Accounting for Hope

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Edwin David Aponte

Slide1When I told someone that I was asked to reflect on the future of theological education, I was asked, “Is there a future for theological education?” That is a reasonable question given that theological education in the United States is at a crossroads of relevancy and effectiveness to church and society. We are in a time of major cultural changes, demographic shifts, and competing visions.

Most theological education can be traced back to a model from the early 19th century and the short-lived cultural ascendancy of the historic Protestant mainline denominations of the 1950s and early 1960s. But huge social and cultural changes have taken place in which many Americans do not identify with any religion, let alone 1950s Protestantism. The Pew Research Center reports that one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, including more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as the so-called “Nones” roughly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation. Younger people who had some connection to church are leaving in droves, concurrent with generations who never had the experience of any faith community. But this doesn’t mean that there is a decline of spirituality as many in these same groups work for the common good drawing on their own concepts of spirituality and meaning.

In addition to shifts in spirituality and social involvement there are new models and experiences of learning. Computers and tablets are used in many schools. Prominent universities are experimenting with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering free unlimited worldwide participation in the same course via lectures, videos, and interactive forums. Other types of online distance learning are common as people earn degrees or selectively choose from a buffet of short-term opportunities via the Internet.

People are exploring new ways to be church, whether it is called emergent, or missional, a combination, or something different all together. Various types of social media show that vibrant virtual communities are possible. There are worldwide congregations whose life is mostly online as they push the boundaries of time and place. Other congregations are intentionally multicultural across racial, ethnic, and class lines, something still rare in the United States. Increasingly it is recognized that the locus of Christianity shifts from the “West” to places like South America, Africa, and East Asia.

Some seminaries are only just beginning to get caught up with the digital revolution. Certain seminaries are accused of preparing graduates for a church and society of the past. Add to these challenges that many seminaries enrollments have declined since the 1990s, while budget deficits grow. In such a context what is the mission and vision of theological education? One passage of Scripture that helps my thinking is 1 Peter 3:15, “make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (NRSV).  One mission of theological education for the present and the future is to help people called to ministry to articulate Christian hope for these times and places. Excellent seminaries of the future will need to embrace what always has been true, namely that people pursue theological education for a variety of reasons. Some come to theological education with hope well defined, and yet are still “surprised by joy” through deeper understandings of that hope. Others come as searcher and discover reasons for hope, meaning, and undreamt of avenues for service. Some are called to congregational ministry, but seminaries should acknowledge what God has affirmed that the church and the world also need excellent counselors, teachers, and those called to specialized ministries.

Future theological education will embrace gifts of time, space, and community to consider the hope of what we have experienced of God in Christ. Theological education can explore how that hope impacts our society and our life together as we realize we should work toward the common good. At our best in theological education we engage the traditions, but in ways that are relevant for this moment in time, as we deepen our emphasis on ministry and the formation of leaders who develop the contextual capacity to respond to shifting situations.  As theological education produces excellent leaders for contextual ministry, seminaries will be more nimble, offering education in a multiple formats and not just for those pursuing degrees.  Seminaries will be engaged in ongoing dialogue with the communities and contexts they serve.

Aponte-2012.jpgEdwin David Aponte is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Christianity and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is a member of Whitewater Valley Presbytery and earned the PhD in religion and culture from Temple University. Aponte’s most recent book is ¡Santo! Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality (Orbis Books 2012).

Back to the Future: A Sankofa Moment

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Paul Timothy Roberts

17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the Lord your God brought you out (Deuteronomy 7:17-19).

13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes (Nehemiah 4:13-14).”

And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran” (Acts 7:2)…

These are just a few snapshots in the life of Israel, moments when they are commanded to go forward into new and sometimes dangerous places and circumstances. Each time, the people of God are challenged to first look back, to remember, to be confident not in themselves but in the God who is constantly sending and rescuing and delivering and saving and calling and loving.

sankofaIn the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. SANKOFA is visually represented by a bird that is in forward flight while looking back, with the egg of the future in its mouth.

At Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, our tag line is “called to create what’s next.” But to create what’s NEXT, I believe we do well to first look back, gather all the best in preparation for exploring what’s next. Should theological education today resemble that represented in scripture? Many would question whether that is even reasonable, but, if it should, then it seems that that education must be less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about the formation of a way of life, of being. Pastoral education should not take place in an isolated academic environment, but in the midst of the world for which the disciple is being prepared. It should, at least in part, take place at a point within which there is a seamless integration of spiritual, intellectual and practical concerns; there should be strong mentoring/partnering relationships with individuals who have not just experience, but are themselves active learners, willing to push against and test the status quo, who themselves embody faith rather than just imbibe knowledge about faith. These mentors should be men and women who can exegete the culture as effectively as they can exegete Scripture and are able to guide the disciple in how to weave both exegeses together.  So, pedagogy should move outside the walls of academe and into the world of the missioning God where people live and work and worship. The interaction between academy, church and community should be always in flux.

Looking back for one more moment, Gregory of Nazianzus (who fled the pastorate four times and was finally forcibly ordained by his congregation) noted that pastoral formation is a life-long endeavor: “Not even extreme old age would be too long a limit to assign.”). Becoming a pastor is the work of a lifetime. Theological education needs to give pastors a better start on becoming a pastor.


Paul Timothy Roberts is president-dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. You can watch his keynote to the 2013 NEXT Gathering here.

Preparation for Ministry Without A Safety Net

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Kathy Wolf Reed

safety net copyWeek after week as I serve Christ’s church, I see theological education from some varied venues. As a pastor I see theological education playing out in Sunday school rooms and Bible studies, members of our church giving up free evenings to study Scripture together and vacation time to attend continuing education events. As a member of my seminary’s alumni council I am twice a year invited to come see what God is doing on the campus whose halls I once roamed – now complete with technological innovations I could not have imagined possible that first summer as I sat in the hallway on my laptop straining to find just the right spot where I could connect to the unreliable wifi. As a member of the PC(USA) Committee on Theological Education I am then privileged to take a broader view of theological education as I serve alongside seminary presidents and teaching and ruling elders from throughout the church to try, in as many different ways as we faithfully can, to keep our finger on the pulse of both church and academy and connect the two to create more seamless venues for training up leaders of faith, intelligence, and integrity in our churches.

However, all this aside, if you were to ask me where it is that I catch the most frequent glimpses of what is “coming and becoming” in theological education these days, I would have to turn to what has become one of my favorite tasks in ministry: serving on the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley’s Council on Preparation for Ministry.

Like many CPMs, at some point along the way we imposed upon ourselves a duty to inform Inquirers and Candidates of what exactly they are getting themselves into when they enter the ordination process in today’s PC(USA).

“It won’t be easy,” we say.

“There are many more candidates that positions,” we remind.

“You’ll have debt,” we grimace.

“You likely won’t be able to work fulltime/in a big city/at a large church,” we warn.

I entered the process at a very different time – what, in retrospect, seems to have been the tail end of an era where it was common to recruit bright young twenty-somethings with a passion for church and throw boatloads of money at them to go to seminary.  The unspoken assumption as I was working on my MDiv was that each of us would graduate with our terms of call already worked out, head to large churches where we would serve an obligatory 3-5 years as associates, and then climb the proverbial ecclesial ladder to a solo pastorate, a bigger church, a “better” call.

Obviously, times have changed.  But, here is the exciting part – the landscape of the denomination has changed, but these new Inquirers’ enthusiasm and sense of God’s calling have remained resolute.  No jobs?  No worries.  Debt?  They’ll figure it out.  A need to take a creative approach to ministry?  They are up to the challenge.  What is coming and becoming in theological education, from my point of view, is a generation of leaders who understand that seminary is not a means to an end. As so many pilgrims before them: Moses, Abraham & Sarah, Jesus’ disciples, Paul and Barnabas – they are spending less time plotting out their five year plans and more time present in the moment that is their calling to pursue a theological education.

Their openness and courage is a call to us all.  As I think about my own situation (ironically, an associate pastor at a large church) and where God might lead me next, I realize there is no ladder to be climbed, no checklist of demands I need be making, only a willingness to go where the Spirit is truly leading.  Thank you to all of the upcoming leaders of the church who model for us what it means to be faithful to Christ’s call without a safety net.  And thank you to all the saints of theological education upon whose shoulders we all stand.

kathyRev. Kathy Wolf Reed is the Associate Pastor for Young Adult and Family Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, AL.  She also currently serves as the Chairperson of the PC(USA) Committee on Theological Education and is the Chairperson-Elect of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley Council on Preparation for Ministry.  She is married to Rev. Nick Reed who also serves at First Presbyterian in Tuscaloosa, AL.  They have a one-year-old daughter Hannah and are expecting their second child in February 2014.  Read more about Kathy in a Dec. 12 Presbyterian News Service Story

Image: Gowanlock

First Sunday of Christmas Liturgy

Thanks to Doug Brown and Carla Pratt Keyes for this liturgy for the first Sunday of Christmas.

