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