Seminaries and the Unthinking Future

Seminaries and the Unthinking Future December 12, 2014

I’ve thought a lot about the future of theological education this semester. Some of that thinking was inevitably a product of engaging the task itself. Some of it was associated with my responsibilities as a member of The Episcopal Church’s Board of Examining Chaplains, and some of it emerged from watching the situation at General Theological Seminary. Here is what has crystallized for me:

One: While the situation at every seminary is different and many seminaries (my own included) are secure and thriving, there is no doubt that theological education is enmeshed in a fast-changing environment. The larger pool of students is far smaller than it has been in decades past. The churches that many seminaries serve are shrinking in size and in numbers. And the economic downturn, wed with a slow economic recovery, have made it difficult to navigate financially.

Two: To whatever degree seminaries and churches agreed about the kind of preparation that candidates for ordination required, that consensus (which was, for the most part, assumed and never examined) has collapsed.

Three: Worse yet, that consensus has given way to blame-laying. The church blames the seminary community for failing to produce the kind of miracle-workers who could reverse the declining fortunes of the church. The seminaries struggle with the failure of the church to be clear about what it wants or to address the issue of student-indebtedness on either side of the educational experience.

Four: In the face of a declining number of traditional students, seminaries are often flailing in their efforts to address the challenges. Like Kodak, which realized too late that the industry of which they were a part had completely changed, some seminaries are clinging to old models.  Others are experimenting with disparate alternatives without any clear sense of what might work — relying on anecdotal evidence and the special interests of their faculties.  A stunning number have made major missteps and have labeled their demise as “the brave new world” in a way that is sadly reminiscent of Monty Python’s “dead parrot” routine, and a small number are innovating in a strategic fashion.

Five: As challenging as the environment is, the greater threat to the well-being of theological education is the church itself. The evolution of alternative paths to ordination and the creation of training programs that could never be accredited will eventually erode the thoughtful preparation of candidates for ordination. Those schemes will erode the academic communities that sustained faculties, libraries, and classrooms devoted to the study of the church’s theology and tradition; and, eventually, they will discourage the best of candidates from pursuing an ordained vocation.

The sad irony is that there is never a dearth of complaints about clergy who can’t think, who offer simplistic — if not hurtful and errant counsel, who can’t preach, and who can’t lead. But, if you think things are bad now, wait for the unthinking future we are crafting.

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