E-Harmony, Virtual Learning and SMP Pastoral Formation

hand-holding-mobile-smart-phone-1417191-m        On-line dating sites are proliferating. And, to head this one off at the pass, I am not employing their services! Many options including “Christian Mingle,” and “E-harmony,” provide services to singles in society. Data and facts are checked in the appropriate boxes and communication commences. But a virtual relationship based on “facts” goes only so far. Should things continue in a positive direction, individuals then consider the “big” question: should they meet in person? An unspoken realization confronts these individuals: facts are important, but not sufficient for authentic community. Instinctively they know that meaning is found when knowledge is applied within community or relationship.

On-line learning is most effective when learning revolves around the communication of basic facts as seen in the disciplines of computer programming, chemistry, mathematics and so on. In this domain the virtual is most helpful. Is the accumulation of bare knowledge and facts sufficient for a relationship of any meaning? Most seeking a relationship would unequivocally say, “no”. The accumulation of facts and data are at best preliminary when people are yearning for something authentic.

Though it is counter intuitive, there is a growing awareness in society that virtual relationships are sadly having the unintended consequence of driving people further apart. Just look at how teenagers are glued to their cell phones even at meals or on dates! Knowledge and data are faux substitute for a relationship. The more people communicate through their devices the less authentic community they have. So endemic is this development that a Washington Post article in June 2006 said:

Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, … A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.[1]

To think the proliferation of facts will secure relationships has depersonalizing gnostic overtones where meeting and knowing the individual is subordinated to bare knowledge. David Timms has observed the following:

Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the study [in the above Washington Post citation]; noted that people may have six hundred friends on Facebook and email twenty-five people a day, but rarely discuss matters of personal importance.  Western culture is adrift. At some point in the past, we left the moorings of community and settled for society. The shift has had profound implications. Society speaks to our ability to organize ourselves as a group of people. Community speaks to our connectedness to one another. Society refers to structures and systems. Community refers to relationships. The two terms share common ground—people—but their commonality stops there. A stronger society does not necessarily produce a stronger community. For example, a well-oiled Little League Baseball club (a sporting society), with weekly email contact and automated phone reminders of upcoming events, carefully planned game schedules, and smooth administration does not automatically produce camaraderie among parents and goodwill among players. As a group of people with a mutual interest in baseball they may have a strong society but relatively weak community. Many people within that society get a service they want, but may barely know each other. The club (society) has rules that tell people how to report misbehavior, fulfill team responsibilities, collect sponsorship, and treat umpires. But a community requires more than policies and procedures. Indeed community cannot be legislated with bylaws or constructed with a constitution.[2]

To that end, participants in on-line dating sites will decide to cross the Rubicon and meet person-to-person. Though facts are helpful, purveyors of “compatibility” wisdom know their limitation when it comes to authentic community. The desire to meet in person signals that relationships formed in close proximity have a more sure foundation than what can be offered through a “data dump” and over the “Wi-Fi.”

Is pastoral formation about facts, relationships, or, is it about both? If it is about both and one component is minimized, is the pastoral formation of the individual compromised? Pastoral training certainly includes the impartation (indoctrination) of facts which in the context of the church is rightly called “doctrine”. In our day and age the transmission of facts—doctrine—is highly desirable and necessary. As C.F.W. Walther wrote years ago, “A proper indoctrination is needed by you [seminarians and pastors] more than by pastors in Germany; for you are living in the land of sects.”[3]

If the “data dump” of doctrine were the sole prerequisite for pastoral formation, then the growth of pastors would be no different from the training of computer programmers, chemists, mathematicians, etc. But no one would say that Pastoral Office is solely about the impartation of facts. We are not gnostic Christians! Above all, the Pastoral Office is about meaningful community as the called man lovingly serves the bride of Christ with Word and Sacrament. Pastoral formation was not innate to the Twelve, Timothy and Titus, and nor is it with us. Along with the Holy Spirit’s work, sainted men of God recognized by the church are privileged to help form shepherds in a designated community.

The Twelve had three years of “resident education” which included the modeling of their Office and the imparting of facts from Christ before they went out on their own. Timothy and Titus came under the “seminary influence” of St. Paul’s teaching. A nod to this residential education is seen at circuit meetings when pastors reference their seminary professors who modeled and taught the faith. Often the most formative interaction with a seminary professor occurs not in the impartation of facts in the classroom but in the commons, or in quiet conversation. This is also seen parish life where critical times of community between parishioners and pastor may not occur in Bible Class or the pulpit, but at the home visit.

