Friday, November 04, 2011

Reimagining Theological Education: Creativity

The decentralized model of theological education that Central Baptist Theological Seminary is offering not only in Tennessee and Wisconsin but through the Access Program depends on three things:  contextualization, creativity, and cooperation.  This post addresses creativity.

In August 1967, Rita and I packed all of our worldly goods into a station wagon and a trailer and left Alabama for a sojourn of three years in Fort Worth, Texas.  In order to get a seminary degree in those days, a person needed to relocate (unless fortunate enough to have a seminary in their backyard) in order to get an education and a degree.  This meant finding a new job (for at least one family member), a place to live, and a new church (where you would serve either as volunteer or paid staff).  This also meant leaving behind family and friends (although some people we knew had made the same trek) and a church context that we were very familiar with and we deeply involved.  Was it worth the effort?  Yes.  The education and the friendships were valuable. Could it have been done another way?  Perhaps not then but now there are alternatives.  Through initiative like the Tennessee center, we are taking a new look at the old paradigm and coming up with creative alternatives.

One new approach is fully accredited centers like those Central has established in Wisconsin and Tennessee.  Other seminaries pioneered this approach and, for those seminaries that want to survive, this will become more common in the days ahead.  Seminaries partner with churches, judicatories, or other institutions to create these centers.  Students can now stay where their extended families, jobs, and places of ministry are located and still get a degree.

Another option available to students now is online study.  At present, the Association of Theological Schools allows students to take up to two-thirds of their course work for the Master of Divinity degree online.  The remainder must be taken in residence.  The goal of Central is to eventually offer all classes online although one-third  of the classes still must be completed onsite in Shawnee, Murfreesboro, or Milwaukee.  This provides students a great deal of flexibility in their schedule planning.  Are there some courses that are more appropriately taught in a classroom setting rather than in a virtual environment?  That question is still open for debate not only among theological educators but all educators who consider this alternative pedagogical approach.  I will reserve my opinion for another time, but this creative approach is certainly increasing the options for theological students.

Since many of the CBF-related seminaries are not large enough to offer specializations in youth ministry, children’s ministry, worship and similar areas, some theological institutions are offering certificate programs that offer training in these areas.  Some are for credit and others are non-credit continuing education.  They often combine classroom and online components.  Whether a person has a theological degree or not, these special training opportunities are a creative way to meet the needs of both ministers and the churches they serve.

Seminaries are also finding other ways to respond to the need for continuing education or lifelong learning.  The Doctor of Ministry degree, first offered in the 1960s, is a structured approach to continuing education that requires academic rigor while taking seriously the needs of a specific ministry setting.  Central has recently launched such a program hosted at the Shawnee campus.  Central also offers a Master of Arts in Missional Church Studies that builds on the Master of Divinity degree.  Other seminaries offer degrees that seek to address the need to acquire specific knowledge, techniques, and skills for a particular ministry.  All of these may not necessarily be offered in every place where a seminary has a teaching site and some may be unique to a particular setting.  For example, I would love to see the Tennessee Center take advantage of area resources and one day offer a Master’s program focused on entrepreneurial leadership.

Of course, seminaries like Central continue to offer resources to lifelong learners through access to regular classes taught at the main campus or centers but may also go to churches, universities, or other settings to make these classes accessible.   

Some of these ideas are new but others have been around for years and have only adopted new delivery systems.   Whether old or new, varied approaches increase both the accessibility and the effectiveness of theological education.  Those theological institutions that are not afraid to try something new while maintaining quality instruction will not only survive but prosper in the years ahead.

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