Will the future of theological education include today’s seminaries? – Cynthia R. Milsap

Or will someone else meet the educational goals of African Americans, Latino/as, Asians, and women?

Education is never neutral; it is always done with a particular goal in mind, although some forms are more subconscious and are actually forms of socialization.  The danger is in assuming or positioning any educational program as neutral, universal, or objective.

At best, we as educators can be honest about our intentions, biases, and goals.  In theological education the goal is to shape leaders to serve the church.  But, for what purpose, in which leadership positions, for which communities, and with what outcomes or expectations?  Clarity about what is or is not being done can help us to realize that our programs are not intended for all ministers or all ministry contexts.

That being said, we need to acknowledge that most seminaries were designed to serve European male clergy who were called to local congregations. These leaders were called to serve members who were committed to particular parish or denomination.  The goal was to prepare church leaders for the profession of ministry and to usually work in predominantly white congregations.  And, in most cases, the goal was to maintain these homogeneous memberships.

But today, many years later, seminaries have retained their educational goals, perspectives, and approaches even though their students, denominations, churches, and community contexts have changed.  The leadership roles and contexts in which  students serve have become especially diverse and complex.  And, beyond those actually attending seminaries, the pool of ministerial leaders who desire and need theological education is far greater than those who actually reach the seminary doors.  Once reached, ministers of color and women often find the seminary to be a strange and foreign land, one that provides traditional theological references but no real direction or relevance for their more diverse and urban ministry contexts.

In pondering the question “What is the Future of Theological Education,” I think about how theology and its leaders are being shaped by today’s cultural context and the social and religious needs of the people they serve.  It is a social context that is globally formed and intricately connected to the multicultural and economic inequalities of our world economy.

Unfortunately, it is a reality that too many seminaries, churches, and communities have not embraced or acknowledged.  Yet our global reality is reflected daily by the expansive reach of the internet, Facebook, our interconnected financial markets, and the telephone call centers of one country serving the needs of customers and companies in other country.  Many mainline congregations are still looking for young, white, American-born, male pastoral leaders (and their wives) to help support and build the church and its ministries.

In tough economic times, institutions become isolated and self-focused, particularly when they are focused on budget shortfalls and concerns about self-survival.  It is in these times that schools become more entrenched and committed to continue to do what they do, how they do it, for whom they see as their principal customers. This happens to churches too.  Like the company that cuts marketing and advertising to “SAVE” money, but ends up cutting off its future revenue by reducing its best means of attracting new customers, seminaries who become less open to new student markets will miss opportunities to expand and change theological education.  Paying attention to these diverse student markets will also improve the educational experience for all students and professors, since these mature adult students, many of whom have been in ministry for years, bring their experiential knowledge and passion with them.

Theological education will exist with or without seminaries.

For years African American and Latino pastors have created their own forms, foci, and paths to theological education and leadership development.  Historically discriminated against and excluded from having access to higher education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, these leaders have developed their own educational programs and classes that recognize their talents, sharpen their skills, and equip them to serve their communities.  The independent denominations established by these cultural groups have developed their own systems of qualifying, preparing, and educating leaders.  These programs also begin by valuing their cultural experiences, histories, and perspectives.  They also place their experiences at the center of theological reflection and not at the margins or as an optional add-on course.

Having a culturally safe space to study, acknowledge, and affirm one’s own cultural  identity and history is central to the process of recovering the voices and leadership contributions of  persons who have been marginalized, isolated, devalued, omitted, and silenced the academy and society at-large.  If seminaries do not consciously seek to create these spaces, students will create them outside of traditional seminary walls.

And, in an age that too many are rushing to call to “Post-racial” racial society, most seminarians have very few professors of color and do not seem to be talking steps to address this shortcoming.  How can we be preparing students for multicultural world if they have never had a non-white professor?  This problem is even more troubling when you see the rapidly growing numbers of Latino/as (according to the U.S. Census) and yet theological schools are not planning for their entrance into seminaries as students or to nurture them as future professors.  Perhaps it is because seminaries are still focused on and longing for the days when their campuses where dominated by single, unattached male students who were not encumbered with families and financial responsibilities. But the reality is that today, second-career, adult students dominate seminary classrooms.  These adult students come to seminary with years of ministry experience wanting more than a “one-size fits all” program, but too often that has been the only size offered.

What seminaries of the future must do

Seminaries who want to be a part of the future of theological education must be willing to listen and respond to students who have different ministry roles, goals, contexts, and learning needs.  They must be willing to “create” academic and support programs to meet these cultural needs and not expect that the who of “admissions” is the only change that is needed.  Seminaries of the future must shift from being single culture educational entities to becoming multicultural centers of theological exploration and learning.  They must connect the theological education and leadership development programs of the seminary with the real world challenges, gifts, and community contexts of today’s multicultural, global urban world.  Recent statistics indicate that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas.

