The (Not-So) New Frontier of Theological Education

In the most recent edition of The Living Church, G. Jeffrey MacDonald showcases a new initiative sponsored by the Episcopal dioceses of West Missouri, Kansas, West Kansas, and Nebraska: The Bishop Kemper School of Theology. Described as a new seminary frontier, the article notes that the program is for laity, as well as prospective priests and deacons. The program can be completed for $1800 a year and each class is eight weeks long. The classes convene only once for a day and a half in the name of spiritual formation because, as the school's dean observes, on-line can't accomplish those goals. According to the school's website, the faculty have all had "some form" of advanced theological education and many are even active in parishes.

In an increasingly complex environment facing both the church and theological educators, there are important advances in an effort of this kind: the program embraces training leaders of all kinds—lay and the prospectively ordained. Kemper is experimenting with a different kind of delivery system and the school is mindful that a theological education is not just about imparting information, but lifelong spiritual formation. These are all issues that the modern seminary would do well to address.

On the other hand, it is worth asking what can be accomplished in eight weeks of reading and writing, along with twelve to fifteen hours of face-to-face communication under the leadership of faculty that have "some form" of theological education. Looking ahead, that's not hard to predict because other denominations have already attempted to deliver the same result by offering ordination without the requisite preparation that others are privileged to enjoy:

  1. Two classes of clergy: Those with and without theological educations of the first order.
  2. The inevitable and understandable insistence from the latter that they be accorded the recognition accorded the former.
  3. Two classes of churches: Those that can afford clergy who have been thoroughly prepared and those who cannot.
  4. A deepening of the divide between those two kinds of churches, because those who cannot prepare in an appropriate manner probably cannot afford to pursue their ministries full time—i.e., the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

What is distressing to someone like me who works with students to help them prepare is that no one offered this new frontier will be told any of this. They will be told that they are part of a bold experiment. They will be told that they are divesting themselves of an overly expensive education that will not adequately prepare them. When, in point of fact, the opportunity that they are being offered is the function of exigent circumstances of the church's making:

  1. Our failure to define what we need by way of theological preparation as a church.
  2. Our failure to bring the resources of our theological schools to bear upon a world and a church that has forever changed.
  3. Our failure to fund theological education and address the debts incurred by seminarians.
  4. Our failure to take clergy formation seriously as a task requiring the very best of leaders dedicated to that effort.
  5. Our failure to address the infrastructure of theological education across the church, addressing the competing claims, the insular nature of preparation, and the captivity of theological education to the university model of learning.
  6. The failure of our seminaries to be strong advocates of the education they provide.
  7. And the failure of seminaries to provide the kind of formation and curriculum that the church needs.

Advocates of alternatives like the one at Kemper will argue, of course, that these are the very reasons that an approach like the one in Kansas is being used. Fair enough. But that approach simply end-runs the needs we have been avoiding and the questions we have left unanswered.

To make matters worse, the Kemper-solution only exacerbates the problem. There was a time when the Episcopal Church could rightly boast that we had some of the best-educated clergy in the country and many of our seminarians are still among the strongest students. That won't be true much longer if we continue down this road and the church will not be stronger as a result. We will have simply found an expedient means of managing the church's inevitable decline and the trivialization of ordained ministry.

That's hardly a "new frontier." It's a return to a world not unlike the one that Martin Luther critiqued: one without a well-educated clergy and without the means of preparing one.

10/24/2013 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • The Spiritual Landscape
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: