What is seminary for, really? It seems to me that the typical goals have been things like: maintain accreditation with Association of Theological Schools (ATS), hire world-famous faculty, be a leader in scholarship, maintain denominational standards of indoctrination, and have a beautiful campus. These must be the goals because seminaries seem to do these things quite well.
Seminaries are failing at one important thing: training effective leaders in the church. There are different anecdotal and research-based evidences that point to this. The most obvious one is that the church in America is declining–effective leaders generally grow and multiply churches and other leaders.
Seminaries need to re-orient their goal: sustainably training people for leadership in the church. That’s it. Everything else is subservient to that. Is ATS getting in the way of your innovative new training program? Forgo accreditation. Are you spending too much maintaining a campus infrastructure to keep tuition costs reasonable? Sell the buildings. Have too much money tied up in full-time faculty? Get rid of them. Enrollment down? Jettison the denominational boundaries and make outsiders feel welcome.
Sustainability is the key. Seminary costs are rising. Congregations are shrinking. It doesn’t take a lot of fancy math to know that this is not a sustainable long-term game plan. The easiest way to make seminary sustainable is to decrease costs for students. When it is already difficult for a full-time pastor to pay student loans, it’s just going to get more difficult as church leadership turns ever more in a bi-vocational direction.
Notice I said seminary is for training “leaders,” not “pastors”. Ecclesiology is shifting, and for the better in my opinion. Ordained, denominationally-sanctioned ministry will become a thing of the past (and already is in evangelicalism). Local churches will be the ones who call people into ministry, and their roles will be diverse. Many potential leaders need training, but they will never preach a sermon. Maybe they will never teach a Sunday school class. But they will coordinate the church’s mission outreach, lead the discipleship ministry, or coordinate massive projects between churches and community organizations. Churches need well-rounded leadership, and if the leaders are going to be bi-vocational, then there will have to be more leaders. Seminary training will need to be flexible enough to train this diversity of leadership.
Seminaries have one goal: to sustainably train people for leadership in the church. I have some ideas what it might look like if a seminary seriously embraced this goal and will share it with you over the coming weeks.
What do you think a seminary would look like that relentlessly and sustainably trained church leaders?
About two years ago, I wrote a little series of posts about why seminary is irrelevant, and it was mostly a critique without a lot of constructive thoughts. Since then, there are a lot of significant voices weighing in on the subject recently trying to discern a way forward:
All the recent talk has made me start thinking about this topic again, so over the next few days (or maybe weeks), I’m going to try to post some constructive thoughts about where seminary education needs to move from here. Seminaries are currently products of a certain kind of underlying ecclesiology, so it stands to reason that if our ecclesiology is shifting, then seminaries must follow suit.
If you have thoughts about the future of seminary, post a comment or write your own blog post and drop me a comment with the link (yes, I’m telling you to promote yourself!). I want to know what other great ideas are floating out there.
As can be expected, many people don’t like some of the assertions I’ve made about the future of seminaries. That’s no surprise. What bothers me a little bit is that I feel like I am being misunderstood. If people disagree with me on substance, that’s fine, but I don’t like being misunderstood.
Honestly, there is good reason for me to be misunderstood. I wrote the post on a whim. When I first saw Tyler’s post I was instantly struck by how differently I saw things and was therefore inspired to write about it. I didn’t feel like hunting down all the references that back up some of the claims I was making, and because of that some have said I’m just making unsubstantiated predictions about the future.
So, in order to be a little clearer in my analysis and give this topic the treatment that it deserved in the first place (and to give me something to write about) I’m going to try and substantiate my arguments better and defend against the common objections against my stance on seminaries. I think I’ve said all this before, but just to clarify:
This is forward-looking. My claims are more akin to predictions about why seminaries can’t keep doing things the way they do now than they are an indictment on today.
