The Emperor's (Not So) New Clothes: A Response to Frederick Schmidt

In his recent "The (Not So) New Frontier of Theological Education," Frederick Schmidt raises several trenchant questions pertaining to the nature of theological education in today's church. In particular, he laments the emergence of local formation initiatives aimed at providing alternatives to residential seminaries. Several of his observations are helpful and provocative, but others are decidedly less constructive.

Schmidt works at two levels at once. He makes several comments about the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry (BKSM), a new interdiocesan initiative being developed by the Episcopal dioceses of Kansas, West Missouri, Western Kansas, and Nebraska. He also identifies a range of more global challenges and opportunities confronting those engaged in the work of theological formation.

Relative to his comments about BKSM, Schmidt gets a number of things wrong. First, BKSM is a school "for ministry," not (as he describes it) a school "of theology." The difference is significant: a curriculum organized around preparing people for ministry (ordained and otherwise) is quite different from one organized around preparing people for more scholarly vocations. At BKSM, the focus is clear: we are about preparing and equipping people to participate in collaborative forms of ministry.

Second, Schmidt implies (more than once) those on the faculty of BKSM do not have sufficient background or credentials to provide quality theological formation. In fact, the majority of those on the faculty at BKSM have completed either Ph.D. or Th.D. studies (and a few have completed D.Min. studies), and several are actively serving at other colleges, universities, or seminaries in the region. The qualifications and experience of the BKSM faculty are as solid as one would expect to find at many residential seminaries, and their commitment to the formation of their students is beyond reproach.

Third, Schmidt worries those enrolled at BKSM will not be informed they are not receiving an education of the "first order" or of the realities they will face when they take up the ministries to which they have been called. In fact, those enrolled at BKSM are very cognizant of the challenges before them: every student admitted to the school first goes through a discernment process designed to help them clarify the nature of their ministry (and hence the kind of formation they will need), their preparedness for the rigors of the programs offered by BKSM, and the challenges of ministry in today's church. The sacrifices these people routinely make are significant, and their commitment to ministry is commendable.

At a more general level, Schmidt (indirectly) identifies a number of things he expects would improve the state of theological education and contribute to the furtherance of ministry in today's church. Among these he includes the following:

  1. organize formation programs around goals and objectives relevant to contemporary ministry;
  2. adapt to the social and cultural changes that are reshaping mission, ministry, and education;
  3. make theological education more affordable;
  4. identify and equip leaders capable of implementing high-quality formation programs;
  5. better integrate the formation process into the broader life of the church.

Schmidt acknowledges programs like BKSM are being developed precisely to address these kinds of issues. But he also seems to cling to the expectation such efforts will end in abysmal failure, and that residential seminaries are the only institutions capable of achieving these kinds of goals. This, I suggest, is shortsighted. Residential seminaries will always have something to offer to the church, but they cannot provide all of the kinds of preparation for ministry the church now needs. They have, in fact, already lost their exalted status as the sole purveyors of high-quality theological education; the emperor has not been wearing any clothes for some time now.

In addition to the imperatives Schmidt offers (all of which are indeed essential), I would add the following:

  1. prepare students for mission and ministry in a "mixed economy" church;
  2. equip students to engage in collaborative forms of ministry;
  3. overcome the false dichotomy of "theory" and "practice" and recover an integrated curriculum;
  4. prioritize teaching skills that enable life-long learning.

Contemporary theological education needs to be able not only to prepare people for traditional parish ministry, but to encourage the development of new ways of organizing Christian communities and of pursuing mission. Thus, educators need to address the question of how (not "if") their efforts encourage an entrepreneurial ethos in those they teach.