Listening to the Changing World: The Future of Seminary Education

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.

Beginning within a university divinity school and continuing in the past twelve years of teaching at Seminary of the Southwest, I have known many students well and work closely with colleagues in other theological schools. Fred Schmidt's blanket critique of seminaries and their faculty does not match my experience with the majority of those who dedicate themselves to the formation of students for ministry, the residential seminaries of the Episcopal Church.

The basis of the difficulty that seminaries face is that the church has moved from the flush, post-war 1950s to the postmodern, post-Christian 2000s, and parishes and dioceses have been less able financially to support its seminaries and seminarians. Decreasing enrollments and financial difficulties challenge many of the free-standing seminaries of the Episcopal church. All of us have adapted to deal with these challenges in different ways depending on our historical, political, geographical, and ecclesiastical contexts.

While the church has moved to the margins of our society and world, the world and society are no less in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the ministry of those who serve in his name. Seminaries and theological schools have an urgent vocation to train leaders to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world in desperate need of reconciliation and justice. This proclamation requires translation across cultures and in different media. It requires the ability to converse with the faithful of other religious traditions. The complexity and plurality of the modern world calls for church leaders who are even more confidently and deeply formed in the tradition of Christian spirituality, worship, history, and scripture in order to engage with and to speak to that world.

As a community of formation, a seminary convenes vigorous and imaginative conversation with scripture. Highly trained faculty teach theological reflection and model Christian leadership. Critical thinking and argument and disagreement are all exercised within the discipline of common prayer. Spending three years in a residence with other students and their families conversing, worshiping, arguing, stumbling, and growing together has been and continues to be an effective way to form these leaders. All alternative models of formation—distance, hybrid, local—aspire to combine learning and study, close community, and ministerial practice under supervision.

As the second youngest of the eleven Episcopal seminaries, Seminary of the Southwest, since its founding in 1952 by Bishop John Hines, has sought to live into his vision of a seminary that would engage the gospel with culture, from the perspective of the region of the Southwest, in the city of Austin, place of government, education, and business. The seminary's ethos is one of flexibility and creativity in responding to the needs of the church and the world. The three-year residential M.Div. is our focus, and since the mid 1990s we have supported a thriving program offering courses on evenings and weekends, for working professionals, that grants master's degrees in counseling, chaplaincy, and spiritual formation. Since 1999, more than seventy-five ministers of Youth and Christian Education have earned a certificate in Christian Education.

Current new initiatives allow us to meet the needs of this changing landscape in the church. The seminary is collaborating with the Diocese of Texas and with partner Dioceses in Province VII on the Iona Initiative, a project to expand, extend, and diversify the Iona School for Ministry so that more people can benefit from its education for deacons and bi-vocational priests. We are in partnership with the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest to educate and train Episcopal Spanish speaking candidates for ministry on our campus through the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries. Research is underway to explore the use of distance learning to offer the Master's of Divinity degree in dioceses that are distant from an established seminary or divinity school.

Displaced from the cultural center, no longer greeted with respect in the marketplaces or seated at the places of honor at banquets, the church is seeking to find new ways of being church in the world. Listening to the changing world and drawing on the deep resources of the Christian theological tradition, seminaries have and will contribute to the creative thinking and practice of the church in the 21st century.

10/18/2011 4:00:00 AM
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