What a Mess! Notes on the Future of Theological Education

This is just one example of an indictment that doesn't hold up. Schmidt generalizes freely and documents lightly. Sometimes, as noted, he hits real targets, but overall his analysis of the problems is too undependable to be basis for prescribing changes.

Schmidt's prescriptions apply only to one relatively small sector of theological education. Schmidt teaches in a Methodist seminary, and he seems to assume that all theological schools are set in a "system" as regulated as that one, which still funds its sponsored seminaries at a significant (though decreasing) level and has some control over its ministry candidates' decisions about which school to attend. Most theological schools operate in a much freer market. Even if formally affiliated with one denomination, most seminaries enroll students from many other religious communities and, increasingly, students with no denominational ties at all. In the largest segment of the student population—the evangelical Protestants—ordination and commitment to a single tradition are viewed as optional to ministry preparation.

Schmidt wants denominations to limit access to ministry and to sponsor schools or students in exchange for certain educational outcomes. In the history of theological education, that kind of tight lock between churches and seminaries has more often produced bitter conflict than quality improvement. But even if it were desirable, it is no longer feasible. In the rollicking world of American religion, where pluralism is the name of the game within Christianity as well as beyond it, very few religious groups any longer have the power or resources to run a centrally-controlled theological education system.

So how shall seminary education be improved? If the past is any guide, the impetus for constructive change is likely to come from several directions.

  1. The "market." The employers of seminary graduates—congregations, denominations, and church agencies—can be a force for reform. Often they are galvanized by a major event in the religious or social context (a major scandal, a schism, a social change movement, a new wave of religious enthusiasm, or a religious depression) to press for leaders with more, better, or different training.
  2. The students. Sometimes a generation of students shows up in seminary demanding a different kind of education. Students in the 1960s, for example, had high ideals and fervent convictions. They lobbied for and won more flexible curricula, more socially-engaged learning, and more personal freedom. In other cases, the deficits that students bring prompt the faculty to make educational changes. Many of the older students who flooded seminaries in the 1980s and 1990s lacked adequate preparation for seminary study; schools responded by putting prescribed courses of study back in place.
  3. Ancillary institutions. A loose ecology of organizations, including private foundations, accrediting agencies, research institutes, and consulting businesses, provides support and oversight for theological education. Sometimes these organizations spearhead positive change. Almost always, they are involved in supporting it.
  4. The seminaries themselves. The most significant reforms in theological education have been the result of self-regulation on the part of theological institutions. The motivating factors for quality improvement vary. Sometimes upgrades are imported from the wider world of higher education: degrees for students, advanced academic training for faculty, accreditation of programs, and now assessment of educational outcomes have come by this route. Often significant improvements originate inside the school. Tempted as they may be by cheaper and easier educational expedients, many boards, faculties, and administrators recognize that in the world of higher education, institutions that make too many compromises lose the trust of their public. In the long run, quality prevails. Schools that develop a reputation for high standards and a vibrant learning environment attract larger applicant pools and more philanthropic dollars, and they have longer life-lines. Because it is in a seminary's interest as well as the inclination of most of its leaders to do a better job, most seize opportunities to educate their students as well as they possibly can.

Frederick Schmidt suggests that the improvement of theological education should be plotted and planned. It has never worked that way, and it is unlikely to in the future. Historical accident and cultural climate play their part, along with inspired leadership that may come from dedicated faculty, skillful presidents, wise board members, impatient students, farsighted philanthropists, caring critics in the church, judicious accreditors, or even government regulators. It's a mess, but I doubt that theological education will require an obituary anytime soon. In fact, if we all pitch in, it will keep getting better.

To read Fred Schmidt's rejoinder to this article, click here.

10/17/2011 4:00:00 AM
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