Thursday, November 26, 2015

Are Seminaries “Selling Their Souls”?

Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, is one of the best writers in Baptist life today.  He is at his best when writing satirical, humorous columns on the church and its various foibles.  I don’t think his recent post entitled “Seminaries reluctantly selling their souls” was meant to be humorous, however.  If it was, just disregard the rest of this blog.

Dr. Younger eloquently presents an argument for traditional, “residential” theological education.  This is the type of model that many of us experienced as we prepared for ministry.  We packed up all our earthly belongings, moved to another part of the country, and spent three years preparing for our first call.  If we were fortunate, we found a part-time church to supplement our income and give us some experience.  As seminary came to an end, we put out our resumes, started working our networks, and prayed fervently that God would lead us to the place where we would invest our lives and our newly developed skills.

I will grant that this model will still work for many students pursuing preparation for ministry, but much has changed.

First, when I attended seminary, my denomination invested a great deal in the cost of my education.  I left seminary with no debt.  Even so, when I was called to my first place of ministry and received a generous compensation package, our family was making less than we did when we were in seminary.  One significant reason was that my wife no longer worked and became a full-time mother for several years, so we went from a situation where she taught school, I had a part time job and a GI Bill benefits, and we lived in inexpensive seminary housing to the real world.  If we had accumulated significant seminary debt, I don’t know how we could have paid for it.

One change from then to now is that denominations and churches are not as invested in theological education as they once were.  Even seminaries with substantial endowments have to address the rising cost of personnel and maintenance on aging buildings.

Second, the demographics of ministry calling have changed.  The typical seminary student is older.  He or she responded to the call to ministry after several years in another vocation and a number of years of service to the church.  There are still students coming right out of college into seminary, but most recent graduates are still discerning what they will do with their lives. 

As a result, those called to ministry tend to be more established in their communities, have homes and families, and are already leaders (volunteer, part-time, or full-time) in a congregation, so the idea of relocating is not particularly attractive or feasible.

Third, although I valued the relationships I developed in seminary, I was often in classes with up to one hundred students.  Only in elective classes in certain subjects was I involved with only twenty or thirty students.  The context was very favorable for those who wanted to sit in the back of the room and be disengaged.  I made a number of friends in seminary and continued contact with them after graduation, but this became increasingly difficult since we scattered widely after we left seminary.  I was fortunate to establish relationships with several very fine professors, but this was the exception not the rule.

My friend David May, professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, often points to studies that show that students in online education are often more engaged in discussions that students in face to face classrooms.  Their participation can be tracked, and they often feel more comfortable sharing their input through chat rooms and forums.  Their education becomes more interactive and personal.

Does this mean that the approach to theological education that Dr. Younger espouses is dead? Of course not. We need institutions like the one where he teaches to form students who choose that approach to ministerial formation.  They are essential to the growth of the body of Christ.  The reality is, however, that the size of this group is declining.

Does this mean that institutions that are offering other approaches have “sold their souls”?  No.  A recent study done by the Association of Theological Schools stated:  “When asked about areas of personal growth . . . graduates who had completed most or all of their work online rated their personal growth in several areas slightly higher than graduates who had completed most of their work on campus.”

Online education is just one of the alternatives available to theological students today. There are hybrid programs that provide both on-site and online training as well as partnerships with churches and other institutions.  All fill a need. 

I applaud the work that Dr. Younger is doing in a traditional setting (although I wonder if it as traditional as he states), but I also recognize there are options out there for students who want and need them.  The body of Christ is rich and diverse, so we should expect the same diversity in formation for ministry.

(For further information on the points above, take a look at the State of the [Theological Education] Industry presentation from the Association of Theological Schools.)


Mark Tidsworth said...

Excellent article. Insightful. Often those on the inside are so caught up in running the institution, it feels threatening to think creatively. Thank you for maintaining your objectivity, thinking outside the box, and watching for the Spirit winds even while serving through the institution.

Ron Bowen said...

I appreciate your article Ircel. Having gone through seminary in the late 70's way before online education was even an idea, I have always contended the way I did it was the best But with the high cost of maintaining a campus and the heavy load of debt carried by most seminary graduates today, and with smaller and smaller first pastorates, many unable to pay the cost of a a salary let alone increasing benefit costs like insurance is it any wonder seminary grads enter the workforce with a debt load which will follow them the rest of their lives.
I appreciate hearing the remarks of Dr. May saying students participate more online, as one who was reluctant to raise their hand in class I feel that I would have been more comfortable to ask a question online rather than in front of my peers. The thing I would have missed the most being online would have been the interaction with other students in the student lounge where we talked about classes and readings as well as getting to know each other on a personal level.

Rev. Jim Leavitt said...

As someone that did their MDiv at a seminary that had seen its students change from predominantly a full-time residential to predominantly part-time commuter student body, the need for diverse methods being available to train future church leaders is important. I was able to take about 20% of my credits via on-line courses and felt that the overall engagement in discussions was greater than in the traditional classroom, in part due to the structure of the on-line classes. In those classes in order to pass, one had to engage with the professor and other students, whereas in the classroom, the discussions were often dominated by a few students, and others could sit back. I also see that as the church in general is going through a time of change and transition, so too, must our seminaries, if they are to truly train up leaders for what God is doing with the church, then they can't be locked in on the way it has always been done.