Certainly SMP trained men have a sense of congregational community nourished from the body of Christ, their home parishes. But does virtual learning do as well as residential learning in fostering a collegial pastoral community amongst fellow shepherds? District Presidents tirelessly encourage pastors to not forsake circuit meetings because they are an opportunity to learn from one-another. That District Presidents have to encourage attendance at circuit meetings decries that “unexcused” absences are all-too-frequent. Will a “virtual” seminary education encourage or discourage physical, flesh and blood attendance at circuit meetings?

Modeling the office also has similarities to the role of a father and husband. Increasing numbers of men in our society do not have a resident father at home and this is detrimental. When men get married, learning occurs on-site in the “vocation” of father and husband amidst the hurly-burly of family life. Husbands and fathers draw on their earthly fathers, grandfathers, and confidants and in a similar way seminarians grow from their spiritual fathers in the seminary. More than simply the impartation of facts is needed to develop a man into a husband and father. The proliferation of men’s retreats testifies that some things are more “caught” than “taught” in the safety of a “seminary” community.

Sociological data unfailingly affirms that having family meals together is vitally important in the formative development of children. Families who do are stronger and healthier on every scale of sociological measurement. Seminary life is centered around the family meal of Holy Communion which in addition to the gift of Christ’s forgiveness also fosters trust and love for brother seminarians which continues as pastors in the parish.

Our parish helps support Rob Lutz from Crookston, MN who every summer spends his time in Yambio, South Sudan. He is involved in helping form and support the budding seminary associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sudan (ELCS). We also support Rev. James Kollie of Cotton Tree Liberia, in West Africa. Time and again Lutz and Kollie share how men so value a residential education they leave their families for months-on-end to be formed into shepherds who will lovingly serve Christ’s people in the Public Office.

A recent edition of the Reporter[4] has a wonderful article describing the dedication of a new building housing the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana’s (ELCG) Lutheran Theological Seminary. In the minds of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Ghana, a traditional seminary is so desired and necessary for pastoral formation that ELCG Bishop Rev. Dr. Paul Kofi Fynn mentions how the dream of a seminary was 25 years in the making! A striking picture of the Seminary building at its dedication is festively shown on p. 7.

In his book, Living the Lord’s Prayer, Timms quotes Shane Hipps, who has strong cautionary words regarding the development of virtual communities.

In virtual community, our contacts involve very little real risk and demand even less of us personally. In this sense we experience the paradox of intimate anonymity. [This virtual community] functions a bit like cotton candy: it goes down easy and satiates our immediate hunger, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of sustainable nutrition. It spoils our appetite for the kind of authentic community to which Scripture calls us.… If virtual community functions like cotton candy, then authentic community is more like broccoli. It may not always taste good but it provides crucial nourishment for the formation of our identity. Authentic community will undoubtedly be marked by conflict, risk, and rejection. At the same time it offers the deepest levels of acceptance, intimacy, and support.

Virtual community declares mine and yours and his and hers as though everyone lives independent lives lined only by a thread or two. But genuine community demands an authentic, collective, inclusive our—multiple lives woven strongly together, not simply hanging by threads.[5]

Sadly, we hear reports where virtual conversations have become vitriolic as people hide behind anonymity. Barriers are less rigid when people live in community which promotes trust and healthy conversation about potentially divisive issues. Congregational community develops amongst those who faithfully attend their local church. But how well does SMP training go in developing a collegial esprit de corps of pastoral identity? Collegial pastoral community certainly is strengthened through residential community life as seminarians interact with each other for three years developing trust and understanding amongst themselves. As creatures reflecting the image of the Triune God, the awareness that ultimate meaning is found in community has been built into our DNA.

Visitors of on-line dating sites quickly admit that for a relationship to grow in a healthy manner face-time—not virtual time—is needed. In pursuit of this goal, church officials never tire of encouraging pastors to maintain and cultivate authentic pastoral community by attending circuit meetings and pastors’ conferences. It remains to be seen if pastoral collegial community can be develop in the SMP programs to the same extent it is developed through four year residential seminarian life.

As with all new endeavors, more understanding will unfold in time. My prayer is that this inadequate article will not bring unrest amongst the brothers; but prayerfully a modicum of understanding and continued conversation as we address these new issues. I am desirous to learn from the comments that will be forthcoming.

In Christ,

Pastor Weber


[1] Shankar Vedantam, “Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says,” Washington Post, Posted Friday, June 23, 2006. >>http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/22/AR2006062201763.html<< [Accessed March 9, 2014].

[2] David Timms, Living the Lord’s Prayer (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2008), 26-27.

[3] C.F.W. Walther, A Proper Distinction Between Law And Gospel, trans., W.H.T. Dau  (St. Louis, MO.: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), 178

[4] Pam Nielsen¸ “Dedication a Dream Come True for Ghana Church Leaders,” Reporter (March 2014): 1, 7.

[5] David Timms, Living the Lord’s Prayer (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2008), 36-37.

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