The Future of Seminary: Non-Accredited

The Future of Seminary: Non-Accredited October 20, 2011

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.

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  • It might even be one of the only ways, strangely, to save denominational ed.

  • Ben Griffith

    I don’t find this convincing at all.

    Why do you think that less academically rigorous degrees for clergy is a good thing?

    I suppose that you could argue that the accreditation system is flawed, but in my experience there is a pretty significant divide in ATS-accreditated and non-ATS-accreditated schools.

    I come from a tradition that does not ordinate, and it results in theologically incompetent ministers who (1) lack epistemic humility, (2) lack theological depth, and (3) end up passing on their anemic theology to their parishioners. I’m all for high academic ordination requirements.

  • Ben Griffith

    By “ordinate” I mean “ordain.” #oops

  • Ben, I love that you swung and missed on “ordain” but spelled the much more difficult “parishioners” without a stutter. 🙂

    Tony, I agree that theological education currently carries far too much expectation of student-loan debt with it. I also know that the big state universities, where much of the religion-department theological education happens, are under immense budget crunches and will likely start cutting Biblical-studies faculty before they think of touching their engineering and marketing majors. I’ve obviously got a horse in this race, but to what extent do you see the Christian liberal arts colleges as playing into the future you’re imagining?

  • Dan Hauge

    I also find myself agreeing with your diagnosis of the problem, but not 100% sure of your solution. I guess my main question is, if not ATS, then what kind of mechanism for setting standards could we envision? And, what level of serious study should we expect from pastors and church workers? I’d like to see more details on how you define ‘competencies’,

    • Ultimately, I think it will be a mix — a mosaic — of accredited and non.

  • coryke

    Hi Ben,

    RE your last paragraph, I concur completely. Right down to the point that I, too, come from a denomination that does not ordain its ministers (technically speaking). So, I am very much in favor of strong academic standards and and believe in its importance enough that I have gone into the academy.

    On your other point, though, I’m not sure that we are talking about lower standards of theological education, per se. I’m not sure that is what I read in Tony’s post. The problem is that we have to ask WHO is determining what constitutes a theological education. There is a bit of recursiveness to the process when everyone who decides what theological education looks like comes from within the academy. Of course their voice should be heard – they’re the experts. But other voices should also be heard from those outside the immediate context of seminaries in order to refresh the well of ideas. Please know, too, that I consider myself to be ‘on the inside’ so to speak.

    There are a number of youth ministry institutes that are popping up around the country that are addressing this very issue regarding the contents of a theological education. They do not offer degrees, are not accredited, and yet are providing some theologically sound education. I can speak of two of these institutes – the reason they have not sought accreditation is that they would have to offer classes in subjects that they do not believe contribute strongly to the formation of youth ministers. Such things like history and patristic theology are lower priorities for these institutes, to name two disciplines. Are these topics important? Yes. Would the students be more well-rounded for having taken these classes? Yes. Is it entirely necessary in order to be equipped for youth ministry? No.

    Let’s be honest here about who is attending seminaries. The students are not all interested in the topics listed above anyway. Most are interested in what they are interested in. And many are interested only in becoming credentialed. The students who really take to some of these topics in any depth are the ones who go generally into the academy instead of the ministry – with some notable exceptions.

    So, regarding the student who wants to know everything about the New Testament that she can may end up being very shaky on Patristics or whatever. Is this necessarily better than the student at one of the youth ministry institutes I mentioned who did not take a class, but then was apprised of the fact that they did not take such a class? The difference may not be that great in some cases.

  • ben w

    Our church is in a “seminary town”, such that for a long time the majority of our young congregation was in some way connected to the Seminary. Over time, thankfully the church has grown and we have diversified.

    None of the professors attend our church, but still we’ve established our own in-house Pastoral Apprenticeship program to test and train future pastors – primarily in the ways that a Seminary can’t and/or doesn’t. We meet weekly to memorize and study the Bible (specifically Romans), discuss practical pastoral situations, debate points of theology, practice preaching and notify the guys of ministry opportunites in the Body (everything from cleaning the building to attending membership interviews to visiting the elderly in the hospital). Some of the men already have M.Div degrees from the Seminary and others have no desire to ever take a seminary class – just simply want to be leaders in our local church.

    Right now, this works very well for us. We have 10 men in their 2nd year of the program, 25 in the first. Cost is minimal: $100 per year, if you can afford it. And the program is reproducible, such that even a small-town pastor of 80 could follow the same setup if he had 2 prospective pastors in the congregation. I think local congregations can and will develop a similar model if they truly desire to train future pastors, rather than simply outsourcing that responsibility to seminaries.