Seminaries must look introspectively and ask, Why are we not doing more to cultivate future scholars among alumni from the culturally diverse students? How can we include members of these groups in the planning process?  Why do many persons from non-white cultural groups feel that seminaries are not welcoming, relevant, or affirming places for them to be?  And most of all, why are seminaries not researching and teaching about the successful models of church growth, outreach ministries, and culture-based ministry practiced by these grassroots leaders? Some very successful pastors have not been educated in traditional seminaries, but they have received a theological education which has incorporated experiences from life, mentors, peers, and alternative (meaning different and not less-than) educational programs.  How can the seminary experience be more integrative of these sources of learning and theological reflection?

Culture-specific theological education programs

SCUPE is modeling a culturally-specific, integrative model of theological education for the urban context in its ALTE (Advanced Latino/a Theological Education), Center for African American Theological Studies, and Nurturing the Call programs.  SCUPE, the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, is based in Chicago and has been offering theological education programs that respond to changing urban community contexts since 1976.  For the past five years, SCUPE has more intentionally worked with various seminary and community partners to meet the needs of specific cultural groups, Latino/as and African Americans, who have not had the same access to traditional theological education.  These culturally specific programs serve the Latino/a and African American communities, respectively, and offer certificate, Masters level courses, and Master of Divinity degrees.  These programs were created by pastors and seminary faculty who were members of these ethnic groups.  These community pastors and faculty were deeply passionate about making a pathway to theological education accessible to ministers and church leaders in their communities.  Consequently, with community support, these programs are growing and collectively serve more than 200 pastors and church leaders annually.

It is important for any serious effort to meet culture-specific needs to be led by persons from the ethnic groups that you are seeking to serve.  Seeking to add a Spanish-speaking professor who is teaching from a Eurocentric perspective, or expecting persons with family commitments to conform to daytime class hours are just two examples of what most seminaries do incorrectly.  The shift that is necessary is to culturally, intellectually, and physically base these programs in the communities of the students who are being served.  For adult students who are working and going to school, evening and weekend classes have worked best.  Learning in environments where students see and learn from professors who are from their own ethnic group gives these students a source of cultural affirmation and academic mentoring, which releases and shapes their theological voices.

For Latino/a students, being able to listen, read, and speak in Spanish has been liberating  for students for whom it is their first language and mind-expanding for those who are second-generation.

The classes for these groups are held in churches or community sites located in the neighborhoods of the ethnic groups they serve.  The theological perspectives, textbooks, and discussions place their intellectual and cultural traditions at the center of study and the concerns of their communities at the core of their theological reflection.  Moving from the margin to the center of theological education, the cohort model of creating a collaborative, support learning environment is key to developing leaders who will also be collaborative in their ministries.

Women are also another very large cultural group which seminaries have not adequately recognized or retooled their programs to address.  Many women are listening to and learning about male models for preaching and leading.  They are taught male perspectives about what it means to do ministry in the church as pastor.  Pastoring for women is inherently different.  The congregation’s acceptance of women varies based on denomination, church tradition, and the pastor’s own gifts and background.  Women bring their own leadership perspectives, styles, and challenges, vision and gifts.  Seminaries have left out the images, voices, and contexts of female pastors.

More African American and Latino/a clergy are seeking formal seminary education as more educated members seek clergy with Masters and Doctorate degrees.

To secure formal higher formal education, these leaders look to predominantly white seminaries or divinity schools.  Seminaries seeking to recruit these church leaders must be willing to look at their curriculum and teaching methodology and its relevance for these more diverse pastoral leaders.  Pastors serving communities of color do not have the option of being involved in urban ministry.  Their ministries and congregations are urban and so to serve their members is to serve their communities.  A curriculum which does not take this into account, does not prepare pastors for ministry in their “real” world.  Responsive seminaries must link their theological education programs to the leadership roles, social histories, and cultural and global contexts of these students.  They must be open to partnerships and dialogue with the students and communities which they have the potential to serve.

So the question remains, Will seminaries respond to where theological education is going? Or will they be left behind wondering where all the students–which they ignored– have gone?  For if today’s seminaries do not serve our multicultural communities,  someone else will.

2 comments to Will the future of theological education include today’s seminaries? – Cynthia R. Milsap

  • Cynthia Holder Rich

    Thanks for your strong words, Cynthia! I particularly appreciate your insights on seminaries’ responsibility to cultivate culturally-diverse future scholars and your reminder that theological education has not relied on seminaries in some communities for a long time.

    I am concerned (as is ATS and a lot of administrators) that some schols will not be able to survive the current economic crisis, which is coupled with a drop in enrollment. I hear your sense of “what seminaries must do”. I am wondering what seminaries that have not taken steps in the directions you suggest might take — practically, infrastructure-wise, and in growing resources. How should the all white or mostly white institution respond to the current context?

    Thanks so much, Cynthia — Cynthia