Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Future of Seminary Education?

About two years ago, I became aware of two very specific needs of our constituents which I felt were not being addressed by moderate theological institutions. First, I knew several mid-career adults who were exploring the call to ministry but could not pull up roots and pursue theological education in another state. Second, I knew some individuals who were already serving on church staff--either full-time or bivocationally--and desired additional training, but they did not understand why they had to give up their ministries and relocate to obtain a seminary degree.

I contacted several CBF related seminaries to see if any had an interest in providing a satellite or extension site in Tennessee. About the same time, Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, expressed a personal interest in this opportunity. The most positive response I received was from Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City. Dr. Molly Marshall was interim president and academic dean at that time and expressed an interest in developing a site in Murfreesboro as part of CBTS's new strategy of becoming "the teaching church seminary."

The church provided housing for the classes, Tennessee CBF provided promotion and my services as volunteer site coordinator, and we identified local people who might serve as adjunct faculty.

Last year was a slow but important first phase as the seminary offering two courses on site in the fall and two in the spring. All classes were taught on weekends. Laura Moore came from Kansas City to teach Hebrew Bible both semesters and Mike Smith taught Christian Heritage. Laura had six students the first semester and five the second. Mike had about ten each semester, four of those lifelong learners. The number of degree-seeking students fluctuated as some "tasted" the possibility of local theological education and decided that it was not for them.

This weekend we launched the second year of classes and saw the fruit of the labors of Molly, Laura, Mike, and myself as well at those of Steve Guinn, director of admissions, and Dean and Lisa Allen, CBTS administrators. The first weekend of the Formation for Christian Ministry class had 12 students enrolled. Seven were returning students and five were new students. I anticipate that all will be back next weekend for the New Testament class taught by CBTS professor David May. We will probably have three lifelong learners as well.

This response is a clear validation that the need we perceived is very real. There are God-called women and men who want to develop their skills for ministry and will invest the time and money to do so, even in the midst of busy lives.

Is this the future of theological education? I believe that it is at least one very viable stream. I am grateful for all of those at Central Seminary who have nurtured this dream and to Mike Smith and FBC, Murfreesboro, for being a part of this bold experiment.

What does the future hold? Stay tuned.


Dr. Danny Chisholm said...

It is good to have this option so close to us. I'm hopeful that over time the word will get out about Central's extension center in M'boro. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be a fan of distance learning but in our theological climate it's good to have options.

mike smith said...

I'm not sure the phrase "distance learning" applies to the situation. Central is trying to build and sustain a meaningful presence at each of its sites. In our case the ongoing presence includes a site coordinator, some local faculty, the beginnings of a dedicated theological library, and ongoing access to Kansas City personnel via electronic means.

At a functional level, this approach seems to me to offer at least as much to a student as she or he might receive were they to live 50 miles away from Kansas City and drive to school throughout the week.