For Schools of Theology, It's Time to Bend Tradition

Julie Delton for The Chronicle

May 13, 2012

Much talk and energy have been devoted lately to discerning the "future of the seminary" in North America. That future is uncertain, with many theological institutions facing financial difficulties and steadily declining enrollments. The larger challenge, however, may be cultural. If seminaries hope to survive, they will have to adapt to a changing world.

Two years ago, David Sebastian, dean of the School of Theology at Anderson University, reported five trends shaping the future of theological education in North America. They are: a widening chasm between Christian churches and seminaries; increasing numbers of seminary students who have not grown up in the church; a growing awareness that seminary education is inaccessible for many potential seminary students; an increased questioning of whether seminary is really worth the financial costs; and forthcoming population shifts that will affect the ability of seminaries to prepare culturally competent leaders for the 21st century.

Those trends, in addition to declining membership in some American churches, suggest that there is a need for theological schools to rethink their role in theological training in order to remain financially self-sustaining and to train leaders for an increasingly global church. Their problem is not that they need to retain their place in the academy, but rather that they need to justify their existence to Christian churches, which are becoming more ethnically diverse.

The challenge for theological institutions is to be responsive, rather than reactive, to these trends—by giving greater attention to training in leadership, business practices (such as budgeting), and evangelism, as well as through interfaith dialogue and the inclusion of religious education for their students. Additionally, seminaries must make greater efforts to recruit local immigrant students. This regionally focused model has been a strength of African and Asian theological institutions that have pooled resources to provide local education, rather than send students abroad.

One potential approach is to emphasize a "best practices" solution. Sebastian notes that rather than send their prospective pastors to seminary for theological training, many successful churches have returned to an apprenticeship model that was popular in the 18th century. So instead of attempting only internal curricular changes, seminaries could cultivate apprenticeships, which offer more coaching and hands-on teaching than the internships already offer. This would provide students, and the congregations they would eventually serve, the benefits of both a traditional seminary education and a more deeply felt professional experience.

Among the churches following this pattern of ministerial training are larger immigrant-founded and immigrant-based churches, particularly from West Africa. As Jehu J. Hanciles writes in Beyond Christendom, many entrepreneurial immigrant pastors are trained, often in the United States, in some other profession and then go on to lead a local, ethnically based Christian congregation. Rather than ignore the presence of these Christian congregations, seminaries should look to their leaders both to learn from and to teach.

It is also important to realize that increasing numbers of students are nontraditional, studying part time or attempting to combine pastoral work with jobs outside of their churches. This is also often the case among the pastors of immigrant-based congregations. For those students, seminaries may meet the greatest need by offering innovative, local continuing-education opportunities, especially classes in theological history and increased biblical literacy, since many of these pastors already have higher-level degrees in other fields.

Such programs could meet several educational needs at once. Pastors with work experience outside of their churches can assist in training those who anticipate such a career, given that the traditional denominational system is increasingly less able to support full-time pastors. Immigrant pastors could begin to establish broader connections with leaders outside of their ethnic communities, while those within the seminary community could benefit from these pastors' experiences. Thus a different model of internationalization could provide a way forward for seminaries needing to adapt to a changing educational world and more-global Christian churches.

Some theological institutions are responding to these trends already:

  • Denver Theological Seminary has programs in Korean and Spanish to provide theological education for local lay leaders and pastors. Additionally, it has partnered with three international seminaries, voiced a commitment to hiring non-Western faculty, and included courses in globalization awareness in each of its 10 degree programs, often including crosscultural experiences.
  • Wesley Seminary, at Indiana Wesleyan University, offers online courses in English and Spanish.
  • Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the oldest seminary in the country, has revised its curriculum to integrate high-tech communication and interfaith collaboration.
  • Louisville Theological Seminary will give full scholarships to all of its master's-of-divinity students, making seminary education accessible to low-income students.
  • Claremont School of Theology is encouraging students to take courses with future rabbis and imams to increase interfaith dialogue.
  • Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine seminaries and 11 academic centers and affiliates, offers students the opportunity to take courses from professors of different faiths and participate in interfaith dialogue.

Some of these changes are decades old, and others are in their first year. Is it possible that these adaptive changes will answer the changing needs for theological education in America? We hope so, because doing nothing is clearly not a viable option.

Katherine M. Douglass and Jason Bruner are doctoral candidates at Princeton Theological Seminary.