Rekindling the Romance: Falling Back in Love with Ministry
Even if we fall back in love, of course, the problems are not going away. We're still going to have to work at being more nimble, more responsive to changes in congregational life, more student-learning driven than teacher-centered, more sensitive to generational issues of learning, more sophisticated in analyzing the role of religion in U.S. culture and the cultures of the world. We are going to need to become better at taking the best of our historic traditions and re-interpreting those traditions in the cross currents of an information saturated culture. The critical point is falling in love again, not with the M.Div., but with the mission that many of us think the M.Div. served so well.
Once we get the romance back in collective lives, we can spend less time thinking about how to save the M.Div., and more time thinking about the deliverables that made the M.Div. the gold standard for so much of the previous century.
When done correctly, the M.Div. degree teaches students to think theologically, to react pastorally, and to act from a posture of contemplative wisdom, especially in high stress situations. It teaches students to strive to "know thyself" above all other forms of knowledge, and to recognize the theological enterprise as a rich and deep affair, one requiring active listening, the making of careful distinctions, and the tempering of passion, courage, and justice with prudence, kindness, and fortitude. It teaches students that a woman or man of leadership in the life of faith is a lifelong learner, committed to growing in maturity, spiritual depth, and discernment over the entire course of one's human existence. It teaches humility.
But, the traditional residential M.Div. is not the only way to achieve these deliverables.
The School of Theology and Ministry (STM) at Seattle University is a 14-year-old institution founded as an "intentionally ecumenical" enterprise on the campus of a Jesuit, Catholic university. STM is itself a kind of evolution from the traditional, residential seminary experience. Virtually all of STM's students, M.Div. or otherwise, are commuter students; most are part-time. Some complete their studies in two or three years, others take eight or ten. Graduates are known for their effectiveness in serving a wide assortment of ministerial contexts, and their ability to think and act authentically from their own historic traditions and ecumenically at the same time. Because of the curriculum's sophisticated emphasis on the integration of academic knowledge with ministerial skills and spiritual development, the holistic education accomplished through a residential M.Div. experience is achieved with most STM students without the residential experience. Our graduates make excellent ministers.
Unfortunately, flexibility with the M.Div. is not a sufficient response to increases in operational costs. STM has had to make more dramatic innovations. We have "re-branded" some existing degree programs and launched a new degree, one seeking to attract students interested in spirituality and theological themes but not in traditional church leadership positions. These "spiritual, but not religious" students are in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, and have introduced a different kind of graduate theological student.
In addition to new and improved degrees, STM is launching a hybrid distance education effort, and has created new excitement about its theological mission with community-focused programming, such as the annual Search for Meaning Book Festival. Last year's Bookfest, which has doubled in size every year, featured more than fifty authors on spirituality, faith, ethics, social justice, and the human search for meaning. The event has grown into a flood of inquirers into our degrees, yielding last year by far the largest number of inquiries in the school's history, although few were for the M.Div. STM has also begun a series of programs on interreligious dialogue. One $450,000 two-year program, which is funded through the Gates Foundation, will bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations to jointly tackle the issue of family homelessness. Another program, funded by a $300,000 three-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, will help the faculty build a practical theology expertise in interreligious dialogue and collaboration.
These are just a few of the things STM is doing to find new students and respond to changes in the denominations we serve and their perceived educational needs. More changes will almost certainly need to happen in the future, and if current patterns are an indication, the M.Div. will not fair much better in the short term than it has in the recent past. But, as long as faculty continue falling in love with the work of preparing students for real life ministry, we will weather the transition and prepare high quality people for various forms of ministry.
I have no doubt people will be giving eulogies for all of us long before they will be eulogizing graduate theological education.
Mark Markuly, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University.