Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Trends in Theological Education: Gaps in Expectations

In a recent report by the Association of Theological Schools, graduating students “perceive theological education to be effective in helping them think theologically, but somewhat ineffective in preparing them to administer a parish.”  Generally, students rated their programs high in “the ability to think theologically, the ability to use and interpret scripture, and the ability to relate social issues to faith.” They gave very low ratings to skills such as “ability to give spiritual direction,”ability to integrate ecological concerns. . . [and] insights from science into theology and ministry,” and the “ability to administer a parish.”

These are all important concerns, but let me address just two of these—opposite sides of coin, perhaps, or complementary practices—spiritual formation and administration.

 First, one of the biggest challenges of congregational clergy today is helping parishioners grow in their faith.  We use terms like “discipleship,” “spiritual formation,” and “practicing spiritual disciplines” to describe this process, but it comes down to helping believers learn “how to feed themselves.”

One reason is that seminary graduates are not able to do this is that they often come to their theological studies lacking spiritual practices in their own lives that enrich and empower their ministries.  Most seminaries have become more aware of this and don’t assume that students already make such practices a part of their lives.  As ministers benefit from these disciplines in their own lives, they will be more motivated and better prepared to share them with those in their congregations.

Second, denominations and congregations are increasingly calling for ministers who are effective administrators and leaders.  What is the role of theological education in preparing future ministers for these roles?  One of the advantages of having so many mid-career people responding to the call to ministry is that they already have acquired some of these skills in previous careers.  They have been administrators, managers, and supervisors.  This is not usually true for a younger generation of new ministers.  They need to learn these skills to better serve their churches.

Both of these competencies are being addressed as seminaries assess and redesign curricula. Central BaptistTheological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, has address this in new Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry programs, taking into account the need for real world applications of theological learning and reflection.

At one time, the parish or congregational minister was the most educated person in the community.  This may no longer be true, but the pastor can develop the skills to link theological insight with everyday life to make a difference in the lives of church members.

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