Aug  2016 09
What Has Gotten Better About Seminary Education?

Last week, I reflected on changes in seminary education since I entered seminary as a student in 1977. Change often feels like loss, even when changes are desired. So, to balance out last week’s reflections, I wanted to name changes I think make seminary education—and in some cases, seminary students—better than was the case in prior decades.

Let’s begin by noting that, for the last 350 years, clergy in American have lamented the passing of a finer generation of clergy than the one that followed.

Dr. Craig Dykstra, who has done outstanding work both as a seminary professor when he was vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, once commented that clergy as far back as the days of the Halfway Covenant (1662) judged that the subsequent generations of clergy were inferior to their own.

For example, in the mid-19th century, veteran (and survivor) Methodist circuit riders opined that the younger clergy were soft and unable to survive on bear meat. In recent decades, seminary educators have lamented that the “brightest and the best” were going into other professions.

If clergy today are the devolutionary result of 350 years of continuous generational decline, woe is us! But that is not the case.

Seminary students today include a mixture of terribly bright students who can do the work of seminary but may find it difficult to do the work of ministry, students who primarily want the credential rather than the education, students who are seeking but don’t yet know what they want, and students who have the capacity for ministry and are devouring everything they can savor from the education offered to prepare for the work—students whose lives are foundationally changed, for the better, by seminary. And, I believe, thus it has always been!

Positive changes in seminary over the past 40 years would include students’ courageous commitments, diversity, accessibility of the education, and the appetite for risk-taking by seminaries.

Students’ courageous commitments. Yes, students have always been committed. A now retired Phillips faculty member used to comment how courageous our students are, as he reflected on all that students give up, the financial and family costs of seminary education, the sacrifices of time and often other careers they make in order to pursue their calling.

Today, many of us believe Christianity is undergoing the most profound set of inner and outer changes since the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

Today is not a day of “If you build it, they will come.” The Builder Generation is passing into history. Subsequent generations are not institution builders. The church in the U.S. has been closely associated with institutional forms.

As is the case with other professions, projecting a career is an exercise in futility. Who wants to address the profound challenges of reimagining what it means to be church or, for that matter, to be Christian? Or learning to fly a glider on the Winds of the Spirit? Now is not a time for the conventional or the faint of heart! I admire persons who enter seminary at such a time as this.

Diversity. Let us not forget that those clergy and seminary educators of yesteryear who thought each generation after their own was inferior were nearly all of one gender: male. And a vast majority were of one color: white.

  • Today, the Association of Theological Schools projects that the student population of ATS schools will be majority non-white within a decade. The racial-ethnic makeup of faculty is not changing as rapidly, but it is changing. And more and more schools are addressing race and ethnicity in the curriculum more substantively.
  • I was in seminary when the ceiling breaking women students in theological education were first graduating. Today, women are a majority of student bodies and faculties at some ATS schools (Phillips is one), although the profession of ministry lags other professions in the percentage of women, due to the restrictions of Catholic and some evangelical schools (but even there, compare the Catholic female student populations today to what they were in the 1950s—no comparison).
  • When I went to seminary, change-of-career or Second Career students were just entering in discernable numbers. Today, students might be any age from 22 to 70.
  • With that age diversity comes a tremendous mix of education and backgrounds into the classroom. Students have degrees and work experience in law enforcement, as attorneys, as bankers, as chemists, as school teachers, as journalists, as veterans, as community organizers. Many students are accomplished professionals, who know success and failure. While their status as “newbies” to theological education levels the playing field some, their rich backgrounds makes for rich learning experiences.
  • Sexuality and gender diversity. When I was a seminary student, we had one course in human sexuality, which probably did not exist in most curricula prior to 1970. Today, attention to sexuality and gender diversity has multiplied many times. Today’s students and classrooms embody a mix of sexualities. Discussions are lively and personal. In 1977, we dealt with male and female issues. Important issues, but elementary as compared to today’s mixture of sexualities, genders, and the accompanying questions of doctrine, morals, ethics, and ministry practices that must addressed.

Accessibility. When I went to seminary, there was one model: residential. Some schools had branch campuses, most did not. High tech classrooms used overhead projectors and films on projector reels. Accessibility was very limited except for persons who lived on campus or within a reasonable commute.

Advances in digital educational technologies, accompanied by a missional desire to reach students with theological education, have exploded options for accessing seminary education. Phillips’s schedule now includes seated classes and online classes taught weekly, weeklong concentrated courses, and weekend courses.

Faculty have learned to teach online and on campus (which means faculty today are focusing on how to teach in ways much more substantively than generations during which there was no paradigm shift occurring), and most students take their courses in a mixture of formats. Geography is no longer a barrier to seminary education. (I could say a lot more about accessibility in terms of money, too; but the story there varies a great deal by seminary.)

Risk taking. Yes, it is the case that the profound changes in Christianity in the U.S.—where people are going to church, if people are going to church, if the U.S. is de-congregating, all changes which are most profound in but not exclusive to the predominantly white mainline Protestant denominations—are driving seminaries toward creativity.

Most of us would not be focusing on strategic change work to the extent we are without the stick comprised of declining host denominations and the negative impacts on student enrollments and annual gifts. But most schools are facing the “brutal facts” and are in a deep listening, experimenting, and learning mode.

Seminaries—faculty, staff, trustees—are seeking new partners, trying new events, re-tooling how we teach, and showing laity what we do by introducing them to the conversations that are the lifeblood of seminary education.

What will be the result of all these commitments and all this work? We’ll have to see.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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