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 Daniel Aleshire
Theological schools are two-faced, on purpose, as it should be. One face is toward the church with its mission to nurture lives of faith and bring healing to the world’s brokenness. Another face is toward higher education, with its responsibility to teach what is known and discover new knowledge.
This moment in North America finds both the church and higher education in significant, even transformational, change. Patterns of congregational life and religious participation are changing in substantive ways, and every practice and convention in higher education that has not changed is being considered for change. Because theological schools are “two-faced,” they are encountering a double dose of change. Change is hard on congregations that shift patterns of worship to meet the needs of people they want to reach, and change is hard for higher education with its long legacy of teaching and advancing knowledge in particular ways. Change is hard for theological schools as well, but they are mission-driven institutions, and their mission makes them as responsible for pressing new needs as for remembering the long tradition of communities of faith. Seminaries are changing in ways both large and small. Here are three of the big ones.
- Some schools are broadening their educational reach beyond educating students for leadership in congregations. While congregational leadership remains a centerpiece of seminary programs, an increasing number of theological schools have begun educational programs in counseling, Christian social ministry, leadership studies, or justice ministries. These programs provide education for religious leaders that extend the witness and ministry of the church in settings related to churches and in settings that do the work of the church but are not directly connected to ecclesial bodies.
- Other schools are broadening their educational reach to persons who work part-time or bi-vocationally in ministry settings. These people have been unable to take advantage of the educational resources of theological schools because they were not near a school or because the school’s course offerings did not meet these ministers’ needs. Seminaries have been busy developing extension sites and distance learning programs that make theological education more accessible than it has ever been. They are reinventing their educational programs so that pastors and other religious leaders who work at one job for their living and at another for their vocation have access to the kind of education that can support their vocations.
- Still other schools are reinventing their economic models. At one time, theological schools were largely funded by denominations or church bodies, and graduates accepted calls after graduation with limited or no debt to repay. The church funding of theological education has declined across the past fifty years. Schools have been hard at work finding individual donors who will support the schools, but tuition has also had to increase. Schools most recently have been hard at work to help students monitor their educational borrowing, help students find ways to pay for theological education without taking on debt, and find ever more donors who will support the costs of theological education so that students do not need to bear a disproportionate share of the cost through tuition.
Dan Aleshire is Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS), a membership organization of more than 260 graduate schools. ATS conducts post-baccalaureate professional and academic degree programs to educate persons for the practice of ministry and for teaching and research in the theological disciplines. Aleshire has written extensively on issues of ministry, theological education, Christian spirituality and Christian education. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Belmont College, the Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tenn.