Thursday, August 04, 2016

What is the Purpose of a Theological Education?

In these days when theological education is facing significant challenges, many are asking, “What is theological education supposed to accomplish?”  Friend Eddie Hammett posted this comment on his Facebook page this week:

“I value my seminary training but the longer I'm in ministry the more I realize they trained me for a world and church that no longer exist. Much of what was taught was programmatic, building focused, denominational loyalism.... Today I find myself, and many others, needing relational and coaching skills to function in diversity, partnership development skills to create teams and resources for the new, navigating skills through the challenges for control, unrealistic expectations of pastoral care when the need for leadership is so great. Seems to me that seminaries and divinity schools miss the boat, more often than not, of preparing clergy. Maybe shifts need to happen.... what shifts would you recommend for the next decade?”

The post elicited a number of responses, some agreeing and others disagreeing, but most sharing appreciation for their theological training and indicating how they have coped with the demands of church leadership over the years. 

This stimulated my thinking about what a person should really expect from a seminary education.

First, a student should develop or enhance a basic knowledge of the biblical, historical, and theological roots of the faith.  This does not mean that the student will learn everything he or she needs to be an effective minister for the rest of her or his ministry. What the student is learning is a mindset for discovery, interpretation and application.

Second, the student should learn skills to become a lifelong learner.  These skills build on the mindset formed in the biblical, historical, and theological disciplines.  Knowing information is important, but knowing where to find it and keeping abreast of current scholarship and application is an ongoing concern for any practicing minister.

Third, spiritual formation is a significant part of one’s theological education.  I think we assumed at one point that everyone came to the seminary with an understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God.  We were wrong.  Most people of my era came to theological education with an idea of how their particular church or denomination did spiritual formation without having internalized spiritual practices.  Spiritual formation does not begin or end in seminary, but the time spent there should challenge a student to deeper and regular spiritual practices that will continue to provide sustenance for a lifelong journey.
Fourth, seminary should be a time for students to enhance or develop their relational skills.  This includes understanding who they are, how they relate to others, and how they can facilitate healthy relationships with others.  Some entering students are better at this than others, but the seminary provides an opportunity to develop self-awareness and other-awareness so that these practices become engrained in the individual.

These competencies are addressed in the new Master of Divinity curriculum at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.  The curriculum has “pillars”:  formation, interpretation, contextualization, performance, and contextual learning.  Although the traditional theological disciplines are important in the degree, the primary interest is in helping the student become a person who can learn, relate, and grow over a period to time.  In other words, the goal is for the minister in formation to become a lifelong learner.  We don’t know what the next day will bring, but we can have our tools sharpened and ready to address those challenges.

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