A velvet revolution is sweeping through the nation's seminaries. Like the velvet revolutions that have been transforming Eastern Europe from top-down, autocratically ruled, bureaucracy-driven countries, theological seminaries in the United States are being forced into change for survival's sake.
On the surface, seminary education at many institutions appears to be in robust health. In 1992, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reported a 9.8 percent enrollment increase over 1991, the largest single increase ever recorded. There was a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 46,400 students in more than 210 institutions. This fall, at least one school reports a 20 percent increase in 1994-95 total enrollment over the previous academic year. Other institutions around the country say they have similarly healthy programs.
Yet many experts who have looked beyond the numbers are sounding the alarm that seminaries face a "crisis of credibility." They say seminaries are in danger of "downsizing" faculties, programs, and institutions, and are faced with unexpected competition for theological training-the local church itself. They see churches being buffeted by cultural trends, while seminaries persist in graduating students conversant in Greek, Hebrew, and classical theology, but not acculturated to ministry in post-Christian America. The familiar tension between ivory-tower theory and leading-edge practicality in theological education has been further strained by the sometimes radically new answers given to age-old questions: What should pastors really be accomplishing through their churches? What makes a "good theological school"? How can the church be effective in a post-Christian age?
With a renewed sense of urgency, some of the nation's top seminary leaders are preoccupied with comprehending this paradox of seemingly healthy seminaries facing a bleak, uncertain future. As a result, theological institutions-whether independent, interdenominational, university-based, or church-supported-are re-engineering themselves for a new era, intentionally using a business-world attitude to refocus attention on their "customers"-the churches and students they are supposed to serve. In many cases, substantive change is occurring at a glacially slow pace. However, a few eager innovators are experimenting with bringing the seminaries into churches, restructuring courses, mentoring students long-term, and using telecommunications, video, and computers in the classroom.
Earlier this year, a report on graduate theological education in the Pacific Northwest, based on a year of study and funded by the Murdock Charitable Trust, found:
* Seminary students often have the same doubts as nonbelievers, see themselves as victims, and have a "deep hunger" for role models and mentoring.
* Seminaries are producing pastors the same way they did 30 years ago, are financially weakened by administrative overhead, and take little responsibility for selecting students bound for ordination.
* Lifelong tenure for professors and the accreditation process have, in some cases, been obstacles to strategic change.
* Pastors today, on average, are 44 years old, married, have been in ministry 14 years, and make more than $32,000 annually; are "largely satisfied" with their own job performance, but believe they were "poorly prepared" for their jobs.
The Murdock report surveyed about 800 laypeople, pastors, and seminary professors and discovered dramatic disagreements about the abilities that seminary graduates should have in order to minister effectively in churches. For example, while pastors and laypeople rank theological knowledge as fifth of five top priorities, seminary professors say it should rank topmost.
"Pastors are mad at the seminary," says John Woodyard, program officer with the $275 million Murdock Trust. The trust financed the $100,000 study because so many seminaries were making large requests for grants that Murdock officers were in "sticker shock" and wanted to find out for themselves about the state of seminary education.
"The seminary faculty do not have a good understanding of the needs of [local churches] or the culture," Woodyard says. "The raw material, the students coming up today, are vastly different from 20 years ago. They're coming to seminary banged around by the culture [or] their family. They have a very low sense of call, for the most part."
Woodyard says the trust, through its grant making, is in a good position to leverage change. But it may be too little, too late. "Seminaries [have] come in and said, 'We've got a $300,000 deficit this year, and praise God, it will only be $400,000 next year.' And we say, 'You've got to be kidding.' We look at some books and find out that they are playing with their restricted endowments, moving money around. In the next 10 years, I think you are going to see a lot of seminaries go down. Some are too top-heavy. Too much debt. Too much in facilities."
