Songs in a Strange Land: The Future of Theological Education
Dr. Bruce Corley
(Regional NABPR, March 10, 2012)
Psalm 137 (ESV)
1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign [alien or strange] land?
My question: Here we are—shall we sing?
In looking over the place where we find ourselves, two related stories caught my eye.
Bangor Theological Seminary to change direction—February 10, 2012
A Seminary Where a Bicentennial Looks Forward—Richard Higgins, NY Times, April
Newton, Mass. — At the Andover Newton Theological School here, banquets,
exhibitions and church services proclaim the bicentennial this year of the
school’s founding as the Andover Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Nick Carter, its president, celebrates the seminary’s history proudly, but he is more engaged by how the school will adapt to the deep ferment in American religion and survive until the 250th anniversary and beyond. Mr. Carter’s question is shared by scores of other smaller and midsize independent Protestant seminaries
that have seen their financial support from denominations wither, their costs
increase, and their assumptions about church life and the career of ministry
tested by growing fragmentation and change in the pews.
“The church is changing,” Mr. Carter said. “Our concepts of religious leadership, mission, denomination and the status of ministry are being redefined. Other than the
Gospel itself, most of the assumptions that our programs of study are based on
are being swept away.” Mr. Carter said he and other seminary presidents had
been discussing this challenge.
“The question we’re asking each other,” he said, “is, ‘What insights and skills are essential for the practice of transformative ministry in the 21st century, and how do we teach it?’ ”
Never far behind is the question of their survival as freestanding institutions.
The nation has 165 seminaries, but 39 percent of seminary students attend just 20 of them. The 20 large institutions, all but two evangelical Christian, raise substantial money, have big endowments or receive moderate to high denominational support — or do all three.
In addition, nonsectarian theological and divinity schools that exist within a university also tend to be in good shape. But a majority of Protestant seminaries are
smaller independents, and many, including Andover Newton, lack adequate
endowments. The mainline churches that parented the older seminaries have
sharply cut financial support.
A result, said Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the National Association of Theological Schools, is that around 30 seminaries are in financial stress. In the future, Mr. Aleshire said, “There may be just two kinds of seminaries, those with substantial endowments or effective annual giving and the nonexistent.”
While Andover Newton is not on the brink, Mr. Carter said, it and other seminaries needed to think about sharing costs and pooling resources. The Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine has begun to outsource information technology work here. (Corley italics)
“All of us,” Mr. Carter said, “have to find news ways to relate to and collaborate with each other as institutions or face the prospect that some will go out of business.”
Driven by economics and a desire for innovation, Andover Newton shares its campus with Hebrew College, a rabbinic school. The arrangement saves on fixed costs, Mr. Carter said, and the interfaith discussions it has created has attracted new types of students, grants and donations. Other seminaries are similarly combining resources, Mr. Aleshire said.
Mr. Carter’s question about the mission of theological education is sharpened here by the bicentennial. The nation’s first full-time graduate theological school, the Andover Theological Seminary was started by orthodox Calvinists who fled Harvard after it embraced Unitarianism. The school opened in 1808 at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Until then, ministerial training had been undergraduate, capped by parlor study under a pastor. Andover started three years’ graduate study of four subjects under a residential faculty: the Bible, church history, doctrinal theology and the practical arts of ministry.
That model became the gold standard, although Andover Newton has long since changed it. Andover Seminary, a bastion of Christian evangelical and missionary zeal, moved here in 1931 to an early Baptist seminary campus, merging in 1965.
Today, Andover Newton maintains ties to the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist churches and has 380 students from 35 denominations. One-fourth are Unitarian Universalists.
Tuitions covers 40 percent of the $7 million annual budget.
The rest is from fund-raising, the endowment and other sources, with a trickle
coming from the denominations, Mr. Carter said.
“We can’t turn out pastors for a church that no longer exists,” said Mr. Carter, an American Baptist minister. “Pastors have to be grounded in their own faith yet also have the ‘border crossing’ skills to be leaders in today’s religious landscape. Our
survival depends on this more than anything.”
He pointed out that when new ministers took their pulpits, “perhaps half the people they see in the pews didn’t grow up in that faith tradition.”
Mr. Carter’s call to reinvent seminaries is hardly new.
Theological education is adapting to declining denominational loyalty, changing ministries and a greater diversity of students, monitors of the field say.
David Kelsey, a professor of theology at the Yale Divinity School, said, “I think Mr. Carter is right about the inadequacy of what seminarians learn to the real ground-level cultural, social, economic diversity, even pluralism of belief, in the congregations they serve.”
Mr. Carter said seminaries might learn from business, adding: “Too many of us have long lists of problems, then put our best resources to work solving them. But if we would apply those same resources to our assets, our strengths, we would become
stronger and in the long run be more able to solve our problems.”
Bangor, ME– The Board of Trustees of Bangor Theological Seminary
unanimously voted to suspend the Masters of Divinity and Masters of Arts degree
programs at the end of the 2012-13 academic year in order to explore a range of
options for the seminary consistent with its historic mission of service to the
Church, according to an announcement from H. Lowell Brown, chair of the
“As stewards of the seminary, we have seen dramatic changes taking place in
theological education over the past decade. During that time, seminaries across
the country have experienced a steady decline in enrollment for masters of
divinity and masters of arts programs,” notes Brown. “Bangor Theological
Seminary has also experienced similar decline as church membership has fallen
and fewer people seek a seminary education for pastoral service. As a
consequence, after thoughtful and prayerful consideration over the past year,
our board concluded that the time has come to make significant changes in the
way the Seminary will fulfill its historic mission to serve the needs of the
Church, now and in the future.”
According to the Reverend Dr. Robert Grove-Markwood, seminary president,
the board chose to make the decision now in order to allow the students, the
faculty, and staff time to make plans consistent with their needs. The Academic
Dean, Dr. Steven Lewis, will work with students to explore options for
completing their studies.
“Bangor Theological Seminary has a long history of adapting to changing
times,” notes Grove-Markwood. “Throughout its almost two hundred years of
service, the seminary has modified its programming while remaining faithful to
its mission of providing learned leadership for ministry in churches and in the
world. In the face of declining enrollment, the board concluded that our
endowment cannot sustain our present operational budget. It can, however,
support a new direction for the seminary, with God’s help. The board has chosen
to act decisively, while we have the resources to build a new future.”
“We are confident that the seminary will continue to play an important role
in the religious and spiritual life of the churches and the communities they
serve. We are excited about what we trust God is now calling us to do. We intend
to continue to prepare and support leaders for ministry in the Church and in the
The board is formulating plans to reconfigure the seminary consistent with
its historic mission of service to the Church. The group plans to announce the
new direction this spring.
“As we are poised to enter our third century of service, the needs of the
Church have changed,” adds Grove-Markwood. “Alternative paths to ordination have
emerged. Fewer individuals are pursuing full-time graduate theological education
for traditional pastoral ministry. Our board chose to be proactive in shaping
the future of the seminary based on the evolving needs of faith communities in
the twenty-first century, so that Bangor Theological Seminary may continue its
legacy of service for generations to come.”
Bangor Theological Seminary has served as a center of theological education
since 1814 and a source of preparation and support for church leaders,
particularly for the ministry of rural congregations in northern New England.
Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?
These two stories have been multiplied over the past decade in circles of theological education. One of the most engaging discussions is a year-long blog on “The Future of Seminary Education” (for the entire symposium see http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Future-of-Seminary-Education.html )
The lead article, “Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education,” by Frederick Schmidt, Perkins School of Theology (March 21, 2011) painted a messy picture that drew a response from Barbara Wheeler (Schmidt is “Mr. Messy”), followed by an undaunted rejoinder from Schmidt. (See http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Is-It-Time-to-Write-the-Eulogy-Frederick-Schmidt-03-21-2011.html ; http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Mess-Notes-on-the-Future-of-Theological-Education-Barbara-Wheeler-10-17-2011.html ;
http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Metaphor-Eulogy-or-Malpractice-Frederick-Schmidt-10-18-2011.html .) Here’s some of what he / she said:
Our seminaries are dying and the Master of Divinity degree has been discredited.
. . .church leaders once believed both were essential to effective ministry, but today they are considered one of several routes to ordination and an increasing number of church leaders are arguing that attending seminary may actually be detrimental to the process they once considered the gold standard.
A large number of the mainline seminaries are selling their buildings and property, cutting faculty, and eliminating degree programs. Those that are not, are competing for a shrinking pool of prospective students and rely on scholarships and lower academic standards to attract the students that they do have.