What Mandela and Pastors Have In Common

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

What Laura Mariko Cheifetz (in conversation with Lee Hinson-Hasty) thinks is coming and becoming in theological education.

“’People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,’ said Seidman, but ‘they are craving genuine leadership — leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.’”

Thomas Friedman, December 10, 2013, “Why Mandela Was Unique”

Nelson-Mandela-in-public-hd-wallpapers.jpg-228x131Some say there is no future in theological education. Church membership is down almost across the board, with the exception of Pentecostal churches, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Enrollments are down in many seminaries, and the Master of Divinity is widely expected to continue to be a degree that draws consistently fewer applicants each year.

What future? Why would we bother to talk about it?

Lee Hinson-Hasty declares the death of theological education to be premature, and not just because it’s his job. We sat down the other day for a conversation, and Lee pulled the December 10th edition of the New York Times with this Op Ed on Mandela out of his pocket. Mandela did not march into his position of power planning a giant social takeover, but instead led on the strength of the moral authority he had built over years of leadership, whether that leadership took place from a prison or within his party. Institutions of theological education are preparing people, despite the predictions of ultimate destruction. As Lee sees it, these schools are forming people to lead with moral authority and inspire others to join in a shared journey.

Where pastors and Mandela differ is that Mandela’s leadership could have relied on giving orders based on his power, instead of working to persuade people with his moral authority. Pastors in the PC (USA) can’t make other people do anything. They can’t march around and give orders, although pastor’s orders sound like they would be deeply satisfying to give, and difficult to follow. “Believe!” or “Seriously, just go talk to that homeless person over there” or “You guys. I just need you to tell other people at least once in your lifetime that you’re a Christian and why you’re a Christian” or “I’m going to give you a two minute-limit to share your opinions in this meeting, and no one gets to repeat points made previously.”

The power that pastors do have is to lead with genuine moral authority, and inspire others to do the same.

Here’s the thing: people like having the most attractive pastor. Some feel like their church is the best because they use the same strategic planning techniques used by organizational development professors or a social entrepreneurship think tank. While the church has much to learn from the world of business and other sectors, churches and their leaders do not get their authority from having the best model, making the most money, or selling the most products.

Churches are fundamentally different spaces. Churches do not look for the best, most highly qualified members. Churches are not looking for only the wealthy, the attractive, the successful, the most highly educated. Churches do not seek out only the perfect families. Churches look for those who seek or live with doubt. Churches are places that search for those who struggle with mental illness. Churches open their doors to felons. Churches work to ensure there is enough food on the tables of the members of their community. Churches understand we as human beings are connected to the lives of people halfway around the world, and we cannot ignore our own impact, economic and environmental, on others. Church leaders have the privilege of serving the wounded, the unpretty, the struggling. Church leaders can persuade people with the gospel and their own moral authority to live into a better way to be a community, one that is open to the whole people of God instead of exclusive to the well-put-together-who-never-have-any-problems people of God.

Consider what the world would be like if everyone led by the power of their moral authority, and not on the power vested in them by virtue of their positions. It is a lot more work.

We who belong to churches have a faith community that inspires us, and has the potential to elevate us to lead with moral courage and authority. Those of us working out there in the world are confronted with many leadership models in our local, state, and national governments. We see authority where we work and where we go to school. Church has the potential to offer an alternative leadership model, particularly to those regular church people serving in prominent positions in the public and private sectors.

Seminaries and divinity schools are not the places to go to learn command-and-control leadership, or how to terrorize your own staff. They are not primarily focused on skills-based education for creating the best programs or for learning aggressive expansion. Pastors who engage in that kind of leadership learn that somewhere else. Instead, these are spaces of formation for an alternative kind of leadership. Most of these leaders will be footnotes in history, instead of headlines.

The world needs alternatives. Theological education is one of those alternatives.

