“My plea is for an institution which knows how to serve students so effectively that they are enabled to serve the Church that is called by God to serve the world redemptively.”

Thomas Gillespie, President, Princeton Theological Seminary

The servant attitude is gaining momentum in today’s seminaries. No longer content with “just getting out,” the “new” student is intent upon using seminary as an ongoing training ground for a hundred different expressions of practical ministry geared to the local church.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked four evangelical seminary presidents to discuss these attitudes and how they are affecting the church-seminary connection. Joining the discussion were David Hubbard of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California; Robert Cooley of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts; George Fuller of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia; and George Brushaber of Bethel College and Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota; and CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s senior editor. Helping moderate was managing editor Harold Smith.

Church and seminary: The student connection How would you compare the student of today with the student of 10 years ago?

Robert Cooley: There is a strong trend toward second-career students. These are older professionals coming out of a business, engineering, or science background.

George Fuller: Our typical student—and even that expression is almost meaningless—is probably 32 years old and has two children. The student who comes directly out of college is in the minority. And interestingly enough, the average age of our faculty is just over 40. We can hardly tell the men from the boys.


Spiritual Formation

We’re getting people who have been in the church. And they don’t just come and study: they come to be part of the community.

George Fuller

Accused of emphasizing academic training over spiritual formation, several seminaries are now actively seeking a holistic approach to curricula.

• Said Robert K. Johnston, dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago: “We don’t just fit an inductive Bible study into one quarter of a three-year seminary program. Students are involved every quarter of every year in some spiritual activity.” Johnston pointed out that students have a choice of a variety of electives, from personal prayer discipline and marriage enrichment to inductive Bible study and spiritual formation with a spiritual director.

“This is a major new direction in all seminary life, especially in the evangelical wing of the church,” Johnston said. “It teaches the maturing of the person.” He added that studies show that “ministers don’t fail for poor performance so much as for personal qualities that make congregation members think of them as nonministerial.”

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• Fuller Theological Seminary’s pathbreaking program in spirituality is under the leadership of Roberta Hestenes with the assistance of Gary Sattler. “We have denominational and special interest prayer groups led by a faculty member from the same denomination or interest group,” Hugh James, who is director of communications at Fuller, explained. “Our Office of Christian Community pulls together all these groups, including prayer groups, spirituality discussion groups, and a group led by John Wimber of Vineyard Ministries on signs and wonders.”

Vignettes by Les Keylock.

Why the second career?

Cooley: I think it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the local church. There’s a greater interest in trained lay ministry. Once a person gets into the 30s and 40s, establishes some economic independence, and begins to take on other value concerns, he or she becomes much more sensitive to the role of the church. And with the guidance of their minister, these same people are pursuing theological education.

Are they pursuing this education to serve the church professionally or to go back to their local churches as trained lay people?

Cooley: Both. Many are coming just to become better informed, better qualified lay ministers within the church; and possibly to work with the pastor who encouraged them to pursue theological training.

Fuller: To a minor degree, we are getting students who are essentially caught up in the change of career syndrome characteristic of much of our society. Our commitment to an institution or a business or a company is two years long and then we’re off to something else. But to a major degree we’re getting people who have been in the church: people who have probably served as deacons or elders or trustees. They may not know a whole lot about the Bible, but they typically identify with the church. They have families. And they don’t just come and study: they come to be part of the community. So it’s the students who are changing the seminaries, and they may be consequently changing the relationship between the seminary and the churches.

George Brushaber: Let me tag on to that for just a moment. Back in the late ‘60s and early 70s, the people coming to seminary were still basically young people out of our churches. They had church-life experiences. Then came the great surge of campus evangelism by the parachurch organizations. One seminary I know of had 80 percent of its student body come to faith through some parachurch ministry either at the secondary school level or at the collegiate level. Now the trend has reversed back to the way it was. The more settled and established persons are coming into seminary with rich church backgrounds.

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David Hubbard: I do think that what we’re seeing is a fruit of church renewal. And with that in mind, let me also drop a couple of other things into the “new” student profile.

First, we have a higher percentage of students of Pentecostal or charismatic background coming to our seminaries today: Assemblies of God, Foursquare, Pentecostal Church of God, together with the charismatic students from Presbyterian or Lutheran or Episcopal backgrounds. Some of this represents an educationally upward mobility in those denominations.

Second, today’s student is less motivated by a concern for social justice than was the case in 1975. At Fuller, the period of the mid and late ‘70s was a kind of halcyonian period. While you had a strong piety, a sense of having the Lord reach down and absolutely transform your life, there was also a real concern for justice, peace, and social responsibility: Some of those things we see as part of the wholeness of Christian discipleship. Today, the piety and that strong personal faith that wrenches people out of one career into another are certainly there. But I’m not quite sure we have as much passion at this stage for the social outreach or the political implications of what it means to be Christian.

