Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Theological Education: New Models Needed

While in Winston-Salem this week, our group had the opportunity to visit the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and dialogue with Bill Leonard, the dean of the school. The div school at WFU is one of the best of the new theological schools related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It combines the advantages of a classical university-related theological curriculum with a commitment to training ministers for the church. Actually, North Carolina is greatly blessed with theological schools! In addition to the one at Wake Forest, there are divinity schools at Campbell University and Gardner-Webb University as well as a Baptist House at Duke Divinity School. I applaud what these schools are doing and the training they are providing not just for North Carolina students, but those from other states as well. These schools also provide a number of full-time and part-time staff members for churches in the state.

On the other hand, what about those states that are not so blessed? How can we provide theological training for those who are already serving churches (many with day jobs and families) but can't commute to a divinity school? We urgently need new models for theological education. These new models would not replace the quality programs offered by Wake Forest, Duke, McAfee, et al., but they would serve a constituency of students and churches who are underserved at this point.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I serve part-time as the director for the Central Baptist Seminary center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. We are providing classes for men and women who are employed full-time (one as a pastor), are serving in local churches, and have settled families. They attend classes taught on Friday nights and all day Saturday by professors from the main campus in Shawnee,Kansas, as well as by adjunct instructors from middle Tennessee. Even so, I don't think that the "teaching church seminary" approach offered by CBTS is the only alternative model (although it is a good one).

Whatever is done, the following components are important:

1. Obtain qualified and gifted instructors. I believe that there is a place for "itinerant theologians" who will pack up their bags and go where the students are. There are just so many positions available in seminaries today, and some quality people have not found teaching positions. Perhaps we need to encourage churches to hire these people in part-time staff positions and free them up to teach as adjunct professors. We have some good pastor-theologians in our midst who have much to offer.

2. Rethink "residency" requirements for students. Many theological seminaries now offer classes only two or three days a week on their main campuses. Most of their students are commuters; they find a parking place, attend classes, visit the library (hopefully), attend chapel (if convenient to their schedule), and leave to go home or to work. The students attending classes in Murfreesboro spend 11 hours together two or three weekends a month, so they have as much contact time with professors and fellow students as those who meet two or three classes once a week. Add to this the availability of rich resources online and e-mail communication. In light of these circumstances, what is the advantage to going to the main campus for classes?

3. Emphasize "just in time" theological reflection. Considering one's life and ministry in light of an expanding biblical and theological awareness is an important part of theological education. It is even more significant when one is already involved in a local church or community ministry and can build on established relationships and responsibilities. Students who have to relocate to another city to pursue their education must expend at least some time finding an appropriate place of ministry, establishing rapport with the congregation, and then "carving our their niche" before the learning can begin.

4. Build community. It takes more than a central site with bricks and mortar to build community. True konoinia is the gift of God that comes when people work, worship, and learn together. Such community can take in a fellowship hall, a classroom on the third floor of a church building, or in the commons room of an apartment complex.

With the failure rate of traditional seminaries growing (due to finances, lack of students, and capital commitments among other things) and churches calling out their own to serve, this is a good time to consider alternatives.


reuben said...

When the South African Theological Seminary was established 12 years ago, it did not simply import a traditional theological education curriculum, but went out and conducted research amongst pastors to see what they felt was necessary for a relevant curriculum. The result was a somewhat different, but very effective programme. Since then it has continued to listen to and respond to the needs of the church.

On the issue of residency, current research confirms that many potential students do not want to leave their place of ministry in order to study, nor can many afford expensive residential programmes. Although there will always be a place for residential programmes, distance education will continue to expand and grow.

Ircel said...

Thanks. This certainly reinforces my argument. I agree that there will be a place for residential programs and we must have some schools that will offer research-oriented advanced degrees (PhDs, ThDs, etc.) but if we want to serve the churches, we must be sensitive to what they are telling us.