Now the trend is leadership and there can be little doubt that among the next generation of graduates will be the aspiring CEOs. There has never been any doubt that the church needs to be better led, but one has to wonder how much spiritual guidance there is to be had at the hands of clergy who think of themselves as ecclesiastical managers.
Seminary faculty often lack any real affinity for the church and, that too, has colored the kind of graduate that seminaries have produced. In part this state of affairs can be traced to the seminaries themselves, which hired faculty from a wide array of institutions, including many that were shaped not so much by theological categories as they were the assumptions of religious studies programs.
Faculty have also indulged their academic interests, creating both classes and curricula that correspond with their research issues and academic agenda but don't necessarily speak to the basic and perennial needs of the church's ordained ministry. The net result is a Master's degree that is often skewed to allow as many electives as possible and catalogues filled with boutique courses that have little application to pastoral ministry. . . and the elective could be as arcane as a class on "Bach and Romans."
In spite of the fact that there is room for so many extras, the degree itself is bloated and expensive.
Although Wheeler upheld most of Schmidt’s financial analysis she contested his other observations as limited and off target, not squaring with the facts. Faculties, she argued, are religiously observant, and the curricula have real affinity with preparation for church ministry.
Schmidt, however, appeals to a 2005 Auburn study that says otherwise: It is not surprising, then [to find in an earlier study that Auburn conducted in 2005], researchers found that theological faculty "values and outlook" were changing: They were "less likely" than doctoral students ten years before to "say that Christian traditions dominate their programs and their doctoral studies 'should help strengthen students' religious faith.'" They were "more likely . . . to place themselves in the broad field of 'religious studies' than in 'theological studies.'" And far fewer of them are ordained. He adds: “Anyone who has been in the academy for any time at all as either a student or a faculty member knows that classical disciplinary divisions and denominational labels are hardly indicators of what goes on in seminary classrooms.” Methinks that Schmidt has shined a light on a real messy scene.
Wheeler, however, rightly suggests that if the past is any guide, the impetus for constructive change is likely to come from several directions, among them the “market.” The employers of seminary graduates—congregations, denominations, and church agencies—can be a force for reform. Often they are galvanized by a major event in the religious or social context (a major scandal, a schism, a social change movement, a new wave of religious enthusiasm, or a religious depression) to press for leaders with more, better, or different training.
May I suggest four sea changes in the market, terrain shifts in the landscape that have dramatic impact on theological education in Baptist circles.
Students—Where Did They Go? A ballpark estimate puts the loss of graduate student enrollment in Baptist seminaries at 50% over the past generation. The headcount enrollment in the six Southern Baptist seminaries has averaged about 8,000 in the past five years (I have not factored in the percentage of undergraduate enrollments). At its peak in 1987, SWBTS alone enrolled 5066 students with 3797 FTEs. This constituted 34.3% of the enrollment and 41.4% of the FTEs in all SBC seminaries. The 2010-11 ATS data reflects a trend that has been at work for some time. The total enrollment reported for the six SBC seminaries was 10,019.
In 2001 there were 11,427 Southern Baptist students in 101 ATS institutions. 4,984 of them (43.6%) were enrolled in MDiv degree programs; 1,774 of them (15.5%) were enrolled in ministerial non-MDiv degree programs; and 4,669 (40.8%) of them were enrolled in non-ministerial programs. Most of these students attended one of the six SBC seminaries or twelve other Baptist schools that emerged in the past fifteen years. The total enrollment in Southern Baptist theological institutions during 2001 was 11,994 students: 10,445 (87.1%) in the SBC seminaries, and 1,549 (12.9%) in the other Baptist schools.
The story is about the same in mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic schools, the latter showing a precipitous drop in all its training programs from 37,000 in 1968 to 7,000 in 2011 (CARA Report).
Degrees—Who Does What? For most of the 20th century, ministers related to the Southern Baptist Convention received the majority of formal training from seminaries operated by the national convention. By virtue of an unwritten arrangement, state Baptist colleges and universities provided undergraduate training while the SBC seminaries focused on graduate level study. That situation has drastically changed. Since the 1995 report, the six convention seminaries have been joined by twelve other institutions which offer programs and grant Master of Divinity degrees. Moreover, the six seminaries have entered the market of undergraduate programs by offering BA degrees, and colleges have proliferated master’s degrees in ministry formation that substitute for MDivs.
Facilities—Can They Be Maintained? The projected costs for deferred maintenance approaches 1/4th of the cost to build. Almost 20% of theological institutions are verging on bankruptcy. As Dan Aleshire has often repeated, “There may be just two kinds of seminaries, those with substantial endowments or effective annual giving and the nonexistent.”
Learning—How Do You Know? The journey to postmodernity has carried us through three macro-shifts of culture and learning.
(1) The memory world—Plato in Athens, elder at the gate, learning by
listening and repeating, engaging a mind by living speech, intelligence as
recall and integration, leaders=orators, mind is key, lectio is
Threat: exile of speaker (Socrates)
Motto: "Know thyself"
(2) The print world—Gutenberg in Germany, scholar in the library, learning
by reading and confessing, engaging a mind by the printed page, intelligence as
repository and school, leaders=writers, literacy is key, printing is
Threat: burning of book (The Name of the Rose)
Motto: "Read thy book"
(3) The online world—Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley, player at
the screen, learning by training and practice, engaging a mind by electronic
image, intelligence as retrieval and virtual knowledge or transactive memory,
leaders=innovators, access is key, programming is
Threat: unplugged machine (2001 on the clock scare)
Motto: "Save thy file"
By its history, theological education jumps on
the very back end of the wagon: 40% of all graduate education in America is
Adaptation to Climate
The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate produced excellent data and two good jokes: “How many Princeton professors does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change?” [incredulously]. F. M. Cornford, the Cambridge classicist, wrote a biting satire Microcosmographia Academica (1908) on the machinations of the faculty at turn-of-the-previous-century Cambridge to maintain status quo. A series of major reforms had been stifled when factions like the liberal conservatives and the conservative liberals combined to prevent any change at all, wielding such arguments as the unanswerable “It has never been tried” or (equally unanswerable) “It was tried in 1867.”
Velleity. [velleity > a will of diminished force that prompts no action. Emerging visions can die because people get overwhelmed by the demands of current reality and lose their focus on the vision—Peter Senge.] During the 1990s a chorus of voices from within and without theological institutions, accompanied by a litany of research studies and proposals, called for the essential reform of seminary education. These studies, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools (reported in issues of Theological Education) and various advisory bodies such as Leadership Network (Standing on the Banks of Tomorrow, 1993), identified a series of needs not being addressed by seminaries and proposed changes to be implemented. These changes were foundational trends, touching personal, global, and systemic aspects of theological education.
Although this ‘look ahead’ agenda became the common property of seminary planning teams in the 1990s, relatively little actually has been implemented. In Southern Baptist circles initiatives for educational change were paralyzed by denominational strife and the retrenchment of governance for political reasons. Creative energy, team building, and collegial enterprise were exhausted among retained faculties who still understood such needs but were overwhelmed by a totally different set of issues. The will to transform, in effect, was defused by the need to survive.
The failure to carry out substantive change has beleaguered not only the convention seminaries but also the new schools because the traditional paradigm remains unaltered in both. On the one hand, older seminaries have protected, indeed reinvigorated the former scheme with new personnel, while emerging alternative schools have simply reconstructed the old on a smaller scale. No measure of resolution in the denominational controversy, however biblical or historic its contours, can bridge the gap between where the seminaries are and what their publics need. We have fallen far behind in the education business, and nothing less than the reinvention of the Baptist seminary will suffice, or I should say retrofitting theological education.
Hazard Mitigation. “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there”—Will Rogers. Is there a viable future for theological education?
Yes, if one is able to identify and eliminate the hazards that put it at risk. Defined by FEMA as “many homes existing today were built when little was known about where and how often floods and other hazardous events would occur or how buildings should be protected. As a result, retrofitting has become a necessary and important tool in hazard mitigation. Hazard mitigation is sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from hazards such as floods, winds, earthquakes, and fires.”
These hazards are compounded along with other ingredients of three interrelated presuppositions embedded in the builder generation of theological teachers and their schools, perhaps smiled about in table talk but actually tacit convictions, resilient, inviolable, and not open to debate especially by anyone under 30.
1) No help needed, and I’ll not give any.
2) I love my books, so don’t try to take them.
3) It happens nowhere else but here.