Are women playing a role in this second-career phenomenon?

Brushaber: Yes. Some of them are women whose children are in high school and who are only now acting on a call they may have felt years before. We are also finding that a number of professional women, and women with academic degrees from the higher education community, are being drawn into ministry as well: part of a growing sense of a presence of God in their lives.

Hubbard: My guess is that evangelical women have a better chance for placement in some point of ministry, whether ordained or not, than if they were hidden away in some mainline school. We have a woman who is an ordained Presbyterian minister who’s tremendously effective. She didn’t come to seminary until she was in her 50s.

Cooley: Our experience is that the women tend to be recent graduates and are entering as a distinct career choice out of a sense of calling. The more mature woman who has a variety of business, professional, and family experiences is adding theological education to other sets of motivations. She is not necessarily pursuing ordination as such.

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Brushaber: I think that’s an important distinction. Women are looking for some form of ministry. It’s the ordination question on which many people are in disagreement. And ordination is not a function of a seminary.

Church and seminary: The ministry connection As a result of these “church-grown,” second-career students, is there a greater sense of commitment on the part of seminaries to the local church?

Cooley: I think there is a sense of partnership that’s emerging. What I have found in looking back at history is a closer identification between the seminary and, say, the world of the university. That has all changed.

The issues emerging out of the church are obviously issues of interest to the seminary. Thus a greater partnership is emerging out of the last ten years. This means that faculties and seminarians are finding their identity in being church persons, rather than finding their focus in the professional guild as a professional peer group.


Theology After Hours

The 22-year-old just out of college has a less complex agenda than a person who is married, with three children, and a career transition.

George Brushaber

Not many years ago, anyone who wanted to become a pastor or attend seminary for some other Christian vocation had to give up his or her job, sell a home, and move to a campus usually many miles from family and friends.

But all that has changed. Today, the “new” seminarians can keep their jobs and homes and earn a master of divinity degree through any one of a number of different, “odd-hour” programs.

• At Bethel Theological Seminary West (San Diego), for example, there has been a change to longer classes that meet less frequently than the one-hour, three-times-a-week schedule of traditional education. “We have classes that meet two-and-one-half hours once a week for four credits,” said academic dean Clifford Anderson. Classes at Bethel West are scheduled at 8 A.M., 4 P.M., and 7 P.M., so that attorneys, doctors, and other professional people can attend.

• According to dean Ralph Coveil, Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary has moved to “block scheduling” to make seminary education more accessible. “We have about 20 courses that we offer in a three-hour block Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. One pastor flies all the way from Albuquerque on Tuesday and goes back Saturday,” Covell said.

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• Similar programs exist at many other seminaries. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in the Boston suburb of South Hamilton, the Institute for Evangelism Studies enables students to earn a degree by going to school evenings and Saturdays only. Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, offers an intensive summer program for pastors who want to earn the doctorate of ministry by using vacation time. Dallas Theological Seminary offers classes Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Fuller After Five,” an evening and weekend program, offers master’s-level courses to several hundred people in Los Angeles County. And likewise, Bethel Theological Seminary, in St. Paul, sponsors “Theological Studies After Five.”

How has this attitude affected curriculum?

Cooley: The ministry dimension, along with the classical, biblical, theological, historical studies, has added an extracurricular dimension; and that is why I think seminary education can no longer be done in three years. The whole experiential side of theological education—going from field work to field education—has added an intensity in the energy level that was not there before. So one of the challenges facing the seminary from a curricular and a degreed program dimension is how to handle the complexity that ministry has brought to traditional theological education.


Lifetime Students

We no longer have to think of completing our ministerial training with the three-, four-, five-year package. We can tell graduates that when future education needs arise, we’ll have a program for them.

David Hubbard

The desire of Christian workers “in the field” to continue to strengthen their theological as well as practical skills has made continuing education an overriding demand on evangelical seminaries.

• Bethel Theological Seminary has developed the only extension seminary fully accredited by the American Association of Theological Schools: Bethel Theological Seminary West. The school has just launched a program of continuing education called the “Lifetime Education Seminary Program.” It allows anyone who has completed a Bethel degree in pastoral studies or Christian education “to register as an auditor in any regularly offered course or seminar without cost” for the remainder of the graduate’s life.

• A half-dozen “units” are offered, each involving ten hours of study, in a continuing education program offered by Dallas Theological Seminary. For starters, the program is not limited in either enrollment or location to Dallas. For example, 64 students are enrolled in the graduate program in Atlanta. Other centers with similar enrollments include Washington, Houston, Cedar Rapids, Columbus, Phoenix, Springrefield, Colorado Springs, and Santa Barbara. Classes are usually held on Friday and Saturday, with special speakers being flown to these centers.