In 1989, Leon Pacala, then ATS executive director, described his perception that the most profound change within seminaries was the emerging shift from a "clerical paradigm" (preparation of clergy) to a "community of faith paradigm" (a multipurposed nurturing of knowledge and understanding of a faith community). Many trends have given rise to the shift. Since the 1970s, enrollments in preordination tracks, such as master of divinity (M.Div.) programs, have declined from 80 percent of the total enrollment to less than 50 percent. While the rate of increase in women's seminary enrollment-up sixfold since 1972-has leveled off, minority enrollments, especially among Asian/Pacific students, continue to grow rapidly. The average age of incoming students has increased to 38 at some schools. Seminary leaders today find they must work feverishly just to keep from falling behind an American culture keenly interested in personal spirituality, but disaffected from the traditional church practices.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, set atop a hill with a commanding seaside view of Boston's picturesque North Shore, fits hand in glove with the ivory-tower, monastery-like model of a seminary community of students and scholars pursuing theological truth and preserving church doctrine and tradition.
On a sunny Thursday in August, Haddon Robinson, sitting at a large desk in a small basement office, takes time to reflect on his views about seminary education, which he freely admits he has "given his life to" by teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary for 18 years, serving as president of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, and now being a teacher of preaching at Gordon-Conwell.
"It used to be, when you graduated in the 1950s and '60s, you got out into the First Episcobapitarian Church, and you may not have had much training in how to be a good church person, but [the congregation] knew what a pastor did," Robinson says.
"Give them a year, and they'd whip you into shape. But 85 percent of our churches have plateaued or are declining." Robinson believes laypeople expect their pastor to know how to penetrate the secular society and attract new people.
Many seminaries see themselves caught in an endgame of rising overhead expenses and a decreasing ability to raise tuition, tap endowments, or draw on denominational support. Robinson sees the declining economic viability of seminaries driving the institutions either into bankruptcy or an across-the-board restructuring. Surveys have shown an enormous divergence among institutions in the cost of educating a student through a typical degree program, ranging from a low of $5,000 per student to about $30,000.
Many seminary students have responded to the high cost of theological education by working while pursuing a degree, borrowing through government loan programs, increasing the number of years of study to attain a degree, or pursuing a less rigorous and costly degree program. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary found that 22 percent of 1991 M.Div. graduates had borrowed $10,000 or more by the time they graduated. Singles, women, and African-Americans were more likely to obtain loans and borrowed greater amounts than the average. The effects of students working while in school and student debt levels have been harmful overall, Robinson believes. "I see fellas that go to class, work for ups, study, come to class [again], and they're dead. It beats the daylights out of marriages.
"Many [students] treat the seminary like a 7-Eleven. They drop in, take the course, and leave. If they graduate at 35 or 36 [with] a debt of $25,000, you're not going to go to the Baptist church by the gas station and expect to make the kind of money that will pay that off."
Robinson at times shifts dramatically between an acute sense of despair and a sober hopefulness for theological education. "You don't have to keep the same structures. Everything [should be] on the table. Don't just change the bones in the cemetery. The single most-important ingredient in theological education is the church. The hard question is: What is the deep need of the church?"
THE STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, located in suburban Chicago and associated with the Evangelical Free Church of America, has found, like other schools, that many students choose a seminary based on geography, not just theology, and are embarking on second careers. Only 13 percent of Trinity students are from the Evangelical Free Church, with the rest coming from 122 other denominations.
During the lull between the summer and fall sessions, students and others at Trinity spoke to CHRISTIANITY TODAY about their perspectives. "People outside seminary raise issues that [scholars] Kant and Barth discussed, even if they do not recognize them as Kant's and Barth's issues," says Mark Lewis, a 31-year-old, first-year M.Div. candidate who spent six-and-a-half years as a lawyer before entering seminary. Matthew Coburn, a third-year M.Div. candidate, says, "If [students] come here wanting schemes, strategies, formats, techniques … they will be frustrated." Second-year student Ben Gilder says, "To say that [studying] theology is not practical is a contradiction. Any time you explain why a person should do something like 'love your neighbor' you make a theological statement."
