Seminary Ed: What To Do? A Follow-Up to “Renew or Plan the Funeral”

By LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West (GTU)

This article is a follow up to my previous article entitled Renew or Plan the Funeral, as part of the Symposium on The Future of Seminary Education at Patheos. The fundamental premise of the first article is that decline is a natural and expected phase in institutional life; and, consequently, a phase that should be predicted and included as part of one’s strategic plan.  When institutions begin to decline there are basically two options:  renew or plan the funeral.    

Gone are the days when one would pack up all possessions and family members, leave one’s place of residence and move to a seminary community committing 100% of his/her time to theological studies and dialogue—in fact those days are long gone.  For years now our seminaries have been servicing students in our local communities—the majority of seminaries in America have become commuter schools or distance education specialists.

Also gone are the days of the academic/intellectual pastor to whom all came for answers to life’s most difficult questions—some theological in nature, but many about life’s ever day realities.  Today with the internet at our finger tips can literally do the walking; we no longer need access to a local guru who can help us find a path through the murky waters of everyday existence.

The seminaries in the North America have been nimble enough to shift and adapt to these cultural changes without overhauling the institutional structure—and so we have continued to hike along (fairly successfully I might add) providing seminary education in the manner that we have been highly trained to do.  Along the way we have noticed, and even discussed at times, the ensuing inequities within various culture groups related to the accessibility (or inaccessibility) of theological education.  As result, many tried to create new and creative programs on the side (by necessity due to accreditation standards) that would somewhat fill the gap.

But now we have entered a very different era—a time when the growing majority of prospective theological students are not of European decent and, consequently, not euro-centric;  a time when many who desire theological education do not have BAs, but have a tremendous amount of pastoral/ministerial experience; a time when women make up nearly 50% of the theological student population, yet find their professional ministry options severely limited upon graduation; a time when inductive experiential learning holds more weight than the highly deductive academic lectures of yesteryear; a time when the increasing levels of plurality in society necessitate contextual learning and theologies; a time when denominations are on the decline, but spirituality is on the rise; a time when ministries that have become too cloistered are, by necessity, busting out of their sacred edifices  taking ministry to the streets; a time when students are older, dollars are scarce, and incomes are low.

What do we need to do?

First, we need to seriously revise the ATS standards for the MDiv program, or create a new accredited pastoral training program.  If the growing majority of students desiring an MDiv today come from non-euro-centric communities, have not completed a BA, are looking for shorter—less expensive programs, and have several years of pastoral experience, then we need to redesign the degree to fit this market—or create something entirely different.   The traditional MDiv has run its course—it’s time for something new.

Second, we need to create highly interactive, integrated (theoretical and practical; academic and spiritual), inductive, contextualized curriculums with immediate practical applications.  Today’s students are looking for practical programs that will provide them a skill set immediately transferable into the marketplace.  Today’s graduates must be trained to navigate the complexities of gender, class, cultural, political, and religious differences.  Today’s seminary alums must have the ability to work within the church as well as the dexterity to serve as community leaders and innovators.  Today’s seminaries must train for today’s world—it’s time for something new.

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Ph.D., is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at the American Baptist Seminary of the West (a member school of the Graduate Theological Union) in Berkeley, California.  Dr. Flesher taught for three years at two seminaries in New York City, Seminary of the East and New York Theological Seminary, and is currently beginning her eighteenth year of teaching and 5th year as Academic dean at the American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW).  Dr. Flesher has served as visiting professor to theological institutes and seminaries in Costa Rica, Panama, Central Africa, and Korea.  She currently serves as Vice-Chair of the ATS CAOS Steering Committee.

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