The Future Shape of Theological Education

Andy Crouch

Only the most confirmed optimist could say that these are cheerful times for North American seminaries. In the five years spanning 2007 to 2011, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reported a decline in its schools’ full-time-equivalent enrollment of 5.3 percent (from 49,883 to 47,244), even though the ATS added 11 additional member schools during those years. Notably, the degree program with the greatest percentage decline was the M.Div., the centerpiece of seminary education. Over 75 percent of the ATS’s member schools enroll fewer than 300 students (including part-timers).

Meanwhile, the cost of graduate theological education, like all higher education, has been increasing faster than inflation for a generation — the average M.Div. costs $41,580 over three years. And seminaries have the dubious distinction of offering one of the few graduate degrees (the other that comes to mind is the M.F.A.) that on average decreases the lifetime earning power of its recipients.

Not so long ago, a seminary degree was at least a pathway to a relatively predictable career, akin to a degree in education — not well-paying but fairly secure. This is no longer true. Fuller Theological Seminary Provost D. McConnell relates a conversation with a denominational official who observed that the denomination offers essentially three options to new graduates from seminary. If they are one of a handful of the most talented in their cohort, they may find a position at a large, multi-staff church. Or they can pastor a church that is probably aging, in a neighborhood that no longer reflects the backgrounds of the church members, and spend ten years trying, probably unsuccessfully, to turn it around. Or they can be a church planter and start from scratch with limited denominational support. These are daunting alternatives.

Indeed, to understand the challenges seminaries face, it helps to view seminaries as one part of an ecosystem — a complex, living, and ever-changing environment. Seminaries are ecclesial institutions that are woven into the life of the church, from local congregations to national denominations to international structures of mission and fellowship. They are scholarly institutions whose faculty participate in the professional associations that certify and disseminate cutting-edge research. They are educational institutions that are interwoven with accrediting bodies and government grants and loans for education. They are religious institutions that represent Christian faith in a pluralistic world of many religions. They are community institutions that must be good citizens within their host cities and towns.

This is a complex and fragile environment. Many of the institutions within the seminary’s ecosystem are in the midst of substantial upheavals of their own. Most notably, both congregations and denominations are facing challenges at their very core. The denominations that dominated church life in the middle of the twentieth century are, almost without exception, shrinking numerically, driven by internal conflicts, and grasping for scarce resources. The megachurches that served a quasi-denominational function in the late twentieth century are now also largely on a plateau and wrestling with how to sustain momentum. Many Christian institutions, both church and parachurch, face challenging issues of leadership succession. Meanwhile, educational institutions are facing new scrutiny after several decades of inflation-adjusted cost increases. Scholarly jobs are disappearing, with retiring faculty being replaced by low-cost adjuncts. The dominant culture that once at least paid lip service to the importance of Christian institutions is simultaneously more secular and more attuned to faiths other than Christianity.

In sum, the institutions on which seminaries depend for legitimation, financial support, student recruitment, and job placement for their graduates are almost all markedly weaker than they were a generation ago.

Meanwhile, seminaries, like churches and most other institutions from the modern era, have been plunged into a new ecosystem, the world of media — which we can define as all the ways information is transmitted without requiring personal presence. Of course there have been media for centuries — first, handwritten letters, then increasingly widely available forms of print, books, and periodicals. One of the hallmarks of institutional strength for any seminary is its library, which embodies its connection to the thought and scholarship of generations in the media of print and microfilm.

But the media ecosystem is changing most dramatically and quickly of all. The information content of even the most massive university library is now dwarfed by the information produced and disseminated by the Internet and by the web of wireless communication that surround every resident of the developed world and that are readily accessible even in much of the developing world. As this network adds bandwidth it becomes increasingly immersive and visual, dramatically changing the way children, youth, and adults learn, communicate, connect, behave, and, very possibly, believe. Further, these new media do not just transmit information (as print did). They also shape relationships. They are social media. Institutions that want to thrive have to learn quickly to use these media well.