As Trinity's academic dean, W. Bingham Hunter has seen a "ratcheting up of expectations" for both pastors and seminaries. He says today's pastor is asked to run "a multiplicity of ministries," including coping with racial issues, unemployment, divorce, marital counseling, and crisis intervention. Those expectations are sometimes based on unrealistic standards, Hunter argues. "Uniquely gifted pastors who are celebrated in the media become the standard against which some congregations measure their own pastor."
"[Trinity] does not see its main role as spiritual development, per se," says student Coburn. "There are plenty of opportunities for spiritual input. It is possible to go through Trinity, to work hard and learn, and come out without a heart for ministry."
One way institutions have attempted to bridge the credibility gap has been to bring top pastors into seminary leadership. This year, both the liberal San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), a Presbyterian school, and the interdenominational Dallas Theological Seminary have hired pastors as presidents.
Donald McCullough, the new president at SFTS, says, "To remain faithful to a central calling and also respond to market needs requires living in a creative tension. All the time. At the heart of theological education must be the training of pastors who, in turn, can train laity within their own congregations."
To their credit, seminary and church leaders have been laboring earnestly to solve the challenges posed by the problems inherent in theological education, waging battles on the multiple fronts of curriculum, accreditation, cost controls, student demands, and church needs.
One of the tried-and-true innovations of the past has been to create satellite campuses. For example, Gordon-Conwell has established programs in inner-city Boston as well as Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet some schools have pushed that idea even further by creating a satellite "seminary without walls."
In Seattle, through a cooperative venture between Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, the Seattle Association of Theological Education (SATE) is providing a program to 450 students, some commuting 250 miles.
In order to create a community atmosphere in the seminary's nonresidential setting, sate requires students to take one class per quarter, for a total of 12 courses over three years-or one-third of an M.Div. course load-with the same group of students.
Eight of those courses are mentorships in which half the course load is taught by a seminary professor and the other half is taught by clergy, church staff members, or leaders of parachurch organizations. Through this arrangement, the student "watches ministry being done" in areas such as preaching, evangelism, pastoral care, management, and Christian education, explains SATE's executive director, Timothy Dearborn. "These are not internships, but a way of taking course work out of the classroom."
Many of the program's courses are taught in church buildings, exposing students during the course of their studies to "25 different churches from a broad array of traditions … and different patterns of ministry and worship," Dearborn says.
To help meet students' spiritual needs, sate requires them to meet once a month for three years with a support group comprising a pastor and two laypersons of the student's choosing.
Two years ago, the program was granted provisional accreditation by ATS, which itself is in the midst of a historic review of the accrediting process and standards. According to Dearborn, it is the first time ATS has granted provisional accreditation to a school that does not require M.Div. students to spend one year on a campus and in which so many courses are partly taught by nonacademicians. The program has been setting the pace for interinstitutional cooperation.
Other schools are turning to technology as a means of taking the seminary to the students. Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, using portions of a $58 million bequest from Ralph Waldo Beeson, is creating a new center that will feature the latest in video information services, allowing classes taught at Asbury to be transmitted anywhere in the world.
Technology at the center will also enable teachers to access maps, charts, library materials, and segments from other lectures for use in day-to-day teaching. "Teachers will be able to hook up a phone to the system and access speakers from the outside," says Ken Boyd, executive director of multimedia systems. "Basically, they will have everything they need at their fingertips."
Increasing numbers of bivocational and second-career students "tell us we have got to approach theological education differently from in the past," says Maxie Dunnam, incoming president of Asbury Theological Seminary. "We have to go to the people rather than always have them come to us."
SUPPORT FROM HOME CHURCHES
Still other schools believe mentoring and church internships should be at the center of theological training. Conservative Baptist Seminary of the East (CBSE), founded by a visionary group of pastors who believed that their seminary experience had not prepared them well for congregational ministry, has made a closer tie between the student and the local congregation an integral part of the curriculum.
CBSE requires each student's home congregation to affirm its belief that the student is divinely called to professional ministry and, in most cases, makes that church the primary locus of a student's education. The seminary develops internship agreements by which the church provides two supervisors to oversee the internship, and the student places him- or herself under the care and supervision of the congregation. Students and supervisors meet weekly to assess student growth in character and ministry skills.
