Yesterday I taught a summer class on coaching and co-facilitated two peer groups of seminary students without leaving my home office. Using online technology and the telephone, I was able to pursue my work as an adjunct professor for Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Increasingly, this is the face of theological education in the early 21st century. How did we get here?
First, God calls. God continues to call out women and men as ministers. This call comes at the most unexpected times to the most surprised people. The subject of the call may be a businessman in his fifties, a single mother in her thirties, or a professional nurse in her forties. God calls people of all races and ethnicities. Certainly God continues to call young men and women to the ministry but not every person who receives the call is right out of college. God is funny that way.
Second, life happens. Even those who have been called to the ministry have lives beyond the church. They are wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and employees and employers. They have families to support and nurture, jobs to do in order to provide financially for themselves and others, and churches to serve. Very often those who are called to ministry later in life are firmly involved in their communities and their churches. Relocating to pursue seminary education is often not only difficult but impossible.
Third, churches need leaders. One can minister in a congregation without a theological education, but one can be a better minister with a theological education. Seminary is about studying the Bible, theology, and church history, but it is also about formation—understanding with increase clarity the call of God, learning skills to serve God’s people, and broadening one’s vision for Kingdom work. Can a minister lead a congregation without a seminary degree? Of course. Will that person be a better minister with seminary study? Yes, without a doubt.
Fourth, money is tight. Seminary education, like any quality education, is not cheap. Denominations do not provide as much support to seminaries as they did in the past because the financial gifts they receive from churches have declined. Churches don’t provide direct support to seminaries because they have other things to deal with—increased insurance for staff, building repairs, and local ministries. Big donors are few and far between. The competition to obtain grants from foundations is intense.
What does all this mean? God is still calling people to ministry and churches need leaders. At the same time, the traditional forms of providing theological education must change to meet the realities of individual lifestyles without sacrificing quality. What’s the answer?
Theological institutions like Central Baptist Theological Seminary are taking the initiative to address these concerns. Several years ago, Central began offering courses in satellite centers and online. More recently, the seminary began classes for Korean students in several locations as well as short-term theological training for Burmese immigrants. This past year, a Women’s Leadership Cohort was launched in Nashville to empower women to “break the stained glass ceiling.” In the fall of 2015, Central will launch a new Master of Divinity degree program this will be highly accessible, competency-based, and entrepreneurial.
This is the future of theological education—providing quality education and formation in creative and innovative ways to those God calls. The Spirit moves where the Spirit wishes and we are invited to come along on the ride. Those who train ministers are beginning to understand the commitment and flexibility that journey requires.