Seminaries find homes in congregations

Churches have long outsourced theological education. Now it's moving back.

Seminary education is changing at a high velocity, and no one quite knows where it is headed. Almost everyone agrees that technology will be increasingly important, but no one knows precisely how. Almost everyone agrees that student indebtedness is at catastrophic levels, but no one knows how to wean schools off giving government-guaranteed loans that students will have to pay back after graduation. (The exceptions are the few schools that aim to build an endowment that covers tuition.) Almost everyone knows that most students are not likely to dive into a three-year residential experience far from home. Instead, students are seeking out a seminary education close to home; they tend to be older, with families, and with no intention of quitting their current job. Increasingly they are staying where they are and studying online.

Arguably, this approach is better for the church. Why should potential congregational leaders uproot their lives, borrow large sums of money, and rip up local connections when they can study online, try out what they learn about ministry in their own congregations, and grow in effectiveness and competence right where they are?

Schools linked to fast-growing megachurches are among those that are adapting more quickly to these new circumstances. Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Asbury Theological Seminary’s extension campus in Memphis, and the St. Mellitus College in London illustrate the trend. Their innovative programs arise from partnerships with large congregations that have a track record in evangelism, a pastoral staff adept at media and technology, and church campuses with lots of underutilized space.