Theological education that works

Theological education is just beginning to catch up with changing needs of churches and culture that must be addressed if seminaries and divinity schools expect to survive.

By Ircel Harrison

I received my first seminary degree 42 years ago this month. There is much about that experience that I still treasure.

I studied under some excellent professors, made a number of friends that I encountered occasionally in my subsequent years of ministry, acquired some basic knowledge about the Bible and ministry, and learned to be a lifelong learner. In reality, the last thing was the most enduring gift of my seminary education -- I realized that my education was just beginning.

There were some things that were not so great. Rita and I left family, friends and ministry roles to relocate to another state. We moved furniture and belongings over 700 miles. She had to find a teaching job that would help support us during seminary days (I got VA education benefits so I was not a total slacker). We had to locate a new church where we could serve and be nurtured.

Only some years later did I realize other shortcomings related to my theological education. Despite the fact that we moved several states away from our home, the student body had little racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity. All of my professors (with the exception of a female music professor) were white men. For the most part, I was exposed to only one way of approaching the study of the Bible. And everyone had to be a certain type of Baptist.

Of course, times have changed, but theological education has only recently started to move away from the model that I experienced. Two years ago, David Sebastian, dean of the School of Theology at Anderson University, reported five trends shaping the future of theological education in North America:

  1. A widening chasm between Christian churches and seminaries.
  2. Increasing numbers of seminary students who have not grown up in the church.
  3. A growing awareness that seminary education is inaccessible for many potential seminary students.
  4. An increased questioning of whether seminary is really worth the financial cost.
  5. Forthcoming population shifts that will affect the ability of seminaries to prepare culturally competent leaders for the 21st century.

Sebastian is cited in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that reports some of the ways that seminaries, divinity schools and schools of theology are adapting to these changes in church and culture.

Although the article does not cite this school, Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., has embraced some innovative and risky initiatives over the past seven years to ensure that it will not only survive but will serve the church more effectively. In addition to developing teaching sites in other states and ramping up online courses, the seminary has pursued cross-cultural programs.

The most recent is a program in Korean contextualized theological studies. Under the direction of Dr. Rock Choi, this initiative is meeting the needs of Korean students for affordable ministerial formation and training in the context of their home communities and for whom study demands emphasis on the Korean language.

We can be grateful for institutions like Central that have recognized it is no longer 1970 and our churches and culture demand new leaders trained in innovative ways. Only those seminaries that recognize and embrace these changes will survive and prosper. 

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.