangelicalism had a commitment to the gospel in its outreach toward human beings and the sufficient work of Jesus Christ,” Taylor explains. “But it was not a rigid kind of doctrinaire position, as it has been among many evangelicals in America.”
He adds, “I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society. If Christianity is not that, forget about it.”
Still, Taylor is encouraged by the hopeful signs of racial reconciliation that are emerging in the church today. Although he regrets that Concord Baptist Church never achieved a greater level of racial diversity during his tenure there, he appreciates the new sensitivity among Christians to the issue. “It is impossible, I think, to estimate the enormous impact that the whole evangelical community could have on this nation if it would free itself of its bias of race.”
Coming Back Empty
When Taylor volunteers his ideas on what makes a “great preacher,” the discussion turns to his list of personal heroes — a multiracial aggregate of pulpiteers. He speaks fondly of what he considers a golden age of preaching in New York during his early days in Brooklyn, when preachers like George Buttrick, Robert McCracken, Sandy Ray, Paul Sherer, and Adam Clayton Powell filled local pulpits.
That great tradition of preaching, fostered by Taylor and others, reverberates from today’s pulpits in one form or another. The call-and-response liturgy, rhythmic pacing and intonations, and holistic scriptural exposition are very much in evidence within contemporary black churches. Younger ministers such as James A. Forbes Jr., of the Riverside Church of New York and Gary V. Simpson, who succeeded Taylor as pastor of Concord Baptist, carry on the tradition of passionate black preaching. Yet some fear that there may be more flash than substance among many preachers in the younger set.
Taylor has no worries about the future of African-American preaching but does offer one cautionary note: “There is not too much emotion in the African-American church, but there is too much emotionalism. If what one is dealing with is so great, so gripping that it defies expression, then, yes, I can understand the emotional praise and preaching; but when it is done as a device, I think it’s reprehensible.”
He admits that he, too, had an obsession with emotion and calculated eloquence in his younger days. “At one point, I wanted to take elocution to train my voice,” he told Leadership. “My wife discouraged me from it, so I never did it. Her reasoning was that preaching never ought to be a finished thing, a polished performance. She was right.”
In these, his twilight years, Taylor speaks openly about the reality of old age: “You have only to look on my countenance to know that my years have faded into the light of the common day,” he said in a recent address. “But I can say this to you: Every time I have felt at the end of my tether, the old promise has come true. There has been restoration; there has been renewal; there has been revival.”
What makes a great preacher? “In the Book of Ruth, Naomi says, ‘I went out full, and I’ve come back empty,’ ” Taylor says. “That’s the story of life. It’s also the story of preaching; we must keep ourselves full so we can empty ourselves in the pulpit.”
At the end of Taylor’s sermon “A Promise for Life’s Long Pull,” he offers a word on his life’s ministry, drawing from his favorite black spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”:
” ‘Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain’ … But then, just at the end of my tether; but then, when all of my strength seems spent and gone; then, when I come almost to the borders of despair; then, when I feel frustrated and confused and out of it; ‘Then … the Holy Spirit’ comes and ‘revives my soul again.’ ”