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Brushaber: And that developmental dimension comes right at a time when the typical student has multiple agendas. The 22-year-old just out of college has a less complex agenda than a person who is married, with three children, and a career transition.

Cooley: And that only adds to this feeling that three years is not adequate. That student probably needs four or five years just to adjust emotionally to this demand.

Fuller: I would like for us not to pass over lightly Bob’s comment about the four-or five-year seminary program. It’s critical. There’s only so much room in the curriculum. You add a course on counseling young couples, and something’s got to go. And at many institutions, some or all degree programs do not require traditional things like Greek and Hebrew, for example. It’s a tradeoff situation. There’s only limited time, faculty, money.

The demands are great: from accreditors, from churches, from students. “You didn’t teach me how to get along with people, and I’m being thrown out of my church.” This is being thrown back at us by graduates.

Cooley: I think we have to change the teaching/learning system. We’re dealing with older students who have greater motivation at their point of entry. We should, therefore, be able to do more independent teaching and get away from the traditional, group kind of learning experience.

Hubbard: Students today have a desire to work faithfully in the church and to put their training into practice. They have a desire to relate more to individuals than I ever did when I went through seminary. They’re in covenant groups. They’re in prayer breakfasts. They’re doing all kinds of things that are beautiful from the standpoint of Christian nuture and Christian development and relationships. My priority was to get through and get out. Their priority is to milk the experience—however long it takes.

But this milking would seem to be a very positive side.

Hubbard: I view it as very positive. It’s more wear on the carpet for every dollar of tuition, and you end up with a more varied curriculum. It’s also harder to sequence your courses. The management of the enterprise is, therefore, further complicated. But I have to believe that the end result is going to be very positive for the church.

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Cooley: Yes, I think students are developing a strong community sense in these self-generated experiences. And, after all, this is what the local church is about. The local church is hurting at this point, and these people are going to bring to it a rich personal experience. They are going to be able to nurture a sterile community into a caring community.

Brushaber: That holistic goal is something we all applaud. And I agree with David. It’s a most difficult thing for those of us who like tidy administrative structures and processes, because these students confound them time and time again. And yet, I sense these men and women are more exciting to teach because they come with a life experience.

Still, I wonder what we are doing in our schools to help faculty cope with this changing profile of students. I think that faculty expectations need somehow to undergo some changes as well. Even our classical education probably needs to be interwoven more with congregational life.

Hubbard: A lot of these people are looking for more specialized forms of programming. So now we’re into more emphasis on marriage and family counseling, more emphasis on singles and youth ministries. And the more we teach skills in ministry, the more labor intensive that is. It’s a lot easier to lecture 150 people than it is to teach individuals how to preach or to counsel or to give effective pastoral care. So you’re into more coaching, more supervision.

With all of that, I find that the affirmation of the need for theological education is also very high. We’re getting that from laity, and one of the things we’ve got to work on is how to prepare laity for the two kinds of tracks we’ve talked about. Some people who come to us as lay people are going to stay lay people, they’re going to stay engineers, nurses, and lawyers—but they want to serve Christ better. However, we’re inclined to treat them as though they’re going to change professions. We give them new professional training rather than fortification and reinforcement to serve Christ in their present professions. So, responding to the number of laity and making sure that our programs are in sync with their needs is a current challenge.

The other thing that’s happened is the rise in continuing education programming. We no longer have to think of completing our ministerial training within the three-, four-, five-year package. We can tell graduates that when future educational needs arise, we’ll have a program for them. The tremendous success of some of the continuing education shows that we are scratching places that itch badly; and we’re not only revamping our understanding of the first time line of theological education, the length in it, but we’re also adding another component.

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And that obviously bodes well for the local church.

Hubbard: It does. We don’t do anything at Fuller that’s more uniformly affirmed than our continuing education program. They do get high mileage because the people are so needy and know it. Students, until they have been out in ministry, don’t really understand all that’s needed.

Cooley: I think we need to learn from the therapeutic professions at this point. None of us would go to a medical doctor who did not keep up with his or her profession and specialization. How much more important is this educational updating necessary for those serving the church?


Mid-career Education

Were dealing with older students who have greater motivation at their point of entry. We should, therefore, be able to do more independent teaching and get away from the traditional, group kind of learning experience.

Robert Cooley

Several evangelical seminaries offer programs that are directed toward those contemplating a mid-career job change.

• A high proportion of those now enrolled in extension programs in Seattle, San Francisco, Ventura, Orange County (Santa Ana), San Diego, and Phoenix through Fuller Theological Seminary are employed lay people willing to devote a number of years to earning an M.Div. or other graduate degree. “Where some schools hire a local professor who may not share the seminary’s vision, Fuller sends out only its best professors,” Hugh James commented. “The standards are as high as those on Fuller’s main campus.”

• Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has developed satellite in-service training programs at the D. Min. level. Teaching originates on the main campus and is beamed by satellite to urban centers around the country.

• Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, has an extension in Indianapolis with 30 to 35 students enrolled, more than half of whom are contemplating a mid-career job change. Their first taste of seminary is through Friday evening and Saturday classes for one year, after which they will move to the main campus. If the program is successful, similar projects will be started in Minneapolis and the metropolitan New York area.

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Church and seminary:

The ethnic connection What about foreign students? What role does this burgeoning group play in seminaries today?

Cooley: The church is indeed pluralistic, but the ethnic minorities constitute a very small percentage of our student body. Our curricular designs do not fully accommodate their historical roots. I do not think, by and large, that our white faculty are necessarily aware of all minority concerns. We have added blacks and Hispanics to our teaching staff, but we do not have sizable people groups within our student body. Our best expression in this area is in terms of urban ministry. Instead of attracting minorities to the campus we have taken the campus to them in inner-city situations. It’s a form of extension education rather than the traditional on-campus education. And it’s having an impact.

Hubbard: I would say with Bob that we always seem to be a little too late and too gringo. We need to tailor our program more to the needs of specialized ethnic groups. Right now we’re tooling up for a Chinese study program at Fuller with several Chinese faculty members, because Chinese evangelical churches are losing about 90 percent of their young people. They cannot cope with the “Chineseness” of the immigrant pastors and so they leave. And yet, they’re not ready to go to our churches because our churches are too Caucasian for them. We’re losing the brightest and best of the Chinese young people by the bushel.

Cooley: We’re dealing with a paradox here. We have struggled well with the concept of missions, its biblical and theological orientations. The internationalization of many of our seminary experiences and programs are well known. I think of Fuller and its school of missions. The cross-cultural motif is there. Yet, when it comes to the ethnic pluralism within North America we are struggling. We don’t know how to claim this at the local congregational level. We don’t know how to deal with this.

Brushaber: We wouldn’t dream of sending someone for overseas service without a good preparation in anthropology and cross-cultural insight. But we think nothing of turning them loose into our multiethnic communities underprepared. If we could go back and discover what it means to minister among immigrant and among minority groups, we could celebrate our roots and at the same time be useful and minister. These great “in-migrations” we’re seeing are fertile ground for evangelism.

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Fuller: I think we’re all wrestling with the same kinds of things. We did a survey of the student body in September. A total 35 countries are represented. On our campus, you’d think English is a second language. This cross-cultural and trans-cultural exchange is going to influence the seminary at Westminster. It’s just going to happen. It may be the kind of thing you don’t teach. We don’t have a course on trans-cultural communication. It’s just happening.

Church and seminary: The spiritual connection

Is there a renewed emphasis on spiritual formation among today’s students?

Cooley: I am sensing at Gordon-Conwell a greater attention being given not just the daily worship experience but the whole subject of spirituality. This then relates to the totality of the seminarians’ experience.

Hubbard: This seems to be one of the major differences between my own seminary experience and early days at Fuller and where we are now. We offer so much more opportunity for spiritual nurture and formation, and students are lapping it up: group Bible studies, prayer and support groups. We have a couple hundred students who meet one-on-one with a faculty person or a pastor an hour every two weeks or an hour a month to discuss the spiritual direction of their lives. It’s purely voluntary, and it’s a marvelous thing.

How do you help your students, then, to grow, mature, and wrestle with the needs of the church in such a way that you keep bringing them new angles and new insights?

Hubbard: Part of what a seminary has got to learn is what’s going on in the church and how what we’ve done in the past is working or not working.

If all we did was turn our teachers loose in a classroom for 15 hours a week, we could run a much more efficient program. But the fact is that we see devout scholarship as part of our service to the church. I mean, it’s our people who write textbooks that are used in Christian colleges and Bible institutes. It’s our people who write the textbooks that are used all over the English-reading and -speaking world. It’s important for us to help our constituencies see that whatever they’re paying for the subsidization of the seminaries is like a pebble dropped into a pond. It moves out, not only through the waves of our students, but to the whole next student generation that is being formed spiritually, theologically, and biblically by what the teachers in our seminaries are writing.

Fuller: I think we ought to warn ourselves that we are servants of the church. There is the risk of adopting an ivory tower approach to life with idealistic solutions that have no relation to reality and that are simplistic and destructive.

If we are to serve the church at all appropriately we must be kept in contact with the church. I think that we must maintain close, close contact with the church, with learned laymen whose common sense may be more valuable than much of our learning in seminaries. If we divorce ourselves from that great blessing we run the risk of tragedy and disaster.

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