The future of theological education — what an audacious and presumptuous title!
When I was a kid growing up in rural Middle Georgia, I had no idea what a seminary was, let alone the purpose of one. When I told my pastor that I felt called to serve the church as a minister, he explained that I would need to go to seminary. All I knew was that it meant an additional three years of school after college, and that sounded dreary! Nevertheless, there was no question that if I wanted to serve the church as a minister, I had to go to seminary. And I am glad I did, because it is still changing my life.
Does Theological Education Have a Future?
There are many questions concerning seminary education and the future of theological instruction. Is it necessary? Is it still relevant? What exactly is produced? What does it contribute to the greater good? According to the Association of Theological Schools, enrollment in seminaries and theology schools has remained flat since 2005. In the last decade alone nine seminaries have closed, and many more are in peril (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/imagining-futuretheological-education).
Others have written about the formidable challenges impacting the future of theological education, including:
- Dwindling attendance in churches and by correlation fewer young adults expressing an interest in congregational ministry
- Perceived irrelevance or inadequacy of practical theology to address societal as well as congregational needs
- The cost of theological education, although not as expensive as many other disciplines, is nevertheless considered prohibitive to many
- Residential education — a person relocating to attend a seminary or theology school — is increasingly not sustainable or always practical
- The is integration of denominational networks, and with it the support systems that helped nurture callings and vocational formation
- The length of time to complete a Master of Divinity degree — typically three years, if studying full-time.
Of course, these challenges also bring exciting opportunities. Technologies are helping bridge the gap between location and education, and with them opportunities to prioritize communities of faith where calling and vocational formation often take place. Reimagining theological education alongside congregational ministry in its many expressions is centered on hopeful, future affirming faith.
The Quest for the Sacred
While I have more questions than answers regarding the future of theological education, I do have a few observations. There continues to be strong and robust interest in things that are sacred and spiritual. Just a few years ago, The Pew Research Center published an article noting more and more Americans identify as spiritual but not religious (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/ more-americans-now-say-their spiritual-but-not-religious).
In my own experience, I see much energy in creating space and opportunities to explore mystical ideas, ethical problems, and in cultivating a life of meaning that matters. One small example: I was once part of a group that met in a cigar lounge — not exactly typical space known as sacred. Men and women of very diverse backgrounds, traditions, and beliefs gathered to talk, explore, and question. Amidst this diversity, all are seeking to construct lives that matter. This happens in other places, too, like breweries, pubs, coffee houses, as well as in sanctuaries, Sunday school classes and choir lofts. Churches must continue to reimagine how to “be church” in the future, but rest assured, “the” Church will go on.
Innovation, Dialogue, and Formation
I am not sure what the future of theological education specifically will look like, but I do hope it will continue to search for innovative ways to have meaningful conversations about things that matter. The world needs such conversations. Currently there are theology schools exploring inventive solutions. For example, the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (BSK) recently received a grant for a project to help nontraditional students gain theological education while working in church settings. This seminary seeks to increase educational access for those already serving in ministry positions without requiring them to leave those posts and relocate for seminary.
This is not unlike what is taking place at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, through the newly established Center for Calling and Vocational Formation (CCVF). The Center will undertake a two-fold commitment towards the vocational formation and calling experience: 1) to students preparing for their calling, and 2) to the wider Christian community through understanding and applying their calling. The CCVF will focus on the whole person with information and formation, not just what you know, but who you become. As such, the expectations are curricular and co-curricular for students and the wider Christian community engaged in lifelong learning. Inspired by the words attributed to Howard Thurman, the CCVF is asking, “What makes you come alive?”
Reimagining the Learning Community
Theological education will need to move from academy centric, to person- and congregation-centric, and discover how it can meet learners serving in their particular contexts.
Places like McAfee and BSK are trying better to understand and identify life-long learners responding to God’s call and needing to be better equipped to live out their calling. Theologian Miroslav Volf writes: “Academic theology ought to be…about what matters the most — the true life in the presence of God.” He continues, “the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” (For the Life of the World). To live a life that matters one needs a theology that matters, which is what must be cultivated with students, educators, churches, and other partners of the faith.