Thursday, November 26, 2015

Are Seminaries “Selling Their Souls”?

Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, is one of the best writers in Baptist life today.  He is at his best when writing satirical, humorous columns on the church and its various foibles.  I don’t think his recent post entitled “Seminaries reluctantly selling their souls” was meant to be humorous, however.  If it was, just disregard the rest of this blog.

Dr. Younger eloquently presents an argument for traditional, “residential” theological education.  This is the type of model that many of us experienced as we prepared for ministry.  We packed up all our earthly belongings, moved to another part of the country, and spent three years preparing for our first call.  If we were fortunate, we found a part-time church to supplement our income and give us some experience.  As seminary came to an end, we put out our resumes, started working our networks, and prayed fervently that God would lead us to the place where we would invest our lives and our newly developed skills.

I will grant that this model will still work for many students pursuing preparation for ministry, but much has changed.

First, when I attended seminary, my denomination invested a great deal in the cost of my education.  I left seminary with no debt.  Even so, when I was called to my first place of ministry and received a generous compensation package, our family was making less than we did when we were in seminary.  One significant reason was that my wife no longer worked and became a full-time mother for several years, so we went from a situation where she taught school, I had a part time job and a GI Bill benefits, and we lived in inexpensive seminary housing to the real world.  If we had accumulated significant seminary debt, I don’t know how we could have paid for it.

One change from then to now is that denominations and churches are not as invested in theological education as they once were.  Even seminaries with substantial endowments have to address the rising cost of personnel and maintenance on aging buildings.

Second, the demographics of ministry calling have changed.  The typical seminary student is older.  He or she responded to the call to ministry after several years in another vocation and a number of years of service to the church.  There are still students coming right out of college into seminary, but most recent graduates are still discerning what they will do with their lives. 

As a result, those called to ministry tend to be more established in their communities, have homes and families, and are already leaders (volunteer, part-time, or full-time) in a congregation, so the idea of relocating is not particularly attractive or feasible.

Third, although I valued the relationships I developed in seminary, I was often in classes with up to one hundred students.  Only in elective classes in certain subjects was I involved with only twenty or thirty students.  The context was very favorable for those who wanted to sit in the back of the room and be disengaged.  I made a number of friends in seminary and continued contact with them after graduation, but this became increasingly difficult since we scattered widely after we left seminary.  I was fortunate to establish relationships with several very fine professors, but this was the exception not the rule.

My friend David May, professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, often points to studies that show that students in online education are often more engaged in discussions that students in face to face classrooms.  Their participation can be tracked, and they often feel more comfortable sharing their input through chat rooms and forums.  Their education becomes more interactive and personal.

Does this mean that the approach to theological education that Dr. Younger espouses is dead? Of course not. We need institutions like the one where he teaches to form students who choose that approach to ministerial formation.  They are essential to the growth of the body of Christ.  The reality is, however, that the size of this group is declining.

Does this mean that institutions that are offering other approaches have “sold their souls”?  No.  A recent study done by the Association of Theological Schools stated:  “When asked about areas of personal growth . . . graduates who had completed most or all of their work online rated their personal growth in several areas slightly higher than graduates who had completed most of their work on campus.”

Online education is just one of the alternatives available to theological students today. There are hybrid programs that provide both on-site and online training as well as partnerships with churches and other institutions.  All fill a need. 

I applaud the work that Dr. Younger is doing in a traditional setting (although I wonder if it as traditional as he states), but I also recognize there are options out there for students who want and need them.  The body of Christ is rich and diverse, so we should expect the same diversity in formation for ministry.

(For further information on the points above, take a look at the State of the [Theological Education] Industry presentation from the Association of Theological Schools.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Accountability and Motivation

Accountability is a difficult concept for many to accept.  The willingness to give to another the ability to call us to account is never easy.  But accountability is not limited to giving another individual the ability to keep us on task.  Accountability can be provided by a supportive group or even to ourselves.  Accountability and the motivation to achieve a goal go hand in hand.

In a recent blog, David Maxfield points out the sources of influence that drive individuals to do the things they do.  Based on ideas in Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, these are:   Personal Motivation, Personal Ability, Social Motivation, Social Ability, Structural Motivation, and Structural Ability.  Each influencer points out appropriate means of accountability—both individual and corporately.

First, Personal Motivation— Are you ready to do this?  How does this task or goal tie into your long-term vision for yourself?  Your values?  When we make the task part of the bigger picture of our lives, the undesirable may become more desirable.

Second, Personal Ability—What are the personal skills available to you to accomplish this?  Using our skills and abilities to accomplish a task or achieve a goal gives us both personal satisfaction and challenges us to surpass our previous limits.  

Third, Social Motivation—Who can help you achieve this?  How does working toward this goal impact your relationships?  Perhaps it will strengthen them.  This is a great way to harness peer pressure to increase individual motivation.

Fourth, Social Ability—Who can come alongside to help you?  We usually find strength in numbers especially when we partner with someone with a similar or complementary goal.

Fifth, Structural Motivation— Does my environment encourage the behavior necessary to do this?  How can I arrange to keep track of my progress?  There is a saying that goes, “If it gets measured, it gets done.”  By tracking our progress and designing rewards or celebrations, we can develop our own accountability structures. 

Six, Structural Ability—How can my environment support my completion of the task?  In coaching clients, I often remind them that when they say “No” to one thing, they are saying “Yes” to something else.  Giving up one thing may free us up to accomplish something more important.

True growth and personal development only takes place in structures of accountability.  We can develop those ourselves.


A friend once told me, “There is a time when you have to decide to fish or cut bait.”  To translate into plain English, you can work hard to develop a great plan of action but at some point you have to decide whether to act on it or not. 

Many times we play down the importance of commitment.  We assume that once we have laid out a plan of action, no further decision is necessary.  Unfortunately, there are numerous lists of personal resolutions, to do lists, and strategic plans that sit in notebooks or in desk drawers and are forgotten.

Commitment is the covenant step.  This is the point when we count the cost.  We know ourselves well so we might ask, “What might I do that would get in the way of accomplishing this? How can I avoid those barriers?”  We know our contexts, too, so we might consider, “What are potential changes in circumstances that might hinder my doing this?  Are there ways that I can go ahead and address those?”

I often ask coaching clients, “On a scale of one to ten, what is your commitment level to this goal?”  or “How much time are you willing to put in each week to achieving this goal?”  When we get down to the reality of time and effort required to accomplish our goal, it is really “time to fish or cut bait.”

As Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62, NIV).  Count the cost and then decide if you are ready to commit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Designing Actions, Part Two

“Captain, there are always options.”—Mr. Spock, Star Trek:  The Original Series

Once we have chosen a goal, we need to consider how to get there.  There are usually many possible routes that will take us to our goal.   Even your GPS provides choices.  Once we have considered all of the options open to us, we can select one to act on.  There are several ways to assess an option for the best fit.

Faith:  Consider the option from the standpoint of faith.  Is the option congruent with the person’s spiritual journey?  Does it line up with what God has done so far in the person’s life?

Feeling:  The person might consider the option from an intuitive or feeling perspective.  Does it feel right?  Does it produce a sense of motivation or energy?

Logic:  The person evaluates the soundness of the thinking behind the option.  Does it make sense?  Does the person have enough information to pursue this option? 

Challenges and Obstacles:  Each option has its own potential stumbling blocks.  Since the person knows himself or herself well, what obstacles might occur that will have to be overcome?

Viability:  A good option must be workable given who the person is and what the person does.  How much room does the person have in life to pursue this option?  What will they have to change in the normal flow of life to make this happen?

There are many options out there, but choosing the best takes time and reflection.