Melissa Wiginton: Calling in a culture of narcissism

Christianity doesn't cater to individuals' delusional perceptions of their importance. Neither should our seminaries.

An ad for a seminary recently came across my inbox. The tag line promised to “tailor theological education for your particular calling.” This seminary has made a judgment about where to put their weight in the tug-of-war going on within theological education. They will give students what they say they want, as opposed to giving students what we think they need.

This distinction over-simplifies, but the tensions are real. Many seminaries depend on tuition income to keep the doors open and maintain a place where students can be educated at all. They need increased enrollment. And they are competing in a marketplace in which consumers have many choices. Why not appeal to people with clearly identified goals by offering to help them get there?

Can you imagine a marketing consultant advising institutions putting their heft on the other end of the metaphorical rope? Imagine a school that promises to “Structure theological education that will deconstruct your preconceptions”? Or “Offering a discipline of study to take you places you don’t want to go so you can serve people who don’t want to change”? That’ll bring them in.

The two sides of the tug-of-war sound like the stereotypes of evangelical vs. mainline churches, conservative vs. liberal theologies, Niebuhr’s Christ of culture vs. Christ against culture. But another perspective is nagging at me as I watch theological institutions lean one way or the other: the cultural reality of narcissism.

Narcissism is a defined disorder of mental health. It has its own insurance code. But the term is often used by lay people to refer to individuals with exceptional love of self so that what they want must be put at the center of all enterprise. From David Brooks’ column “The Gospel of Me”, I learned that 6.2 percent of Americans have suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, including 9.4 percent of people in their 20s. Brooks cites “The Narcissism Epidemic,” by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, who argue that we are experiencing significant self-esteem inflation. In 1950 thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80% of girls and 77% of boys said yes.

So we aren’t just imagining that more people believe they are special. It is a small step from belief in my own importance to expecting a curriculum catered to my own agenda.

Leaders in theological education don’t serve the church well by reinforcing distortions of self-importance in those who would become pastors. Those who form pastors surely have to work against the special gospel brought by special people. It starts with how the invitation to be formed is issued. 

Those of us who talk about the call of God to ministry have to be careful not to overplay the value of giftedness or even the importance of the choice for ministry itself. Ours is a calling into life with and for God and God’s people. That frees us from the burden of tailoring our lives just to meet our special needs.

And it might even free us to take some courses that aren’t exactly about our own particular idea for ministry.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Ministry Programs and Planning at the Fund for Theological Education.