It has been a rough few years in theological education.
The global financial crisis has given impetus to a rough few years for theological educators and theological education institutions. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting agency for seminaries and divinity schools in the US and Canada, is engaging in a study funded by the Lilly Endowment of “Institutional Viability and Financially Stressed Schools”. Although the project involves only 15 schools, most schools have felt a significant pinch in their budget, and have responded by cutting personnel, programs, and/or services. While many struggling institutions did not apply for participation in the project, no one involved in theological education doubts the financial difficulty most schools continue to confront, three years into the economic crisis.
In fact, accommodating to the crisis increased the cuts, but faculty cuts began before the recession. At the fulltime faculty level, the numbers reported fell beginning in 2007. By the time of the last report available (2009), there were over 100 fewer fulltime faculty positions at ATS schools than there were in 2006. Many of these erstwhile positions are not scheduled to be filled by opening of the fall semester in 2011; some of these positions may have for all practical purposes disappeared. The fact that the number of faculty began to decrease before the current crisis raises the question of what foundational changes are affecting the theological academy that, while exacerbated by economic stress, in fact find their root cause in other issues – among them, the drop in student enrollment over the last decade.
A call for reflection on the nature of the work
The situation calls for reflection. Dan Aleshire, ATS Executive Director, identified a number of issues in his address to the organization’s biennial meeting in 2010. Some of the issues identified include demographic shifts, changes in denominational strength and capacity, and the plasticity of what it means to be Christian and how people practice that faith today. Combined with ongoing financial strain, these and other issues challenge theological educators, administrators and trustees, and force people in the church to think through leadership needs and how to lift up and train leaders for the future. The Presbyterian Church (USA), among others, has called together a group (the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs – JCLN) to reflect and report; their findings reflect some of the same realities Aleshire noted, and highlight some parallel factors worth exploring:
- Whether in times of increase or decrease in the total number of fulltime faculty at ATS schools, the number of women in those fulltime positions has remained largely stable over recent years, at around ¼ of all fulltime appointed faculty. The JCLN report notes that congregations surveyed largely desire leadership from a young, married, male pastor of their own racial ethnic group. Are these two findings related? If so, how so? How does it impact people’s faith development and understanding of what church and ministry mean that those who serve and lead them are formed in schools where most of the faculty are male?
- Both reports note and reflect upon the contextual and cultural bases of understandings of leadership, including leadership in the church. The JCLN founded its report in data from congregations – that is, from current members, while noting that many people not currently in the membership see leadership and receive leadership differently than those inside. Put another way, the people congregations need to reach are not among the informants for the report on leadership needs. As we think about theological education, how do we discern what is needed if congregations and pastors are to become effective in reaching out? It cannot be by only asking those already participating in the Body – so how do we find more cogent sources of information?
- Both reports cite the need to develop new models that empower and build new partnerships and use new media to educate.
Both reports force us to think through the goals of theological education, particularly for the Body of Christ. Many of us reading and participating in these conversations are alums of ATS institutions. Most readers are engaged in discipleship in congregations served by alums as well, and many of us contribute financially to the future life of these schools. What do we hope is happening? What needs to happen? What is God’s intent for the future of the Body, and what must we do to be faithful servants of that intention?
What are our goals – and what strategies will serve them?
My own reflections have led me to a sense that we have to be open to change, perhaps at the level of revolution. The new models noted above need to be found, informed by the concerns and lives of those we hope to reach. This process will take prayer, thought, dialogue, and holy argument on a number of levels. Four of the issues I see as needful in this process include:
- A better understanding of the digital change that has occurred. The divide between those who engage the world mainly electronically and those who do not is defined, largely, in US society by chronological age. International theological education, as well, is being impacted to a significant degree by electronic initiatives. Lots of research is going on in this sphere – we in the church have a lot of catching up to do to get current with what is normative in much of the rest of our culture. When online degree programs have become a monthly feature of the inflight magazine (as they have with Delta’s Sky), it’s past time for the church to wake up. How we engage this, in theological education and in ministry, must be discovered.
- A new comprehension and appreciation of outcomes and assessment. The expectation for demonstrating accountability on meeting goals for student learning calls upon theological educators to approach and to understand the task differently. This requires new thinking, as faculties, administrators, and boards explore and discern how existing programs work and could be improved, and what new educational initiatives might be needed in a particular context. The educational goals – the outcomes sought – of both traditional and new initiatives have to be determined; then, effective ways of assessing student learning have to be discovered and put in place. For institutions that hope to find their way in our new reality, this work will become central and routine.
- A greater awareness of demographic realities. US society has changed, and in the main, the old “mainline” churches have not. We have not equipped ourselves to raise up, train, or be led by people whose culture, language, and understanding of the church more closely aligns with the growing cultural groups in our society – and this presents many problems, as we try to see into a future which we are not ready to confront nor to serve in faithfully. Racial ethnic leaders already active in the churches have wisdom to give and we as denominations and theological education institutions need to be open to this new and sometimes startling and uncomfortable wisdom.
- Finally, a comprehension of Christian identity as alien in our culture. People shout that this is a Christian nation and that we must get back to that truth – and we believe this to our peril. “Christian” is understood by many as “judgmental”, “angry”, “homophobic”, “oppressive of women”, and “abusive of children”, to cite a few common understandings. Worse still, for many residents of the US, “Christian” and “the church” are concepts that do not connect with their lives at all. A friend who teaches world religions in a public university remarks on the antipathy (arising, I believe, from hearing noisy “Christian” voices and silence from the rest of us) she experiences from most of her students toward Christianity. Jesus came to bring life and that in abundance (John 10:10), and that good news needs to get around. The fields are ripe for harvest, and the laborers are few – to quote a Wise One (Matthew 9:37, Luke 10:2). Forming and equipping ministry students to confront and address this reality is a task of some urgency. How we in the church and academy work to form the future of theological education will significantly determine our effectiveness in this work.