Ken Schenck on the Future of Seminary Education

Ken Schenck on the Future of Seminary Education October 27, 2011

Our Symposium on the Future of Seminary Education continues with new posts and articles to continue the conversation.  Here, we share reflections by Dr. Ken Schenck, Dean and Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, originally posted at his blog, Quadrilateral Thoughts.

Over at Patheos, they’ve asked a cross-section of their bloggers to respond to a series of questions on the future of seminary education. I thought I would give you the kinds of answers I would give for Wesley Seminary at IWU.

What is the purpose of a seminary education?

The purpose of a seminary education is to equip a wide variety of “ministers” to participate as fully and powerfully as possible in the mission of God in the world. There are a host of such ministries, among which ministry to a local worshiping community (i.e., a church) is the primary one. There are also ministries to the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, to those in military service (chaplaincy, urban ministry, etc). There are specialized ministry skill sets to particular age groups, locations, and demographics (youth ministry, classical missions). There is the ministry of knowledge for those who resource the church as educators. And seminaries might very well train a host of lay ministers and parachurch ministers.

What are the challenges seminaries face?

I see three primary challenges for seminaries in the days ahead, two practical and one ideological. I am convinced that the biggest challenge seminaries have faced in the last decade is accessibility. There will always be some who are willing to go live somewhere for three years but this number is in sharp decline. The real demand for seminary education now is by some sort of distance education, whether it be online or through satellite campuses. Cost is another major factor, especially in these economic times.

The ideological challenge is America’s move toward a post-Christian society. Whether one agrees with their thinking or not, evangelical seminaries remain in demand because their students sense something living there, something that might make a difference. The question is whether these answers have staying power. What institutions will future ministers perceive to be able to best address the issues that our culture is raising?

I want to throw in a challenge related to this last one, a complaint you hear often from pastors–“Seminary didn’t actually teach me the things I needed to know to do ministry.” I don’t actually think this is entirely the case. I think the problem is more that seminaries do not typically do a good job of showing seminary students the relevance of what they are learning. Seminaries usually lean heavily toward the theoretical and do less to exercise skills in applying theory to practice.

How are you preparing for those challenges?

Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University was founded with these trends in mind. The university made a large commitment to the seminary so that it would be affordable. The university is particularly good at online and distance education, and we have transferred these strengths to our MA and MDIV programs. We have an onsite option, but the demand has clearly been the over 80% of our students who take two-thirds of their program online. In two years, we have over 200 students.

The most distinctive feature of our program is the way we have gone about integration in our curriculum to address the perceived disconnect between seminary and ministry as it really is. We require our MDIV students to be in a local ministry at least 20 hours a week, so many assignments are real church work. We have folded Bible, theology, and church history into the practice of ministry courses (a third of each praxis course is “foundational”). Students also do spiritual formation every semester.

That’s integration of theory with practice, foundations with practice, and the affective with the cognitive.

What is the future of theological education? What will a seminary education look like 10 years from now?

Seminaries will continue to move toward distance education. The online platforms get better and better and, while I do not think students want it, we are at the point where we could even have real time classes online where you could see all your fellow students. Only niche seminaries will survive in the future without a significant distance component.

I believe seminaries will get more and more practical. The days where professors are unaccountable for what they teach–meaning free to teach things perceived to be of no value by the students–are numbered. Whether we like it or not, seminaries are businesses in a competitive market. Those seminaries that don’t scratch the itch of some set of students won’t make it.

One direction the above trajectories point toward is onsite ministerial training. We already seeing the rise of large church ministerial training grounds here and there. There’s a good chance this trend will continue.

What new initiatives and/or creative conversations are shaping the life of your institution?

An immense amount of creativity went into the creation of the seminary and its fundamental design. Our leaders continue to think outside the box. We have started a Spanish version of the MDIV that is entirely in Spanish and two-thirds online. We are in the middle of global conversations about the possibility of serving other constituencies around the world as well. The leaders of the university are also dreaming another innovative plan for church planting where undergraduate students in various disciplines (e.g., nursing) pair up with ministry students (undergraduate or seminary) to plant new churches around the country and world.

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