UntitledLaura Mariko Cheifetz is the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, one of the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Prior to joining PPC, she worked with The Fund for Theological Education and McCormick Theological Seminary. Laura is an ordained teaching elder in the PC (USA). She holds a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University, a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, and a Master of Business Administration from North Park University. She blogs at and can be followed @lmcheifetz

Lee H2 copyLee Hinson-Hasty @leehh is coordinator for Theological Education and Seminary Relations and a lead staff person for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Ordained in 1995, he has served as a campus minister and pastor in Virginia and as director of church relations at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina.  Hinson-Hasty actively engages in dialogue, study and initiatives that foster relationships and leadership development in the church and academy including on his the blog, “A More Expansive View: Encounters with Presbyterians and our Seminaries.”  A graduate of Wake Forest University (BA-History), Louisville Seminary (MDiv), and McCormick Theological Seminary (DMin), Hinson-Hasty is interested in leadership in a multicultural world, serves as Vice Chair of the Fund for Theological Education, is a member of Lectio Jubilate, and is married to the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty.  Elizabeth and Lee are parents of Garrison (13), Emme (7), and a four month old puppy, Basci.

Lighter on Our Feet into the Wide Open Arms of God

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Wendy Fletcher

painted cross copyWriting at the end of the 1960’s, Canadian author Pierre Burton observed that theological education, rather than serving as a vanguard which helped the rapidly changing church blaze a path to the future, functioned instead as a rearguard action that lagged behind the church sweeping up the pieces. Too often, in the immediately preceding decades, this has been all too true.

Of course I do believe that our seminaries and theological schools intended otherwise. However, the weight of the dual expectations of church and academy, so freighted with the commitment to a twentieth century professional model of clerical preparation, and a residual anticipation of the way church in the old world was, imagining itself at the centre of things, theological schools have lumbered.

Theological education for the future will need to be much lighter on its feet. If ever there was a day when its resources are needed in front of the change rather than behind it, that day is today.  Our context is one in which traditional models of Christian practice are in decline and one in which the Spirit of God appears to blowing manifold news forms of Christian practice everywhere on the ground of our culture. Only theological education which embraces this, not as crisis but as kairos – as the opportunity which God is giving us for faithful following in this generation – will thrive.

In this time of change, models of education are required that understand:

  • we are educating communities at the grassroots of church and  society for spiritual leadership and faith based discipleship rather than stand alone individual professionals;
  • learning which deepens spiritual practice – that practice which will keep us alive and able to scatter ourselves as seeds in hope of  God’s new day – is at least as important as the teaching of the classical academic disciplines;
  • we are preparing leaders to live a radically new missiology – one that understands that to live love rather than speak love in relating to this society where our  words of faith are increasingly not intelligible to our culture is key;
  • education that empowers us for faithful discipleship must be accessible to a broad swath of our people, which means it needs to be local, affordable and relevant in the context into which it presumes to speak.

Two things I know: this future will require risk; there is nowhere for us to fall in our risk-taking in faith, but into the wide-open arms of the mercy of God.

May we risk boldly in sure and certain hope of the resurrected life promised in God.

Fletcher, Wendy HeadshotWendy Fletcher is the professor of the History of Christianity at Vancouver School of Theology (VST), a multi-denominational graduate school located on the campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, where she has served for over 10 years. She previously held the position of principal and dean of VST. Prior to her appointment at UBC, the Rev. Dr. Fletcher served for 12 years as professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, Huron College.

For the past two decades Fletcher has worked in a variety of roles with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) of North America. She served for several years as a commissioner on the ATS Accreditation Commission, as an accreditation visitor and as a seminar leader on the subjects of leadership, conflict resolution and women in leadership. In addition to serving as a director and board member of various professional and academic societies, she is the author of numerous published works on women and Christianity, spirituality and religion and ethnicity, and First Nations Education.

Fletcher holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario, a Master of Divinity degree from Huron College, and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael’s College.


Three Observations

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Jonathan Strandjord

children_youth_1Observation #1: Theological Education of Public Leaders is Becoming More Plural in its Forms and at the Same Time More Connected in its Development and Execution

For several decades, Lutheran churches in North America have done nearly all their work in theological education for public ministry using one standard model: an M.Div. structured as two years of on-campus study followed by a one year internship and a final year on campus.  This shared pattern has been seen as a key way our church fosters a connected leadership and a common theological conversation.  In the last few years we’ve added a certificate model, two different ways of doing an M.Div. using distributed learning, and a first-year-online program.  In the next two years we will likely see at least three additional ways of earning the M.Div., including a 2+2  model (two years on campus followed by a two-year residency internship during which one also does course work via intensives and/or online courses), a “fully embedded” model in which  the entire degree is program is done in ministry contexts, and a competency-based program.

