If you haven’t noticed, theological education in North America is going through a “shake-out” process. I learned this week of one free-standing denominational seminary that is negotiating to become the divinity school of a college in the same denomination. Other seminaries are combining or closing their doors. Those that survive with find new partners and strengthen their relationships with old partners.
New approaches to theological education like those being offered by Central Baptist Theological Seminary require contextualization and creativity, but they will fail without cooperation. Healthy, flexible, and supportive partners are needed for these efforts to be successful.
Partners assist theological institutions in a number of ways. For one thing, partners—church, judicatories, other institutions—link the theological schools with potential students. Seminaries and divinity schools are exhibiting flexibility by offering programs to educate lay or licensed ministers (such as Central’s Foundation program), train bivocational ministers, and educate staff and laity within the walls of the churches. The endorsement of a judicatory or church also provides credibility to the theological institutions. Churches and judicatories often provide financial assistance for students as well.
Partnerships do not end there, however, but can include relationships with other educational institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and other theological schools. Such relationships can be mutually beneficial for all concerned. The Wisconsin center of CBTS has prospered due to its relationship with the Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin.
Theological institutions are also finding value in ecumenical relationships. Some denominationally-related institutions did not start out to do this, but they quickly found a responsive clientele in students from other denominations. This is not only aids the viability of the institution but it enriches the learning environment for all of the students. In a world where faith issues are becoming both important and divisive, people of faith must respect, teach, and support one another.
Finally, theological schools need the cooperation of donors. For the most part, alumni of theological institutions are not their best supporters, but one is sometimes surprised by both the resources and generosity of former students. Present and former students are also a link to other donors—individuals, churches, judicatories, and foundations. As my friend John Gravley often points out, seminary students don’t pay for their own education; they provide only a part of the funding needed. Theological institutions need friends who are willing to step up and provide the financial resources to form competent and creative ministers.
Theological education continues to change rapidly but it will flourish if its leaders, students, and supporters embrace contextualization, creativity and cooperation.