Forget the Ivory Towers: Seminaries and Their Challenges

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.

"Is it time to write the eulogy of seminary education?" This question raised by Fred Schmidt in an essay last spring—and the wise responses to it—is certainly one of considerable interest to me. As a seminary graduate (twice) and someone who has taught for over twenty years at two seminaries in Canada and the United States, I am, yes, invested and interested.

(At numerous points Schmidt's essay reflects a university-related, mainline Protestant seminary context. The present essay is reflective of, in large part, a free-standing, evangelical Protestant seminary context. This is not to suggest that one is "bad" and the other "good," but simply to acknowledge that, though there is not space here to delineate the similarities and differences [there are both], there are some significant differences in cultures and constituencies.)

Someone who reads only the title and byline of Fred Schmidt's essay may be surprised to find out some of what he includes in his conclusion. The byline is "Our seminaries are dying and the Master of Divinity degree has been discredited. Will we make the necessary changes to better prepare leaders for the Church, or will we limp and wander into the future?" Yet, in his concluding paragraphs, where he describes "what I would do," he writes, in part, "Candidates for ordination would be required to attend seminary and complete a Master of Divinity, prepare in a residential setting, select their schools from a well-honed list of seminaries, and perform [including academically] at the top of their ability." While the discussion that leads to these and other conclusions does pose important and challenging questions, this portion of his conclusion certainly precludes it from being regarded as a eulogy.

It should be further noted that Schmidt is by no means the only one asking whether it is time to write a eulogy. Most people who are investing their lives in various aspects of seminary education are asking—indeed, wrestling with—versions of this question, as well as the many other questions that go along with it.

This should not be surprising. Contrary to those who cast seminaries as "ivory towers"—a widespread and naïve falsehood which must await address for another time—seminaries are subject to all of the social, economic, technological, and other culture-shifts to which all other institutions are subject. Once one grasps this, many, perhaps most, of the challenges confronting seminaries will be intuitively obvious. Here are a just a few.

  1. Seminary graduates are incurring increasing and increasingly serious levels of debt. At the same time, their "job prospects" are increasingly challenging.
  2. New technologies, particularly those associated with "online" or "distance" or "distributed" education, are changing the educational landscape, impacting everything from institutional budgets to pedagogical practices, from pedagogical values to demands on faculty, from student desires to student needs (and these are not always the same).
  3. For years, the academic preparedness of incoming students has been on the decline, and continues. (Yes, I am confident that the faculty members who welcomed me to seminary years ago said the same thing—and they were correct.)
  4. These academic limitations are now increasingly compounded with what appears to be an unprecedented increase in personal "brokenness" with which students arrive at seminary. (Those who think that seminary administrations and faculties occupy an ivory tower, would be amazed—and I think encouraged—if they had any idea how much time, energy, and resources seminaries are investing to engage this brokenness.)
  5. Furthermore, seminaries are, understandably, constantly being called to do a better job of preparing people for ministry. There are two dimensions of this call: the development of "skills" and the "formation" of whole Christian persons. Ironically, the rise of this call has directly coincided, at least chronologically, with the call to conduct seminary education in less time with less money.
  6. Further compounding all of this is the fact that pastoral ministry is not getting any easier. To the contrary, it is increasingly demanding and incredibly complex. Indeed, many of the same cultural and societal developments that explain the brokenness referred to above also explain why ministry is becoming increasingly demanding and complex.

The list could go on.

I do not recount this litany to get sympathy for seminaries or those who serve in them. Many, if not most, other institutions and their people are dealing with the very same kinds of issues that seminaries are. And, if you are going to participate in the work of seminaries, these are some of the contemporary realities with which you must be committed to contending. The future of seminary education will be shaped by these and other challenges, and the ways that seminaries respond to them.

Instead of writing a eulogy, say a prayer.

10/17/2011 4:00:00 AM
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