So, how’s the whole “connected leadership” thing going in the midst of multiplying diversity?  So far, so good.  For one thing, the development of these new degree models have brought the ELCA seminary deans into much closer and more regular conversation with each other and with other church leaders (especially those related to the candidacy process).  Ideas are being shared, challenged and refined in an extended plurilogue.  And this multiplication of forms is also creating more ways for congregations and other contextual sites to be much more than just sites, but partners in creating new experiments in theological education (which invites them into conversation about why we bother with any of this in the first place).  In short, the multiplication of models has created an opportunity for the church and its seminaries to make theological education something that’s truly all of our business.

Observation #2: We’d Better Get Even More Serious About Theological Education—and Not Just for Pastors

The theological education of the laity has always mattered.  It matters more now than in a long time.  Our members today are far less likely than they were even just two or three decades ago to simply pick up from the surrounding culture the basics of the biblical story and faith’s wisdom.  We swim in a rising river of competing messages and narratives, a very high percentage of them aiming to sell us something. More and more we are addressed as consumers, customers.  And since “the customer is king”, we find ourselves in the sad, lonely, dangerous position of all monarchs: continuously manipulated and flattered, it is so easy to fall into simply buying the lies or (just as dangerous) becoming cynical.

Given the acute need this situation creates for the discernment that faith’s wisdom makes possible, the church’s work in the theological education of the laity is more important than ever.  But our longstanding patterns of lay education have relied on a cultural consensus that left some times open and basically uncontested for purposes of religious practice and education.  That calendrical consensus is basically over and we find ourselves struggling to find new patterns for fostering both biblical literacy and theological fluency.

The current weakness in theological education of the laity greatly limits the vitality of the church and, over time, acts to negate effectiveness of the theological education received by pastors and other leaders who graduate from our seminaries. For the United States has a deeply democratic culture. This is not to say that our political, economic and social institutions are in fact true to the principles of democracy.  Rather, having a “democratic culture” simply means that leaders (whether they actually are democratic or are in fact profoundly elitist or even thoroughly tyrannical) have to speak and act in terms that are broadly accessible if they are to be effective. Thus in a church where theological wisdom is not broadly accessible, church leaders move to operating primarily out of something else that is (such as the categories of popular psychology, family and group dynamics, management theory, the market).  No matter how excellent college and seminary theological education is, when our graduates find themselves swimming in a pool with a low theological temperature (a community where there is very little practice of  theological study, reflection and conversation), the powerful tendency is for our graduates’ own temperature to drop to match their surroundings rather than vice versa.[1]  To put it bluntly, if we can’t find ways to strengthen the theological education of laity, the theological education of pastors won’t matter—at least for long.

Observation #3: There’s a Lot of Lay Theological Education that Needs to Happen in Congregations—But it Can’t All Be Done There

Our seminaries need to prepare and support the church’s public leaders so they can serve as front-line theological educators in congregations.  Indeed, we need to significantly upgrade their preparation to strengthen congregations as learning communities.

At the same time, we need to move beyond treating these congregational learning communities as being almost entirely self-contained circles.  For one thing, it is very difficult for any but the largest congregations to offer the range of learning opportunities that would be adequate to equipping people to be able to live, work and relate faithfully, wisely and generously to the wide and expanding range of others with whom they relate in a globalizing world. Add to this the end of the calendrical consensus noted above that makes it very hard indeed to regularly engage a critical mass of learners for any length of time in a single local faith community—well, a rich array of educational opportunities becomes a practical impossibility in even the largest congregation if it works alone.   We need to create more trans-congregational educational efforts, lay schools, and digitally-mediated learning communities (all resourced by and resourcing our seminaries) that can grow to knit the whole church together in a theological education network.  If we can do this, we will have a wider, deeper and more durably connected leadership than we’ve ever had before.


[1] Joseph Sittler’s essay “The Maceration of the Minister” made this point vividly already several decades ago.

Strandjord, Jonathan PicJonathan Strandjord has served since 1998 as the Director for Seminaries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  His work centers on strengthening the ELCA’s theological education network through deepening collaboration among the eight seminaries and expanding cooperation with their many co-workers in the ELCA, its ecumenical partners and global companions.

Engaging and Changing the World

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Susan Fox

impossible copyThe Huffington Post recently published an article by Wayne Meisel, a Presbyterian minister whose many hats include working with the Faith3 initiative. This program is designed to support and resource the Church in its efforts to share the gospel with young adults in ways that significantly impact their lives. The title of the Post article,“Seminaries that Change the World. A Growing List of Transitioning Institutions for Transformational Times,” grabbed my attention immediately. Now, those of us connected with theological education do a lot of talking about our formative and transformative work with students and institutions (i.e., “the church”), and often that language shows up in seminary mission and vision statements. But changing the world? That’s an audacious claim, except for the fact that this is exactly what Christ calls us to do.