Retrofitting What Is
Learning theory, delivery systems, centralized residence, and curriculum designs have not changed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. So what is one to do? Faculty and facility remain—they must be renewed. Key idea: ‘Retrofitting’. Definition of transitive verb, according to Merriam-Webster first used in 1953, about the time theological schools were reaching their stride: to adapt to a new purpose or need: modify
The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, a five-year study involving 84 universities in 6 research fields, sought to address the needs of 375,000 doctoral students in the states. Among many issues was attrition: “About half of today’s doctoral students are lost to attrition—and in some programs the numbers are higher yet. Those who persist often take a long time to finish and along the way find their passion for the field sadly diminished” (The Formation of Scholars, p. 2). The Carnegie study emphasizes three major themes: 1) scholarly integration, 2) intellectual community, and 3) stewardship.
Retrofitting theological education includes the following components:
Learning in a collaborative, integrated paradigm. Connected to ministry issues, adapted to multiple learning environments, developed in community.
Vocational need assessment. Design of degree programs in terms of outcomes for ministry. Accountability for the learning process and what is accomplished.
Synthesis of the learning experience. Overcoming the traditional barriers between ‘classical’ and ‘practical’ disciplines. Focus on spiritual formation.
Competency-based curriculum. Emphasis on problem-solving, case studies, group leadership, and mentored experience.
Globalization and mission. Cultural understanding, interface with the larger issues of society, and the vitality of witness in a pluralistic setting.
Lay theological education. Models of seminary education that link university career training, bivocationalism, and lay participation in the church’s ministry.
Digital resources and classroom management. The ‘hard copy’ industry will survive only in a nuture modality. Cyberspace is the vehicle of future—find yourself a cloud.
Let me spell out implications of this list for the mitigation of the hazards I listed above.
Multilevel Collaboration. A major foundation executive on the main criterion for investment in a school: “We want to make our own assessment of the spirit, vision, and effectiveness of the schools—their leaders, their programs, and their outcomes. We have settled on certain key indicators we look for when we do these campus visits. And, while we have developed a number of conclusions that now guide our investment policy, I have to say that, above all else, we have concluded that the future belongs to those Christian schools that have a vision for and really practice collaboration throughout what they do [emphasis added]. Those schools typically have a clear vision of who they are. They know their strengths—what they can and cannot do well; their sense of identity is strong; they have an outward vision rather than inward; their leadership is focused on the future rather than on the past; they are open to change, not threatened by it; they are marked by a spirit of optimism; their programs are well integrated, with a clear focus built around their vision, purpose, and identity; and their programs are perceived as relevant by faculty, students, their communities, and their financial supporters.”
Teachers, departments, faculties, and schools tend to become silos. Collaboration should happen at several levels: student to student, teacher to student, teacher to colleague(s), department to departments within and across schools, the school with other schools, and the institution with the community. Shared resources is a prime example. Books have always attracted proprietary interests, whether author’s copyright, personal ownership, or buildings to hold them and librarians to guard them. We are in a new day: an orphaned books bill waits action in the Congress, the tech giants are busy digitizing the world’s largest collections, and university consortiums are planning a world digital library of one million volumes.
An October 2010 survey did research on higher education collaboration in cooperation with the Overseas Council International. We interviewed the presidents and deans of 129 institutions in 6 regions of the world working in 11 languages. Respondents had this to say about the state of collaboration at their institution.
1/3—29.3% were satisfied or only somewhat satisfied with collaboration on their campus.
1/2—53% indicated that collaboration between their school and others occurred infrequently or never, and 58.2% of those expressed dissatisfaction at the level and quality of inter-institutional collaboration.
2/3—47.5% indicated that collaboration with those in the community occurred infrequently or never, and 67.5% of those expressed dissatisfaction with their institution regarding community collaboration. (Phil Butler, “Effective Collaboration”)“We need a new type of theological education for pastors that enables them to be
Community Formation. The monastic model assumes that theological education happens in a place where professors are gathered and books are housed—namely, a main campus. A seminary without walls— this is where Baptist training of preachers began—aspiring young ministers taken in hand by an experienced mentor and teacher, as Spurgeon, Broadus, and Carroll did with their students. Denton Lotz, formerly BWA General Secretary, wrote in his open letter to Baptists worldwide new challenges for this new century; the third was “theological education for the masses” (1/1/06):
teachers and coaches for the churches, not administrators, or dictators!
We need a new generation of pastors who are passionate about making Jesus Christ
known and instructing our people in discipleship! Perhaps church-based
theological education will bring academia and the people together. The
heart and the mind belong together.”
It is now happening across this country and around the world. The question is whether seminaries will find a way to return to church as the place of ministry formation. If we do not sing the songs of Zion is this strange land, someone else will.