To facilitate student immersion in church ministry, classes are scheduled one day a week, nearly 30 percent of credits are earned through a system that requires no classroom time, and the seminary runs 11 months a year, offering three 15-week semesters, which reduce course load per term by a third.
According to Robert Ferris, author of Renewal in Theological Education, many of CBSE's students choose the seminary "over traditional seminaries because of CBSE's program of church-based ministry training." Rob Jones, CBSE's vice president for advancement, says nearly 50 percent of CBSE students come from congregations not affiliated with the Conservative Baptist Association of America.
"Faculty and students, internship supervisors, and participating congregations all seem to agree that the CBSE formula represents an effective approach to training for ministry," writes Ferris.
RACIAL, CULTURAL DIVERSITY
At Philadelphia's Eastern Seminary, a key to growth has been the school's embracing of cultural and racial diversity. Enrollment at Eastern Seminary has steadily increased during the past five years. This fall, Eastern added 102 students, about 20 percent more than the school's previous record high.
President Manfred Brauch says that increase is due to several factors, including Eastern's "concerted attempt to be a centrist evangelical institution that affirms bringing both the social and personal aspects of the gospel to all people." This year's entering class includes 45 percent women and 39 percent African-Americans. One-third of Eastern's faculty is female and one-third is African-American.
Brauch says Eastern "strongly affirms the equal partnership of men and women in all ministries." For more than 20 years, Eastern has had a women's organization that serves as a support group for female students and addresses the specific concerns of women seminary students.
Recently Eastern and two nearby seminaries, Westminster and Lutheran Theological Seminary, made an agreement with African-American clergy in the Philadelphia area to provide at least ten courses jointly in a three-year span, taught from an Afro-centric perspective, explains academic dean Eric Ohlmann.
To prepare ministers in the Latino community, Eastern in January will begin offering a certificate program in pastoral care and counseling for Hispanic clergy. "Often, in the Hispanic community, people will go to the pastor for counseling long before they would go to a professional counselor," says Brauch.
At Dallas Seminary, Donald Campbell, president emeritus, says the school has instituted a program of spiritual formation in which students meet regularly in groups of six to eight for discussion of "issues related to spiritual life, vision, giftedness, and accountability." Participation is required of students in their first two years at Dallas.
In another change, Dallas has abandoned the concept of an academic major for "ministry tracks," in which students choose from various ministry emphases, including Bible translation, church planting, counseling, evangelism, media arts, pastoral ministry, cross-cultural ministries, or leadership development. "These force students early on to consider life goals in terms of ministry," Campbell says.
NEW WINE, OLD WINESKINS?
In spite of the hundreds of schools making changes affecting tens of thousands of students, some researchers maintain a clear-eyed skepticism about whether such changes are truly structural, or are a cosmetic veneer.
In 1992, Carolyn Weese, a church consultant based in Arizona, was hired by seven seminaries to travel the country in conjunction with Leadership Network (a parachurch ministry for large churches), interviewing pastors about their needs.
She spent seven months on the road, with her husband driving as she pounded her notes into a laptop computer. Weese says that after 97 two-hour-long interviews with pastors and their staffs, "I was pretty convinced that if a seminary really wanted to take seriously what these [pastors] were saying, it would take reshaping or reforming the whole structure of seminary education.
"It would mean taking it all the way down to the foundations and rebuilding it. Something's got to happen. The church is not going to wait. If the seminaries don't wake up and come along, they will be left in the dust," she says.
Some church leaders believe they have sufficient resources to train new pastors. Last year, for example, there were an estimated 3,000 church-sponsored conferences for pastors. Weese counters, "I hear some pastors say, 'Well, we'll just teach them what they need to know.' And that's okay, but that's a one-generation hand-me-down. There is a need for seminaries, but they need to do it differently. They need to put new wine in new wineskins, not something new in an old form."
No doubt, as seminaries retrofit, re-engineer, or restructure their programs, they will have the opportunity to move into a new era, where theology and church practice cooperate rather than compete.
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