Since the title further suggests that there’s a list of such seminaries, of course I quickly skimmed the article to learn which ones made the cut. Sure, the organization behind this concept doesn’t pretend to be the final arbiter of seminary status and worth. It’s a tiny upstart with a big heart. Still, which seminary doesn’t want to be among the “world-changing” elect?

Being included in a list of world-changing seminaries by a program that has no official standing or power may appear to be an empty honor, but what about the underlying premise? Seminaries that change the world must engage the world. Herein lies the trajectory of theological education both now and in the future. Our charge: to understand and effectively prepare leaders to serve in a world that bears little resemblance to the world in the days when the concept of a classic theological education first appeared. The tasks that confront the new pastor or educator today include what we might describe as “traditional” ministry but set in a context that is increasingly diverse and complex. A seminary that crosses its academic fingers and hopes its graduates learn how to navigate one’s ministry context post-graduation is fortunately becoming a thing of the past.

The Presbyterian and Reformed Theological Field Educators caucus is a close-knit group of colleagues who are, obviously, passionate about contextual education. As a member of that group for twenty-four years, I’ve seen exciting developments in our discipline. To do our work we must have one foot in the academy and the other in the church and world. Our contextual settings for internships increasingly intersect the multi-faith and multi-ethnic realities of society. Targeted internships in small membership congregations promote discernment of call while introducing students to a growing denominational demographic. In one of the most exciting developments in years, our students now have the opportunity to engage in new church developments through the 1001 Worshipping Communities initiative. Through participation in this program, students learn 21st century ministry skills such as entrepreneurship, evangelism, and discipleship. Most important, perhaps, is the paradigm-shifting experience of taking the church to the people, broadening the concept of “church” to include non-traditional formats.

There is much to be excited about in theological education today and in the future. There is also much work and, yes, reforming, to be done. In an age in which the futures of denominations and seminaries are subjects of serious speculation, it seems imminently clear that stasis is not an option. The driver of the evolving and future shape of theological education is found largely in the two adjectives in Meisel’s titular phrase, “Transitioning institutions for transformational times.” Gone are the days when theological education could be limited to a three-year immersion of Bible, history, and theology and the hope that any other necessary ministerial formation would occur in the first call context. Not only is that poor pedagogy for today; it is inadequate preparation for ministry in a world that is, in popular jargon, a hot mess. Information is not enough. Today’s seminaries are charged with teaching students whose gifts may not include familiarity with the language, disciplines, and traditions of faith. Our graduates walk into ministry settings that expect them to be more than founts of knowledge. They must hit the ground able to provide leadership in a community and world that is culturally and religiously complex, technologically sophisticated, politically charged, and populated with a growing number of “nones” and aging baby-boomers.

I suspect that Meisel and his small band of colleagues in the Faith3 endeavor are onto something important. By putting forth a definition of a “world-changing” seminary, they have thrown down a curriculum-challenging ethos-examining gauntlet. Even a small “world-engaging” step is a step in the right direction. Seminaries that change the world, according to the selection criteria, develop a culture of sustained engagement on campus and offer courses and programming that integrate knowledge, faith and service. Internships—as important as they are—cannot be the sole realm of that engagement. Other professional degree programs such as k-12 education require students to participate in practicums from day one. Some seminaries are doing the same by adding diverse contextual learning experiences throughout the three years of the M.Div. degree program. Others offer young adults free on-campus housing or seminary scholarships if they participate in AmeriCorps or Peace Corps for a year before they matriculate.

Students and churches should not be the only foci for formation and transformation. Our seminaries too, fall under the same mandate. Perhaps that notion should be written into our mission and vision statements lest we fall victim to our own hubris. Nineteenth century historian Henry B. Adams wrote “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Change – shifting gears – tends to make us nervous, especially in uncertain times. The exciting news is that the spirit of change is wafting through our theological institutions, the Church and through the world.

Give us open minds, O God, ready to see and embrace the new thing that You are calling us to do in our seminaries, churches, and world. May we resist the urge to cling so tightly to the past that we set limits on the future. Surprise us with new possibilities as we strive t0 make a difference in this world. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Fox, Susan picIn November of 2013 Susan Fox entered her twenty-fifth year of service at Union Presbyterian Seminary. An administrator and faculty member, Susan directs the Supervised Ministry and Vocational Planning office. She characterizes her work today at Union as bridging academics with practical ministry during a critically important and energizing time in the life of the Church.

