Misplaced Seminary (Part 2)

February 20, 2014HH Brownsmith

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Editors Note: The Following is the second part of a 2 part series the first of which can be found here: http://www.jesusradicals.com/the-misplaced-seminary-part-1/.  You can also hear Joyce interviewed in Iconocast Episode 29.

In 2001, Joyce Hollyday; a theologian, minister and author; joined with other folks to begin Word and World, “an experiment in alternative theological education – bridging the gulf between the seminary, the sanctuary and the street”. Word and World; inspired by freedom schools, popular education, William Stringfellow’s alternative seminary on Block Island, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s alternative seminary Finkenwalde; began as series of seven “schools” or weeklong retreats that met in cities across the US. The schools focused on four major movements: the black liberation and civil rights movement, liberation theology and borderland justice, the disarmament and nonviolent resistance movement, and feminist, womanist, and LGBT liberation theologies. After organizing these “movable feasts”, Word and World facilitated a year-long mentoring program for folks under 30 that included three group retreats, a reading curriculum that covered much of the material covered in the schools, writing assignments and service.

Several months ago, I sat down with Joyce to hear more about Word and World and her thoughts about the evolution of the modern North American seminary. Joyce attended Yale Divinity in 1976 for one year before leaving seminary to join Sojourners in Washington DC. After leaving Sojourners, Joyce took up her seminary education again at Candler Divinity and finished her degree in 1998.

Why did you decide to return to seminary, Joyce?

When I left Yale, I felt like I didn’t need a degree to do the kind of ministry I wanted to do, the kind I was doing at Sojourners. When I went back to seminary, it was a means to an end. I needed to be able to get into hospitals and prisons. I needed to figure out how to make living. That being said, I don’t regret it. I took some interesting classes, learned a lot about church history. 

Twenty years passed between when you enrolled in seminary and when you finished. There were some major shifts in the church and in the larger culture during that time. Do you feel like the seminary looked different, in terms of who was attending and teaching classes, when you went back?

When I went to seminary in the 70s, women made up only about a quarter of the student body and there were very few female professors. I actually remember overhearing a conversation between two male professors in which one said to the other ‘things are really going down-hill now that they are letting all these women in’.  Gender was the big deal then. There are a lot more women in seminary now. In terms of race, I think that most progressive seminaries are trying to be diverse. But they are trying to do this in the way that white people always try to do this. By saying ‘just join us and help us look different’.  In contrast, Word and World was a true collaboration from the very beginning and was incredibly diverse…it wasn’t white people saying ‘let’s do this’ and then inviting everybody else as an afterthought.

How did you and the other organizers of Word and World decide to move from organizing individual schools to starting a mentoring project?

What spurred the schools was the need to have the stories of this movement told and preserved and passed on.  A lot happened at the schools but at the heart of it were the stories. The mentoring program had a similar sense…we wanted to encourage another generation to be radical disciples. We also felt like the mentoring program would have a more ongoing impact with more of a curriculum. So we did a year-long program and really felt like that brought us close to the idea of alternative seminary.

But the term alternative seminary was never used in conjunction with the mentoring program. Why did that term not fit?

In my opinion, to use that term you need to provide classes throughout the year, in one setting, that lots of people have access to. To claim seminary there needs to be some continuity in a certain place. We were very spread out. In terms of the university, I don’t think the best way to pass on information is to sit in a classroom and take notes while someone lectures at you. But it’s so entrenched that this is the way our educational system works. Our educational system is just as fallen as the military system or the corporate system. We also didn’t want to be full time teachers. If you’re a [university] seminary professor you are caught up in your teaching and committee work. You don’t have time for real mentoring. When you’re in an institution, a lot of your energy has to go into maintaining that institution. We didn’t want to do that.

Are you aware of any mainline denominations encouraging or even accepting ministers who skip the university degree in favor of apprenticeship?

I think apprenticeship is the model of training that really works and has been used in every profession for most of human history. But I don’t know of any (predominantly white) denomination that still does it. When I think about it there wasn’t anyone who told us, our generation, how to look at scripture and apply it to our lives or how to form people spiritually. Sometimes I am not sure how much the younger generation really wants to hear from us. Some young people seem to really believe they are doing this for the first time and are doing it in the most original way. I haven’t experienced a lot of hunger for the stories.  Not only have I not really felt mentored; I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to mentor.

Do you have any last thoughts about how to do seminary differently?

People need to claim ways of being that work for them. The more we do to claim that apart from the institutions and strict credentialing the better off we are.


  • Gregory

    “Sometimes I am not sure how much the younger generation really wants
    to hear from us. Some young people seem to really believe they are doing
    this for the first time and are doing it in the most original way. I
    haven’t experienced a lot of hunger for the stories. ”

    Yes! I sometimes feel as if I am original, or exceptional. Clearly, that viewpoint is inadequate.

    I am just over 30, and am now finally embracing/ investigating a different expression of my Christian faith. I am realizing that part of this means looking for ways that others have lived in the past, and what people are doing right now. So, more stories, please! I would love to hear more from Joyce Hollyday on this.

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