The Future of Seminary: Wrap-Up

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

There’s a lot of really good stuff on the Patheos symposium, maybe the best stuff that’s ever been collected on this subject, and from a very wide range of perspectives.  You’ve got everything from an evangelical saying that seminaries need to doctrinally retrench, to a former evangelical who runs an inter-faith seminary.  I don’t think it’s even possible to have a wider range than that.

The robustness of the conversation has, I must admit, surprised me.  It seems there are still lots of people who really care about graduate theological education.  I think that’s a good thing.

From my early days as a speaker at the National Youth Workers Convention, I sensed that there was a deep desire among attendees for theology.  That started with debates featuring me versus Duffy Robbins, Phil Chalmers (remember him? — his latest great idea is a “Juvenile Homicide Boot Camp – Coming to a City Near You in 2012” — I shit you not), Fred Lynch, Chap Clark, and more.  That evolved into a late night theology chat, which drew scores of youth workers who simply wanted to talk through theological issues.  This year, theological forums at the National Youth Workers Convention show that the appetite for theology is unsated.

A decade later, many more youth workers are seminary-trained than were at that time.  But they all aren’t.  And that brings me to my final thought on the future of seminary education: I suspect that as our society becomes increasingly pluralized, more and more Christians will feel the need for serious theological education.  But they neither want nor need a degree.  They just want more history, more systematic theology, and more practical theology.

Indeed, I run into people like this all the time.  And I consider it an enormous failure of the church that seminaries are still primarily, if not exclusively, interested in training professional clergy, and at a very high cost.

This is failure cannot go unaddressed.  So Doug Pagitt and I plan to address it with a new venture, launching in 2013.

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  • dopderbeck

    Looking forward to seeing what you’re going to do.

    BTW, the “retrench” essay that you link I thought was exceptionally good. I was expecting some sort of fundamentalist rant about inerrancy or something. It was nothing of the sort — it was all about mission and community.

    As a “lay” person who teaches in my local church and who is trying to integrate theological training into my vocation as a law professor, I’ve benefited greatly from “distance” theological education of various sorts. But the truth is, I long deeply for the sort of community formation referred to in that essay, and I haven’t found that in great measure in any of the distance things I’ve done.

  • Frank

    Tony I agree with you that seminaries have failed but how do you make the connection that churches are the cause. After all most churches today are run by seminary grads so it seems that the fault lies in the seminaries themselves.

  • Larry Barber

    Dopderbeck, I attended (part-time) a local seminary for a while, looking, in part, for the type community you were looking for in distance learning, but I didn’t see find it there either. All of the students were too busy working and studying (usually alone) and sometimes raising young families to have time for community. If you have to work 30 or more hours a week to pay for tuition, rent, food, transportation and whatever else comes up, and carry a full academic load on top of that, there is no time for any non-essentials like “community”.

    Frank, the church might be led by seminary grads, but the seminaries owe their continued existence to funding from the churches and are generally quick to bow to their wishes. Look what happened to Peter Enns at Westminster a couple of years ago. I think the funding method for both seminaries and churches is deeply flawed in this country in that it leaves “leaders” at the mercy of the laity (the ones with the checkbooks), which means they can’t really lead. I don’t have a solution, but it is a screwed up situation.

  • dopderbeck

    Larry — good point. I remember a few years ago discussing with a friend of mine my envy over the fact that he had been able to take a few years off for seminary. He said, something like, “yes, it was cool at times, but it’s not necessarily the high-level academic thing you would want…” In other words, the reality always outstrips these high expectations. I’m sure that’s also true for the “mentoring” and so-on part of it.

    In my local church, I’ve been teaching / leading “adult learning community” things on different topics, and these are great. Community and learning and discipleship start to develop in these settings.

    Still, I have my ideal of the monastic Seminary retreat year…

  • Frank

    Larry while that may be true isn’t it still the seminaries that bow to the wishes of their funders? Sounds like it is still the seminaries failure. They could refuse funding or stand up for what they believe it.

    Seems like the church is the scape goat here.

  • Steve K.

    “launching in 2013” … how intriguing … I’ll be interested to hear more!

  • Steve K.
    • Already blogged about it, Steve. 🙂