Rekindling the Romance: Falling Back in Love with Ministry

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.

Frederick Schmidt struck a chord in his Patheos column: "Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education." But, I don't think the field of graduate theological education is in any way ready for a eulogy. It is also unlikely his suggestion to shore up the M.Div. degree will actually solve the challenges facing mainstream denominations or the shrinking enrollments in seminaries.

As Daniel Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, noted in his 2010 biennial address, "The Future Has Arrived: Changing Theological Education in a Changed World," the M.Div. degree is a relatively recent educational phenomenon, growing out of the needs of the 20th century. Designed and delivered correctly, it is an effective way to prepare someone for ministry. But, the harsh realities of denominational struggles and the financial shortfalls in seminaries make it unlikely the M.Div. will reclaim the unquestioned stature it had in the 20th century, even though as long as denominations require the M.Div. for ordination, it will survive.

As enrollments have declined and the financing of seminaries has become increasingly complicated, educational innovation has already occurred in most graduate theology institutions. Sun-setting poorly subscribed degrees and creating new ones, building distance education delivery systems, and engaging or exploring mergers and collaborations have become part of the landscape for all surviving seminaries, save those few that are protected by large endowments. Unfortunately, the innovation is often driven by financial necessity, leaving some faculty unenthusiastic about the new initiatives and yearning for the good old days.

But, pining for the past does not mean most seminaries need a eulogy. Rather, most are in need of a locker room pep talk. They need the inspiration that snaps a losing team out of its defeatism and its concentration on its limitations so it can focus on its opportunities—the kind of rousing, barn-burning motivational surge that helps players look past the team's problems to fall in love once again with the game.

To meet the challenges facing seminaries, more faculty need to fall back in love with preparing women and men for the real work of ministry. We need to rekindle in ourselves a passion for ministry, not theological education per se, but the gritty real work of ministry in congregations, social service agencies, schools, and the many other places ministers remind others of the presence of God in our troubled times. This requires an appreciation and commitment to helping students learn to live out in their flesh the "soul force" Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized as the active ingredient for transforming the world. Rigorous academics are a part of this process of spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social growth. But, we have to be clear about the end it is serving: this is an applied field of study.

Even if we fall back in love, of course, the problems are not going away. We're still going to have to work at being more nimble, more responsive to changes in congregational life, more student-learning driven than teacher-centered, more sensitive to generational issues of learning, more sophisticated in analyzing the role of religion in U.S. culture and the cultures of the world. We are going to need to become better at taking the best of our historic traditions and re-interpreting those traditions in the cross currents of an information saturated culture. The critical point is falling in love again, not with the M.Div., but with the mission that many of us think the M.Div. served so well.

Once we get the romance back in collective lives, we can spend less time thinking about how to save the M.Div., and more time thinking about the deliverables that made the M.Div. the gold standard for so much of the previous century.

When done correctly, the M.Div. degree teaches students to think theologically, to react pastorally, and to act from a posture of contemplative wisdom, especially in high stress situations. It teaches students to strive to "know thyself" above all other forms of knowledge, and to recognize the theological enterprise as a rich and deep affair, one requiring active listening, the making of careful distinctions, and the tempering of passion, courage, and justice with prudence, kindness, and fortitude. It teaches students that a woman or man of leadership in the life of faith is a lifelong learner, committed to growing in maturity, spiritual depth, and discernment over the entire course of one's human existence. It teaches humility.