This seminary peice is only a small part of where I see ecclesiology moving. Many detractors seem to argue their case assuming the current systems, norms, standards, and beuracracies will exist indefinitely. I see things differently. There are many ecclesial dominoes that will fall and this is one piece. To understand the argument you have to be able to imagine that the future will be different than today. I will get into these specifics more in turn.
I am simply siggesting there might be another way to train church leaders. Can’t we at least raise the question?
Irrelevance might not be the best word to use, but that was the word Tyler used in his original, so I kept that language. If seminaries don’t change they will become irrelevant, but they are not necessarily so right now.
Thanks to everyone who’s chimed in on this conversation, whether in support or in defense. Either way, you have helped me to think more about this topic. I hope you will stay involved in the discussion to come over the next few weeks.
My posts a couple of weeks ago that talked about the increasing irrelevance of traditional seminaries got picked up by Jake Belder of GoingtoSeminary.com. I rewrote the first two posts a bit and condensed them down into a single post for the Going to Seminary site. The post ran yesterday morning and has generated a little bit of discussion, and I expect it to generate quite a bit more. Based off of some of the discussion going on speaking against my perspective, I wonder if the church has lost its imagination in how we train church leaders.
In my posts, I am simply suggesting that the future of training church leaders might not look like it does right now as we send people off to brick-and-mortar institutions for a few years of intense classroom training. Most of the responses disagreeing with me seem to suggest that the way we train church leaders right now is the best way to train church leaders.
Yes, seminaries might be adequate for today’s church. But is it the best model? And when we come to come sort of consensus about the nature of the church in 50-100 years, will we not have rethought things like ordination, seminary, and denominationalism? What ever happened to semper reformada? I don’t think that our educational institutions are are beyond reform. Especially as we are starting to ask questions like, What does it mean to be the church? (which, in my opinion is the real core question of both the emerging church and missional movements), to think that we will just leave the training and education of our leaders the way we’ve been doing it for the last 100 years seems a bit short-sighted. We need to begin the exercise of re-imagining some new possibilities.
I also wonder if some of the resistance against my suggestions is because I have a different ecclesiological perspective than others. I must admit, my ideas about the future of seminaries are rooted in what is just now beginning to take place in movements like the emerging church, new monasticism, and missional Christianity. Phyllis Tickle seems to think that we are on the verge of a huge shift in Christianity (check out her book, The Great Emergence), and I think she is right. My assumptions about the future are based on the prediction that the current trends will continue to gain influence and reshape the future of the church.
Thankfully, I likely won’t know if I’m right until at least fifty years down the road, at the earliest. And if I’m wrong, no one will remember little old me. But based off of some shifts that are happening culturally and ecclesiologically, I believe that the changing future of the church will necessitate corresponding changes in training and educating church leaders.
The last two days I wrote a two-part series giving 13 reasons why I think seminaries are becoming irrelevant for training church leaders (read Part 1 and Part 2). However, when reading through the comments, I think I need to make a few clarifications and assertions:
I love academia. This has nothing to do with bad experiences I’ve had in academic settings. I have an undergraduate degree in youth ministry with a minor in Bible. My favorite classes were the theoretical, philosophical, and historical classes: church history, theology classes, general philosophy, Christian philosophy (where we studied Augustine in depth). I have presented two papers at uptight, boring, stereotypical research conferences (and kind of enjoyed it). If I could be a student for the rest of my life, I just might do that. So, this has nothing to do with a personal vendetta against academics.
I love the church more. One of the things that keeps me from seriously considering a fast-track to a Ph.D. is that I do not believe the hope of the world is found in seminaries, but in local churches. Yes, I know that seminaries train church leaders, who in turn serve in local churches. But my ecclesiology and pneumatology put more emphasis on these local bodies than academic factories that decontextualize and depersonalize the learning process.
We still need leaders and they still need to be trained and educated. However, I think that a same or higher quality education can be gained within local networks, without nearly as high of a cost, and while still within a concrete ministry context. By approaching education this way, laypeople are more able to participate in the same kind of educational process as pastors and other leaders without having to leave their careers.
