Revisioning seminary

February 8, 2013
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Le Vieux Séminaire, Montreal, circa 1888. Some rights reserved by Philippe Du Berger.

In our annual theological education issue, Will Willimon observes that the most effective clergy he knows are finding creative ways to start new communities of faith—but seminaries are not teaching them how to do it (“Making ministry difficult”). “Seminaries have changed less in the past 100 years than vibrant congregations have changed in the past two decades,” says Willimon.

I don’t think Willimon goes far enough. I don’t believe that theological education has changed in its basic assumptions and structures for centuries: it’s a graduate school environment, complete with residential campus and students working in academic disciplines—languages, history, Bible and theology.

I am a grateful product of those assumptions and structures and as resistant to the idea of change as anyone. But it’s time for bold, creative experiments in preparing women and men for the unique challenges of 21st-century America. Pressing issues become more critical each year: the cost of seminary, for example, continues to climb, with the unhappy result that students graduate with significant and prohibitive debt and look for jobs at a time when there are fewer full-time positions that pay enough to accommodate the debt.

Although the idea of online theological education makes me cringe, it deserves our best, creative thinking. Happily, this is happening in some schools. In “Face-to-screen learning,” Lawrence Wood documents the increased use of online learning and challenges some of us to reconsider our aversion to it.

Seminary curricula must continue to provide the basic intellectual rigor that a thoughtful ministry requires, as well as opportunities to work in hands-on residencies and internships, observe experienced ministers and gain concrete experience. The Lilly Endowment’s pastoral residency program is one approach that seems to be working well. Seminary curricula must also include something new; they must equip leaders for ministry that may not include the traditional pastorate of a congregation with its own real estate and buildings.

Seminary administrators and teachers are among the smartest people I know. I wish they would all gather in a room, acknowledge that the current seminary model is out of date and come up with a vision for theological education that equips ministers for the 21st century—a vision that then continues to change and emerge.


Revisioning seminary

Excellent summary of the challenge of modernizing theological/pastoral education! Online/distance plus experiential/residency opportunities needs discussion and development. We are experiencing a revolution in health professional education ( see Lancet Commission report, www.the a much-needed revision in curricula. I graduated from medical school in 1956, had traditional I'm residency, then during career change to corporate medicine did my MPH largely online,forcing me to become computer literate!

The call to medicine came early for me, thanks to a crusty GP and a minister father devoted to the service of others. I have the utmost respect for those who accept the call to ministry in our turbulent world, and support JMB suggestion for rethinking pastoral training. These young people are indeed 'Promise' and deserve better in their training and development.

R.E. Dedmon, MD MPH

Seminary Education

I received a wonderful theological education in seminary.  That's not the problem.  The problem is that I graduated and quickly discovered that I entered another seminary, namely my first parish with the realities of doing mission.  In the 25 years since I walked in my graduation gown, I've learned from "in the field" pastors, social entrepreneurs, Executive Directors of Homeless shelters and other non-profits, teachers of leadership in business, evangelicals, pnetecostals, mainliners.  All in all the first seminary, in my opinion should be a two year graduate program in theology, a summer CPE or similar in between.  This could all occur while a student/candidate is in a local parsih charged with the task of starting a new ministry/church/small group of 'nones.' 

This approach will reduce seminary debt, be contextual, encourage mission, and still shape theological thinkers.

Then again, it could be a huge mistake.

Necessary Direction

There will always be a place for the Harvards and Dukes that do not need to engage in distance learning to survive and who have a clientele who want a heady, almost monastic theological education.  It is just not the majority of American pastors and is a rapidly diminishing number. The older format, along with a sense of irrelevancy, is why seminary education has been dying--and why my seminary was able to jump to the top 25% in enrollment in just 3 years. All of us seminaries are in danger of being replaced by populist teaching churches if we are not accessible, affordable, and not perceived to be practical or vibrant.