Image: altay

What Is Coming and Becoming in Doctor of Ministry Education?

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Jeff Japinga

railroad copyWe’ve all heard the tales of woe about the declining place and role of the church in the West. The statistics are real, the reality at times staggering. Gather with clergy, and at some point, the talk inevitably turns to survival.

Except when it doesn’t. Last spring, gathered with a couple dozen McCormick doctor of ministry students on the eve of their graduation, I invited each of them to say just a few summary words about their DMin studies and its impact on their ministries. One-by-one, they stood, and by the time all of them had spoken, I had heard the collective voice of a modern-day Jeremiah, expressing their dream for the church with the same verve and confidence of the prophet: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jer 29:11, CEB)

It is because of the work of people like Rachel, Antonio, Ranjith, Llewellyn, Annika, that I believe doctor of ministry education stands squarely at the crossroads of the church’s future. In dynamic, interactive, ministry-oriented classrooms across North America, experienced leaders like these five are bringing their hopes and dreams, their successes and failures, their love for the church and their respect for each other, and putting it all into honest and open dialogue with Scripture, theology, tradition, and contemporary thought.

The result is a new generation of leaders ready and able to ask the right questions, in specific places and contexts and circumstances, that is making the gospel alive and relevant in their own places of ministry. In the dynamic interaction of instructor and student, peers and congregations, research and development, study grounded squarely in ministry joins an individual student’s work to God’s work in the world, in the words of my colleague David Hester at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

At San Francisco Seminary, “We ask several questions of our students as they begin DMin studies,” says Virstan Choy. “‘At this point in your ministry, what are the real-life challenges your ministry needs to address?  What conditions in the life of the people you serve need the response of ministry?  What resources and tools for that ministry are missing and need to be developed?  How might something you work on be something your colleagues will see to be a real contribution to their practice of ministry?’  If students come back and report that they could not find already researched material or already developed approaches to a particular problem, we suggest that they will be the ones to do that research, they will be the ones to do that development.”  Incubators for innovation was how Jack Haberer described DMin programs in a September 2013 edition of Presbyterian Outlook.

Every day, at the grocery store, or the gas pump, or the workplace, we encounter first-hand what it means to live in an increasingly flat, globalized, third-millennium world. But what is the gospel for a third-millennium world? That’s what DMin students are working on, in areas of preaching, evangelism, cross-cultural studies, discipleship–new and sustainable practices that are helping our churches today build relevant ministry in their own congregations and communities, and in ministries as diverse as hospital and prison  and college chaplaincies, interfaith settings, and non-profit service agencies.

I know there was a time when DMin programs carried some not-so-flattering descriptors: the cash-cow (for the seminaries); a ticket to a bigger church (for its holders); a cheap and easy title. Whether accurate or exaggerated then, what DMin programs are now is nothing of the sort. Today, a DMin points to a future we ignore at our own peril.

That’s what I think is right with the doctor of ministry degree. Here’s what’s wrong with it: the numbers. For all the potential for DMin grads to inspire and mobilize the church of the future, the church boiler, a child’s college fund, the local food pantry–all things good and right–too often restrict the church and pastor’s capacity to invest in its future. In the end, the tuition needed and the tuition available simply do not match, and thus too few people have the opportunity to dream and to create.

There are no simple answers for the challenges faced by the church in North America. No one-day seminar or trendy music style will refill our pews. No quick fix will balance our budgets. And yet, having seen their work firsthand, I stand with my DMin students, and those of my colleagues, in believing that the future of the church is “filled with hope.” And I stand behind them as the leaders who will guide us there.

JJapingaThe Rev. Dr. Jeffrey S. Japinga has served as associate dean for doctor of ministry programs at McCormick since 2008.  Jeff received a B.S. in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, an M.Div. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and a D.Min. from McCormick Theological Seminary.  Prior to joining the McCormick faculty, Jeff served for twenty-one years on the denominational staff of the Reformed Church in America and taught at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. An ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, Jeff leads workshops in the areas of leadership, decision-making, and Christian formation.


Anchoring-Tethering: A Perspective on Present-Future Theological Education

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Neal Presa

tether copyLeonard Sweet in Viral describes two tribes: Gutenbergers and Googlers. Gutenbergers are accustomed to the one-dimensionality of what paper expresses and are more comfortable with paper books and paper essays, not as adept with the Information Age and its multiple platforms. Googlers were born into the Internet Age.

