Women In Spirit and Flesh
Seminary Education for People Like Me
Editor's Note: This article is part of an online symposium, "Does Seminary Have a Future?" hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.
I love teaching in theological education because I loved being a student.
When I was in college, I was an active lay Christian. I didn't major in religion and had no plans to be a minister or professor of religion. But I had some questions that weren't answered in church or Christian campus organizations, so I decided to take a couple electives in biblical studies at my university's divinity school. I learned midrash, biblical criticism and German higher criticism. I participated in heated conversations with my classmates, and admired the passion of my professors. I vowed to return to divinity school at some point in the future.
I ended up getting a degree in theological education due to a combination of my call to ministry, a bit of directional uncertainty with doctoral studies, and the ordination requirements of my denomination.
It was then that I learned that theological education is Christianity's best-kept secret. I knew about biblical studies, and history, but no one told me that there were all these things in religion to study: theology, ethics, preaching, worship, history, pastoral care, religious education, and more! Once again, I had erudite, passionate and caring faculty. The majority of them cared as much about my vocational desires and my spiritual development as they did about my brain. I loved learning about God and my own faith.
When Sallie McFague asked me what I thought I could study for thirty years without being bored, I enthusiastically answered, "Theology!"
I begin all of my introductory Christian theology classes with a statement about how amazing it is to pursue theological education. "You are the ones who care enough about your faith to study it, examine it, doubt it, take time out of your lives and deepen it!"
There's something ironic about this because I'm aware that theological education - especially freestanding denominational seminaries - was not created for people like me.
These schools were created for Christian denominations to send their largely young single white male clergy for a communal (monastic-type) experience, so that they might emerge as educated professionals who would serve the local churches of said denomination.
Most seminaries adapted to small changes in that picture over time: women, people of color, family housing, second-career students. But they still assumed that individuals had the interests, mobility, denominational support and financial means of the original ideal student.
Theological educators are now faced with the reality that the structures that nourished and created us are no longer feasible. There aren't enough people going into ordained Christian denominational ministry, and the ones that do won't make enough money to pay back student loans. Theological education will need to change. I suggest starting at the beginning.
Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. She blogs about faith and depression at Beautiful Mind Blog