This ecological upheaval means that we can confidently predict that few seminaries, as we know them now, will exist in fifty years.

But this is less shocking than it sounds since seminaries as we know them now, with their tremendously diverse student bodies, globe-spanning technological capacities, and innovative programs of research and teaching, did not exist fifty years ago either. Seminaries today — at least the healthiest seminaries — are the result of bold choices in the midst of radical changes in institutional, relational, and technological systems. Equally bold choices will be needed in the coming years to deal with several inescapable trends, each one offering both peril and promise.

The Transition to a Visual Age

We are entering the age of “visualcy,” the third great transformation in the way that human beings engage and interpret their world. The first was orality, when the most culturally (and theologically) significant information was communicated and passed from one generation to another in the form of oral tradition, especially stories. Oral cultures may have primitive or even fairly sophisticated systems of writing, but they only use writing for information of secondary importance. The second age was the age of literacy, when significant information was written down and oral information became secondary in importance. The Christian movement originated in the long period of transition between these two ages — Jesus spoke in parables to a largely oral culture, yet within a generation the church was being decisively shaped by Gospels and epistles, as well as the Hebrew Bible.

But now the age of literacy is waning. Today the most compelling and significant information is communicated visually — neither through speech or in writing, but in still and moving images. To be sure, just as literate people do not cease to speak, visually oriented people do not cease to read. Even young Americans spend a great deal of time reading text messages, emails, and blogs. But as a culture shifts from literacy to visualcy, its members give greatest weight to communication that comes in the form of images.

Visualcy poses challenges for a Christian tradition that both shaped and was shaped by the second great transition to literacy. It poses even greater challenges to the task of graduate education. Graduate school in the humanities is the very epitome of the age of literacy, built on reading and writing texts. What do seminaries have to say to a culture that orients itself to the image, not the word (or the Word)? Or to use a better verb, what do they have to show? Seminaries that move actively to foster “visualcy” in their communication, pedagogy, and study will have an opportunity to let the word, and the Word, influence the emerging visual generation rather than be swept aside by it. Film and the visual arts are deeply theological, and utterly essential, areas of study for future church leaders. And every seminary should be considering whether they are equipping their graduates to be excellent practitioners, as well as interpreters, of visual communication.

Generational Transitions

The maternity wards of the US recently became “majority minority” — that is, most babies born today are not White. If there were maternity wards for church births, they would have been majority minority for a long time. Vitality in North American Christianity is concentrated in ethnic minority and immigrant communities. Globally, the same could be said for many new Christian movements, only two or three generations old, in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What is less often remarked is the multigenerational complexity of these movements. As dramatic as the differences are between cultures, equally dramatic differences are emerging between generations. In the US, the greatest discontinuity is often between a first generation of immigrants who speak the language of their country of origin, a second generation that may be able to speak their parents’ mother tongue but prefers English, and a third generation that only speaks English and cannot understand their grandparents. Accompanying these stark linguistic differences are differences of culture that can be the source of tremendous tension. This generational divide is not limited to newly arrived immigrant communities; analogous transitions are occurring in the Black church and are a well-documented phenomenon in established Asian and Hispanic communities. There are equally dramatic changes in economic circumstances and cultural reference points playing out in urbanized communities from Nairobi to Buenos Aires to Seoul.

These generational issues mean that mere extrapolations of the strength of ethnic minority Christianity into the future are too simplistic. The ability of these churches to hold on to their next generation is no less in question than it is for dominant-culture churches. Korean Christianity, just to name one example of a movement that grew dramatically over the last century, is going to face upheavals both in Korea and its diaspora in the coming decades. At best, intergenerational tension can lead to theologically grounded conversation about the shape of a biblical faith that is both countercultural and honoring of cultural traditions. At worst, extreme and theologically naive positions are staked out in the name of generational relevance or cultural continuity.