Sweet says that in a so-called TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPad, Facebook) world, two things are needed: an EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-rich, connective) approach to communication that values an MRI (missional, relational, incarnational) way of being.

Now, it is possible for those who are Gutenberger in their biological age to be Googlers in their way of seeing and engaging the world; likewise, it is possible for those who are Googler in age to be Gutenberger in their approach to faith and life.  What 21st century contexts continually show is an approach to theological education and vocational formation which Googlers understand quite well.

In a TGIF world where EPIC and MRI are needed, Googlers show us that it is not so much about installing PowerPoint projectors, or requiring iPads in the classroom, or going the distance-learning route; although all those are helpful in classroom pedagogy for many reasons.  Googlers live with a hermeneutic of the world that is nimble, that is multilingual, that is interdisciplinary, that seeks the flourishing of the entirety of humanity.  TGIF – the world in which Googlers were born, reared, studied, and are working in – showed them Instagram images, iReports, Tweets, Facebook statuses and Youtube videos of what Craig Barnes called in his inaugural address as Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, “Beauty and Truth.”  Googlers see the truth of suffering on micro- and macro- scales, from the enormous effects of a Philippine typhoon to human trafficking to millions dying of malaria. Googlers also see the beauty when humanity – whether of a Christian faith tradition or not – runs to the aid of a Boston marathoner, or heroically climbs 80 flights of stairs of a crumbling World Trade tower.

Theological education in the Reformed tradition for a 21st century world requires us to orientate our methods, our approach, and our own theology of theological education in such way so that anchoring-tethering occurs: i.e. confidently and passionately anchored to the healing, reconciling Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, while humbly and generously tethered to the Reformed traditions.

Anchoring tells us to whom we belong, our core identity, the substance of who we are. We are people of the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit who has baptized us, called us, sent us, gathers us. But we belong to a particular community, a specific neighborhood in the body of Christ called the Reformed tradition. And even then, those of us in the United States are part of the Reformed tradition that has taken an American form of Calvinism, which is somewhat different from the Calvinism in parts of Africa, in parts of Asia, in parts of Latin and South Americas. These multiple contexts require tethering.

Still yet, we are members of the human family, a planet of 7 billion people. The multiplication of contexts require tethering. We belong to a community, where there is identity and belongingness, but we are not locked nor prevented to engage the richness of diversity in the human family.

Faithful and full engagement in multiple contexts requires multilinguality (not literally learning Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Italian, Swahili – although it could mean that too!), but being able to converse with and be conversant in multiple subjects, perspectives, methodologies, approaches; in other words, being nimble and flexible so as to offer authentic presence and to be authentically present.

I am privileged to be teaching at New Brunswick Theological Seminary (NBTS), the oldest seminary in North America founded in 1784, nestled in the heart of Rutgers University in central New Jersey.  It is one of the two seminaries of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). We also have a campus presence at St. John’s University in Queens, New York City.  While anchored to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and tethered to the Reformed tradition of the RCA, NBTS’s student body, staff community and faculty are not majority RCA. Our faculty is diverse – half of whom are people of color, more than half are not RCA. Our faculty and students come from Baptist, Pentecostal, AME, and non-denominational churches, as well as RCA and PC(USA).  Our academic dean is the first African American and first non-RCA (he comes from the American Baptist tradition) in NBTS’s history.

Many of our own PC(USA) seminaries are in a similar place of serving an increasingly diverse student body.  While an anchoring-tethering approach may instill a certain sense of angst for folks who want to insure the endurance and durability of what they have been accustomed to as THE Reformed tradition, a TGIF 21st century world calls us to take risks, knowing who and whose we are as anchored in the Gospel, tethered to the Reformed traditions, and following the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us to be in solidarity with humanity. . .an approach which our Lord Jesus taught his disciples in their own theological education and vocational formation.

Presa, Neal PictureNeal is a Filipino American, serving as pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church (NJ), Affiliate Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and Extraordinary Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the North-West University in Potschefsroom, South Africa.  He is also Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Neal studied at Drew University (Ph.D, M.Phil. in liturgical studies/liturgical theology), Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.M. in pastoral theology), San Francisco Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Westminster Theological Seminary California (graduate theology/history courses), and the University of California, Davis (B.A. in political science summa cum laude and history cum laude). Born in Guam, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now living in New Jersey, Neal and his wife have two sons. Neal enjoys hanging out with his family and friends, traveling, fine wine and great food, working out, reading, and politics.

Image: D Young