This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.
Accreditation is a funny thing. The primary accrediting body for theological education is the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). When you’re on a seminary faculty, and especially when you’re in the administration, there’s lots of deference paid to ATS. They’re talked about in hushed tones. And if you notice that everything on your campus is being painted and the lawn is especially manicured, you can bet that an ATS site visit is in the offing.
The rub is that the people who accredit your seminary, the ones who decide if your seminary is up-to-snuff are (wait for it) employees of other seminaries!
I suppose that’s a common practice, to a certain extent. But a hospital ethics board is not staffed exclusively by physicians — it also has nurses, lawyers, and patient advocates. With ATS, it’s not the foxes guarding the henhouse, it’s the hens deciding who gets to have an official henhouse.
Accreditation is ultimately about standards, and standards are good. But accreditation as it currently stands in seminary education is driven by two forces: doctoral programs and denominations.Doctoral programs rely on ATS to ensure that the schools from which they choose applicants to admit are firing on all cylinders. Fair enough. That’s not likely to change.
Denominations, on the other hand, will soon not have the power to demand that those whom they ordain are carrying around ATS-approved diplomas. For one thing, denoms will soon be so desperate to fill their pulpits that they’ll have to lower their standards. And for another, denoms will see the injustice of demanding that their prospective clergy go into massive debt to get a degree from an ATS-accredited school.
Finally, there’s this: I meet people all the time who want theological education, but they don’t care in the slightest about coming out with a degree in hand. They’re not planning to go into full-time ministry, and they’re surely not seeking ordination in a denomination.
So, there’s a new form of theological education on the horizon — and I hope to be a part of it — that will teach to competencies, not grant accredited degrees.