This will take time. I don’t expect seminaries to become obsolete tomorrow. It will take people who do have academic credentials and who do have careers in seminaries to make a break and forge a new path. There has to be a bridge, an intermediate step, that will legitimize a new form of training church leaders. I don’t want our church leaders trained by a bunch of dunces any more than you do.
A new process will place spiritual formation on the same level as academics. In my experience, when a professor in an academic setting tries to integrate spiritual formation into the classroom there is quite a bit of backlash. Students think their time (and money) is being wasted and that the professor is just giving them fluff work, so they don’t take it seriously. That our Christian universities and seminaries are not places who take spiritual formation seriously is a tragedy. But the problem is with the model. As long as professors are judged and rewarded on research, publishing, pedagogy, and academic rigor spiritual formation will always be an afterthought. To train church leaders without serious attention to spiritual formation is to produce spiritually anemic leaders. A new model of training can put spiritual formation back where it belongs.
My approach to education is highly influenced by my current seminary program. As I’ve said before, I am part of Luther Seminary’s Distributed Learning Program. It is a Masters of Arts in Youth and Family Ministry that takes 18 courses to complete, nine classes online and nine on-campus classes in intensive courses (one or two week classes). Without a program structured as this one is, I would not be continuing my education right now. I got into this program out of necessity–I wanted to go to seminary and I thought this was the best program (regardless of denomination) for youth ministry that would allow me to keep my full-time job. But now that I am in such a program I am seeing the high value of a non-traditional program, and it is causing me to totally rethink how we might go about training church leaders in the future.
The cost is too high. Especially in mainline churches where churches are shrinking, our churches are less financially viable and pastors are coming out of seminary with more and more debt, such a trend is not sustainable. We are bankrupting our churches by making them pay for pastors’ debt burdens.
Seminaries create unhelpful hierarchies in churches. By having degreed, credentialed church leaders a dichotomy is drawn between the haves and the have-nots. Especially as churches are becoming serious about the priesthood of all believers, this division will become increasingly frowned upon.
Seminaries have crossed the line into institutional preservation. Especially now that we are in an economic downturn, many seminaries are in institutional survival mode. Whenever you are in survival mode the continuation of the institution becomes primary, not the mission. Seminaries are thinking less about how to train church leaders and more about how to keep the doors open (Our churches often face the same problem).
Resources are becoming available for little to no cost. The open-source movement is beginning to catch on in areas other than software. Blogs are offering high quality content at no cost. Resources for ministry are offered for free download. Academic journals can be found online for free. This trend will eventually mean that the best scholarship and ministry resources will be published for the world to see for free, making it very difficult to convince someone to pay thousands of dollars for access to cutting-edge thinking and research.
Technology has made brick-and-mortar institutions less important. With the advent of broadband internet and it’s related technologies we are not bound by geography when it comes to learning and training. Workshops, seminars, online conferences, and whole semester-long classes can be done over the internet. Relocating to do such a thing makes less and less sense as time goes on.
You learn too much too quickly. Think about it: you hole yourself up in a classroom for a few years trying to soak in a bunch of information and then you are thrust into a congregation to try and put it all to use. In addition to that, you are used to being able to dedicate yourself to your studies full-time. In a congregation you have bulletins to update, newsletter articles to write, people to visit, events to plan, sermons to write, and more. How are you ever going to find time to keep learning? A program that is concurrent with ministry in a local congregation and spread over a longer period of time has two advantages. One, you can focus on and implement a few ideas at a time without being overwhelmed. Take a class, implement it; take another class, implement it; this is a much more sustainable model. Two, learning to budget yourself to have time for ministry and a learning program will better enable you to become a lifelong learner because you are forced to make yourself do both at the same time. This will set you up for being able to continue learning even after your program is over.
