Sunday, June 29, 2008

Abbey, Academy, and Apostolate

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) has written an apology (used in the theological meaning as a “defense”) entitled Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools. His approach is that of “appreciative inquiry,” describing what the schools do best when they are doing that for which they were designed.

One of his most helpful chapters is entitled “The Future of Theological Schools: The Church and Higher Education.” The presentation in this chapter is based on a paradigm articulated by David Tiede, former president of Lutheran Seminary. Tiede argued that theological schools in North America have developed in three phases—abbey, academy, and apostolate. Each is an important part of contemporary theological education. Theological schools were originally founded by denominations as an extension of the church—a place of prayer, study, and preparation for ministry. Over time, theological schools were increasingly influenced by secular education and adopted the attitudes of the academy. They were also concerned about research, learning, and credentialing. The third phase is necessary if the theological schools are to survive and prosper in the present and future. They must embrace an apostolic mission, taking responsibility for helping churches articulate a proactive witness in a secular society.

As the theological schools embrace the third aspect of the paradigm, they have the opportunity to develop new models of formation for Christian ministry. One of these new models involves non-residential programs that offer students the opportunity to prepare for ministry without uprooting their families and turning their lives upside down. Somewhat cautiously Aleshire comments, “There may be patterns of sustained peer and mentor relationships that address the formational goal of residency, but such programs would need to be thoughtfully developed and carefully administered” (page 150) Non-residential programs provide opportunities for students to engage their culture without changing their ministry context, but they must intentionally maintain high standards of accountability, scholarship, and theological reflection. Visionary theological schools will embrace this challenge.

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