What we want theological education to look like depends on what sort of church we want, and on what we think ministers are for. Do we want highly trained leaders who know how to lead, recruit and motivate? Or do we want pastors and priests who know God, and know how to connect other people to God?
From the Academy of ancient Greece to the medieval schools, education was understood to be centered upon conversation (conversor, literally meaning “being together”). Plato’s dialogues and Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae are written in the form of a conversation.
"Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety,” wrote Charles Wesley in the 1763. Theological education in the middle of the 21st century will still be wrestling with that basic pairing.
Way too much emphasis is placed on making theological education accessible and convenient. With the rise of Internet courses and distance learning, seminaries have accommodated to the spirit of individualism rather then drawing on the biblical mandate that leaders be formed through intentional community.
By 2050 the training of ministers will have shifted to where the students are located. Teachers will travel a third of their time. This will be cheaper and more effective than transplanting students. Cheap travel will allow courses to be set in a relevant historical location—Reformation history taught in partnership with a Germany-based tour company, the book of Ephesians taught in Ephesus.
I recently began consulting with three seminary faculties that have gone through significant changes and crises in the past three years. These crises involved retirements, staff sexual misconduct, building programs, faculty-administration conflicts, curriculum changes and financial strains.
One day we woke up and saw that they were everywhere. Looking back, we realized that they had been there all along, growing in the soil under our feet, watered by the same water we drank, preparing to pop up their heads and bask in the sun.
Seminary programs should be one part monastery, one part seminar and one part mission agency. As monastery, such a program would require emerging leaders to spend extended periods living in community and devoted to spiritual practices like contemplative prayer or lectio divina.
The theological education issue of this magazine in 1958 featured a ruckus-raising editorial, “Domesticity in Our Seminaries” (April 23). The author was Ted Gill, my office mate and mentor in religious journalism. The editorial was unsigned, but no regular reader could have failed to discern Gill’s style, described by one colleague as “late baroque, early rococo, unfailingly grabbing.”
With many mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church expecting fewer young pastors in coming years, the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) says that it will receive $6 million from the Lilly Endowment for matching grants to congregations that back seminarians starting their Master of Divinity studies.