Seminaries usurp the role of the church. This is my biggest problem with seminary programs. Why do we have to go off somewhere for 2-4 years to study theology? What are our churches doing? Shouldn’t the church be the place where people are taught, trained, and released for ministry? The fact that training has been outsourced to the seminaries is a sign of a failure of the church. The future ecclesiology that sees churches as places of equipping their congregations for mission will change this and make seminaries ultimately irrelevant for training church leaders.
Now, the above is quite forward-looking. Maybe seminaries are not completely irrelevant today, but at the very least, seminary is becoming irrelevant, quickly. The seminaries that see this coming and adapt might survive and be able to adjust. But those who stay stuck in a model that is 150 years old are bound to fail.
As I referenced in the last post, Luther Seminary is one of the institutions that is taking innovative steps to adjust to the changing world with their Distributed Learning program and by offering Online Seminars to average church leaders. However, I think they are taking the first baby steps to really helping people rethink what it means to train church leaders. I hope they and others will continue to push the envelope and not get behind the curve of cultural and ecclesiological development.
Lastly, I put in parentheses that seminaries are irrelevant for church leaders. However, it would be a tragedy for there to be no form of Christian scholarship. I hope there are always places for people to get Ph.D.’s in the various fields of study, but I believe that the future of equipping and training people for local congregational ministry has already begun the shift away from the brick-and-mortar institutions towards the local church.
The other day Jake Belder linked to a post about 5 Reasons Seminary is Relevant. As someone who is in seminary and also interested in how to best train and equip church leaders I found this post interesting while at the same time disagreeing profoundly. Below is my response, but first I should qualify that I define traditional seminary programs as full-time residential programs that require someone to relocate themselves to a brick-and-mortar institution for a period of 2-5 years. I believe these programs are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful.
Also, my limited seminary and professional experience has been in the mainline church, specifically the ELCA. So, some of the following critiques might not apply to evangelical seminaries, but I believe that most will.
With that, here is why I think traditional seminary programs are irrelevant for church leaders:
Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts. The traditional seminary model has certain values that undermine local gatherings and remove people unnecessarily from their faith communities. Yes, I know that your fellow seminarians create a community, but there is a significant difference between a gathering of idealistic budding theologians and the average person in a congregation. Much discourse in academic settings is very pie-in-the-sky and not well grounded in reality.
The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry. When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model and moving towards organic, relational, flat models of ecclesiology and mission, making the seminary model less relevant.
Denominations are becoming a thing of the past. Many seminaries are bastions of denominational conformity and preservation. Unfortunately for them, today’s younger generation could care less about denominations. Denominations did not arise in force until the 1800s. If they haven’t always been, then it is likely they won’t always be. Denominational seminaries might be the first to go.
The future of ecclesiology is the priesthood of all believers. Many future church leaders will be bivocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option.
Seminaries are about credentialing as much as training. My school, Luther Seminary, had to (and continues to have to) jump through all sorts of hoops to get the Association of Theological Schools to accredit their innovative Distributive Learning Program, which, to the surprise of the old guard, has been wildly successful in providing church leaders with quality training. We continue to be restricted by ATS from doing certain things that might be helpful in our education. This is all because we are caught up with being accredited, which has nothing to do with the gospel or training church leaders. (I say Luther should consider making the bold move of becoming the first major seminary to break with the ATS in order to do what we need to do to train people for the church. I know it’s complicated and all, but we should at least be considering it.)
The process of seminary is personally damaging. Maybe this is not happening across the board, but Luther Seminary is doing some research into what happens to the spiritual lives of seminarians between the time they enter seminary and the time they graduate. The results are not encouraging (sorry I don’t have a citation because the results are not published). Not only is ministry effectiveness questionable, but at a personal level seminarians are coming out less healthy than when they matriculated. My hypothesis is that seminary asks deep and profound questions that need to be wrestled with in the context of a constant, steady, familiar worshipping community in order to not inflict the damage that it does. The role of the Spirit is diminished by taking people out of their church community.