  • Dave Timmer

    Did anyone note the dubious analogy that Tony used when discussing the fact that ATS accreditation teams are largely made up of (gasp) professors and administrators of theological seminaries? He compared this to a hospital ethics board, which does not consist solely of physicians. True, that. But wouldn’t a better analogy be the association that grants accreditation to medical schools? or law schools? I’d like to know that my physician or my attorney received her training at a school that maintains rigorous and broadly recognized standards; why shouldn’t I want the same assurance regarding my pastor? Is it because spiritual leadership is easier? or less important? I don’t think so.

    I’ll grant that there are daunting problems involved in supplying such competent leadership for the churches. Those problems need to be addressed, and doing so will require flexibility and imagination. But I don’t believe we should begin the process by defining competency downward. The ministry is still at its core a “learned profession,” and accreditation is a necessary, if imperfect, tool for maintaining standards of training.

  • Judith Doran

    We have a four-year program for those desiring a deeper theological education called Education for Ministry or EFM. It is based out of Sewanee, and meets once each week for four years. So many of our laity have found it meets this critical need for a deeper understanding of our faith.

  • Mark

    Accreditation ≠ academic rigor. Accreditation is a gauge of an institution’s ability to carry out its mission in the long haul and therefore be a good investment for students and the financial aid system. Academic rigor/curriculum/faculty qualifications/library make up 4 of the the 22 metrics the accreditation council our institution is pursuing accreditation with (ABHE). The regionals are all about the same as ABHE (a CHEA/USDE recognized national accrediting board). The vast majority have to do with administrative support and how big your budget is. In fact, if you look at the results of an annual meeting of any of the CHEA/USDE recognized bodies for the schools that were denied re-affirmation or were put on probations, 95% have to do with administrative or financial issues. Now, a new metric is being applied across the board: the job placement of graduates (this is due to pressure from the USDE regarding financial aid). If too low a level of students gain field related employment after graduation (regardless of the reasons for it), the institution will likely be denied or delayed reaffirmation. A utilitarian approach to education like this is by no means helpful to academic rigor.

    In our meetings with our Institutional Effectiveness Officer, a vast majority of his direction has to do with non-academic matters.

    Anyway, there are several non-accredited institutions that have a high level of academic rigor, even more so than some regionally accredited seminaries, but due to their desire for autonomy or to keep education at an affordable cost, they choose not to pursue accreditation. The only disconcerting thing is the lack of official accountability of peers (that’s why employees of other seminaries to conduct the reviews).

    It all depends on what an institution is aiming at doing. If an institution is aiming at providing quality theological training within a given faith tradition, there is not necessarily a need for accreditation. If an institution is interested in doing that in the broader context of the academy, then accreditation will be necessary in order for their be to real interaction with the “community of scholars.”

    However, ATS is not the only game in town any longer–even for graduate studies. Many seminaries are pursuing regional accreditation–which as far as membership dues and application costs is concerned is cheaper than ATS. ABHE is a great option for schools wanting a national accrediting council that has a confessional basis and has recently expanded into accrediting institutions that offer graduate degrees.

    As for those concerned about the accreditation board dictation “what constitutes a theological education,” in general, they are not concerned with the content of what a school teaches, beyond basic curriculum weight requirements, they are concerned with how well an institution does it and if they can keep doing it for the long haul (the implementation and advancement of the mission). Academic freedom is still, for the most part, the governing factor in those kind of decisions (unless you are a school that emphasizes the hard sciences).

  • Reading this makes me even sadder than I was before doing so. I am in the process of an MDiv while on active duty in the US Navy. My honest goal is to prepare myself for ministry while still in the Navy so that I can go into it full time as soon as I retire. Lately, I’ve developed a desire to be challenged to a greater level than what I’m finding in the MDiv department. After talking to a Professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I learned that my MDiv won’t even get me into the school, or most schools. Turns out Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary isn’t ATS. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ATS. So now I’m paying for a degree that I can’t use. Awesome… Makes me want to move to a 3rd World Country and stop worrying about what Americans are always worried about. If you don’t have a doctorate in American Christianity, you’re not good enough. And if you do, it better be from the right school. Oh boy! Unfortunately for me, I’m in the wrong school.

  • Tim Loyal

    I agree. And we must all remember what the Bible was about. Who was chosen and why. Pastors are chosen by God alone. No man can train a Pastor as God has ordained him alone. The Holy Ghost is the Word and is the full knowledge of God. Every man of the Apostles or disciples and Paul and others were chosen, not trained. Paul was educated and had to unlearn everything he knew. We put to much trust in man and not enough in God. Not one man of old was trained but chosen. We didn’t have trained ministers till the first universities sprang up and common folk got to go. We should put our trust in God or Jesus alone. If you are choosing a Pastor then allow God to chose for you. As the Bible says one will stand up among you. I also agree with Romans being the best way to teach Pastors. Great article

  • Paul R. Jones

    As a graduate of Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh IN I must report they are not accredited. It was good enough for my ordination as a Baptist pastor.

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