But, the traditional residential M.Div. is not the only way to achieve these deliverables.
The School of Theology and Ministry (STM) at Seattle University is a 14-year-old institution founded as an "intentionally ecumenical" enterprise on the campus of a Jesuit, Catholic university. STM is itself a kind of evolution from the traditional, residential seminary experience. Virtually all of STM's students, M.Div. or otherwise, are commuter students; most are part-time. Some complete their studies in two or three years, others take eight or ten. Graduates are known for their effectiveness in serving a wide assortment of ministerial contexts, and their ability to think and act authentically from their own historic traditions and ecumenically at the same time. Because of the curriculum's sophisticated emphasis on the integration of academic knowledge with ministerial skills and spiritual development, the holistic education accomplished through a residential M.Div. experience is achieved with most STM students without the residential experience. Our graduates make excellent ministers.
Unfortunately, flexibility with the M.Div. is not a sufficient response to increases in operational costs. STM has had to make more dramatic innovations. We have "re-branded" some existing degree programs and launched a new degree, one seeking to attract students interested in spirituality and theological themes but not in traditional church leadership positions. These "spiritual, but not religious" students are in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, and have introduced a different kind of graduate theological student.
In addition to new and improved degrees, STM is launching a hybrid distance education effort, and has created new excitement about its theological mission with community-focused programming, such as the annual Search for Meaning Book Festival. Last year's Bookfest, which has doubled in size every year, featured more than fifty authors on spirituality, faith, ethics, social justice, and the human search for meaning. The event has grown into a flood of inquirers into our degrees, yielding last year by far the largest number of inquiries in the school's history, although few were for the M.Div. STM has also begun a series of programs on interreligious dialogue. One $450,000 two-year program, which is funded through the Gates Foundation, will bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian congregations to jointly tackle the issue of family homelessness. Another program, funded by a $300,000 three-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, will help the faculty build a practical theology expertise in interreligious dialogue and collaboration.
These are just a few of the things STM is doing to find new students and respond to changes in the denominations we serve and their perceived educational needs. More changes will almost certainly need to happen in the future, and if current patterns are an indication, the M.Div. will not fair much better in the short term than it has in the recent past. But, as long as faculty continue falling in love with the work of preparing students for real life ministry, we will weather the transition and prepare high quality people for various forms of ministry.
I have no doubt people will be giving eulogies for all of us long before they will be eulogizing graduate theological education.