Suggest an idea in the comments for a free theological ministry resource
My current online course at Luther Seminary is “Overview of Christian Teaching,” an introductory theology class. As part of our final project we can either take an exam, write a 9-12 page paper, or do some project that can be used in ministry (bible study, activity, retreat, powerpoint presentation, website, confirmation lesson or curriculum, etc.)
I would like to try and do the project if possible and would like your input. If you could get yout hands on a robustly theological resource, what would you be looking for? What format? What topic? What age group (I work with junior high and high school but would be interested in doing something for college students or adults as well)? Have you ever bought a theological resource for use in ministry and were disappointed? What would have made it better?
Note that the paper option is in the 9-12 range, so the project itself might not be able to be too in depth, but only provide a snippet of the overall resource (i.e. an outline of a 10-week teaching series with two lessons written out in full). But if I like the topic I might go ahead and finish it out. When I do, I will post it for free for anyone to use.
We are using Roger Olson’s Mosaic of Christian Belief as the basic text, and he uses the following chapters (to help spur your thinking about possible topics–but be creative if you want to go outside the box):
Christian Belief: Unity and Diversity
Sources and Norms of Christian Belief: One and Many
Divine Revelation: Universal and Particular
Christian Scripture: Divine Word and Human Words
God: Great and Good
God: Three and One
Creation:Good and Fallen
Providence: Limited and Detailed
Humanity: Essentially Good and Essentially Estranged
Jesus Christ: God and Man
Salvation: Objective and Subjective
Salvation: Gift and Task
The Church: Visible and Invisible
Life Beyond Death: Continuity and Discontinuity
The Kingdom of God: Already and Not Yet
Leave me a comment of something that might be helpful for you in your ministry.
I would appreciate a tweet about this if you are on Twitter.
We had an interesting exercise in my seminary class last week, and I thought I would post it. The class is Overview of Christian Teachings, a basic theology class. we were studying the nature of providence and the professor provided the following prompt. My response is below.
“The editor of Faith & Values has called asking you to write a short article to be published this coming Saturday that addresses the following question: Is God responsible for the hurricane that devastated New Orleans (by causing it or permitting it to happen)? The editor requires that you are to write from your own convictions and conclusions on this issue, and not simply report possible solutions that have been posed with respect to the problem of evil throughout history or your own denomination’s point of view (although they may be cited in support of, or as a way of explaining, your own view). You have, for better or worse, accepted this assignment.”
The great natural tragedies of our day present quite a conundrum to the committed Christian such as myself. Tragic “acts of God” (as insurance companies like to classify them) always raise the question, If God is good and all powerful, why didn’t God stop this? Such is the classic question posed to the area theological of theological inquiry known as theodicy, which deals with the question of the reality of evil in our world today. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most poignant examples where this question is being asked today. Could God not have saved New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast? As someone who has led a group of teenagers twice to the cost of Mississippi to help the community there rebuild from Katrina’s devastation, this exercise is not just academic. I have seen, talked to, and volunteered my time for the people who lived through the nightmare in August of 2005.
The first question we must deal with is God’s goodness. Like many attributes of God-loving, merciful, wrathful, jealous-God’s goodness can be easily misunderstood by the unreflective thinker. If there is a creator God, and if he is good, then God defines good; good does not define God. The temptation is for us to use the reasoning, “I know what good is; therefore, if God does something that is not good, he either cannot exist or is not good.” In reality, we must start with God in order to define what good is, regardless of our notions.
The second question that we must deal with is God’s power. Although classic Christianity holds that God is all-powerful we also believe that God has given human beings some measure of free will. In the case of New Orleans, much went wrong apart from the wind and the rain. Human beings decided to settle along the Gulf coast; human beings chose to build homes below sea level; human beings constructed a system of levees incapable of guarding the city from possible flooding. That God is not culpable in these human acts fits with classic Christian belief. Thus, much of the devastation of Katrina was wrought as a result of human beings who settled in New Orleans. That is not to say that they were necessarily sinful or wrong, but it is to say that human beings face consequences to their actions.
Human beings are not, however, able to control the weather. Only God can alter the climate, and the Bible points to many occasions when he is said to have done so. He parted the Red Sea, caused drought to fall on many lands, flooded the earth, and more. Certainly it is not outside the realm of God’s power to alter the weather from its normal, created laws and mechanisms. Where the question arises is if it is outside of God’s goodness not to intervene in the weather where there might be calamity as a result, as in Hurricane Katrina.
The grand story of the Bible tells that God created the universe, along with human beings who can act freely for Good or evil, and that human beings have been on a crash course of messing things up ever since. God, for whatever reason, has chosen to give human beings the space to be free, make mistakes, and even cause harm to one another. However, the Christian faith also tells us that God as both, simultaneously, allowed human beings to retain their free will at the same time that he has defeated all evil, death, and corruption through Jesus Christ. This paradox of God’s restoration of humanity and our ongoing freedom is quite the mystery. The salvation of humankind has already been achieved, yet it has not been realized. In the same way, we might say that God’s power over all creation to work only for the good has been achieved, but it is not yet realized. We long for the day when it will be so, but that day has not yet some.
The deaths inflicted by Hurricane Katrina were deaths that God has already defeated. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory?” Death might be real in our world, but death does not win. As Christians we believe that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ. While the answer to the question, “Is God responsible for Hurricane Katrina” may never be answered while we are on this earth, we do know that God is responsible for the resurrection that comes from such death. In this resurrection we find hope. In this resurrection we find life, even in death.
When I was at Solomon’s Porch on Sunday night, Doug Pagitt said something to the effect that when he was going to seminary he was being trained for an industry that was dying and would likely cease to exist (and that those of us in seminary should think about that). He compared it to being trained as a typewriter repairman in the late 80s. It’s a scary thought for those of us pouring thousands of dollars into a seminary degree.
But I think I totally agree.
Our current ecclesiology is simply unsustainable. In the ELCA the average church is under one hundred people and shrinking. Most churches have their own seminary-trained pastor, who set aside 8 years of his or her life (undergraduate and seminary) and pay tens of thousands of dollars in order to be equipped as a leader. When churches are shrinking and the cost of training pastors is increasing, eventually you reach a tipping point where churches simply cannot afford the old model of pastoral training. Once we do we will see a radical shift in what it means to lead a church.
At this point in our history, we have outsourced the training of pastors to a German research university model. Why are our churches not able to train people up as leaders and pastors? Surely a local body of only ten small-sized churches has the intellectual and financial capability to train their people locally in Christian leadership.
As someone who is enrolled in a seminary program that requires us to be working in a local church (most of us are full-time lay staff) as we complete our curriculum, I am seeing the immense value in connecting theological education to local church leadership. Much of the initial research that is being done on our program is pointing to the advantage of such a model of training and education.
Honestly, the shift to distance education is a fairly small one, because it is still tied to the institution and the “mother church.” But the direction it is moving, albeit slowly, is back towards contextual education within local congregations. A bigger step would be to remove the educational process from the seminary institution and move it towards the churches. Such a move requires would require us to rethink vocation, ordination, ecclesiology, and church polity, all discussions that need to be had if we are going to survive and flourish in this cultural climate.
As much as I love the big ideas that happen in our educational institutions, when I ask the question, Does this model best serve the church? I keep answering with a resounding No. We may still need institutions for people who want a Ph.D., but congregational leadership training could be located elsewhere. The church must learn (and quickly) how it will reclaim the training of its people from the distant institution and relocate it within the local congregation. Some attempts have already been made, with little success. What will be needed for this to work is people with the proper educational credentials leaving the established system to pursue an alternative method.
I’ve said before that we need a radical new ecclesiology. A critical piece of that will be a radical new way to train leaders in the church.