What role can seminaries play in these stories of identity, conflict, and change? Communities in the midst of generational change need “neutral ground” where they can negotiate theologically informed understandings of identity, leadership, and mission. Seminaries could provide a place for difficult and important conversations to happen between generations — biblically, historically, and theologically rich environments for reflection on what it means to be both aliens and citizens. This will require, of course, not mere token inclusion of diversity, but going deeper into the true meaning of ethnic identity for majority and minority alike.

Entrepreneurship and Leadership

A seminary is an academic institution. Yet most of its students do not become academics. Rather, they are either preparing for leadership in one or another part of the church and wider society or they are already leaders. Students who become pastors, in particular, are often thrust into positions of authority in organizations of significant complexity and, all too frequently, dysfunction.

Few graduates from seminary are prepared for the real-world leadership challenges they face: managing conflict, allocating resources, participating in and convening teams (usually volunteers), communicating vision and direction, and developing others as leaders. These are central to the life of church leadership, but marginal to most seminary curriculums. Indeed, it is not clear that seminaries alone can solve the problem of leadership development. Seminaries could once assume that most applicants for the M.Div. had already been through some level of formal or informal discernment of calling and shaping of character (at one time, many required this as a condition of admission). The wisdom of elders was both more available, thanks to tightly knit church and civic communities, and more relevant, when expectations of leaders and the shape of institutions were relatively stable from generation to generation. To a large extent, seminaries could afford to focus on their historic core disciplines, assuming that both before students arrived and after they left, they were embedded in communities that would shape their skills and character as leaders.

To whatever extent these kinds of healthy communities “upstream” and “downstream” from seminaries once existed, they are much more tenuous today. The ecosystem has changed, and probably for the worse.

However, another part of the ecosystem has become considerably more healthy. For too long leadership studies was an intellectually underdeveloped field of inquiry, rife with anecdote, generalizations, and ill-formed fundamental questions. But with the maturing of leadership studies as an intellectual discipline, it is becoming clear that the best thinking about leadership interacts in profound ways with what theologians call “anthropology” — the way we understand human beings in light of their relationship with God and one another.

Articulating a truly Christian understanding of leadership ought to be one of the most exciting frontiers of theological exploration. And a well-conceived program of leadership education could orient students to the challenges they will face, and make a contribution toward reviving an ecosystem that develops wise and Christ-like leaders for the church and for the wider culture.

The Core and the Edge

The rise of a visual culture, the challenges of ethnic identity, and preparation for leadership — none of these are at the traditional core of seminary education. When they are addressed at all, it is often through efforts on the “edge” of seminaries, sometimes physically at the edge of campus, in the form of institutes and special programs. Meanwhile, the core of seminary education continues to be biblical studies, theology, and history. These are not the only important, or even unique areas that seminaries address. They are, though, at the very heart of what a seminary education provides, a three-legged stool that is the foundation of graduate theological education. Students who do not receive excellent preparation in these fields during seminary will carry truncated and inadequate understandings of the Christian gospel into the next phases of their careers.

No seminary can expect to grow in the coming decades without investing in “edgy” efforts. Almost all organizations grow best at their edges. And yet the consistent response from past, present, and potential students we have interacted with confirms that the “core” is surprisingly important, even for groups that might be attracted to seminary by features of the “edge.” The challenge is to connect the energy at the innovative edge with the depth of the traditional core — and to find ways to make the edge just as rigorous and deeply rooted as the core, while the core becomes just as entrepreneurial and vivid as the edge.

Seminaries that invest too heavily in exciting new projects at the edge, without committing to deep excellence at the core, are likely to find that students (and even faculty, institute staff, and donors) who arrive excited about interdisciplinary work will leave feeling that their seminary career was like the seed sown among the rocks, springing up quickly, but then withering without depth of soil. Seminaries that neglect the need to experiment and explore how to serve new audiences and address pressing questions in church and society at the edge are likely to find that students (and eventually talented faculty, staff, and donors) will never arrive and, thus, never have the chance to discover the richness at the heart of theological education. The seminary of the future will nurture deep roots and expansive and innovative branches at one and the same time.

Adapted from Fuller Theological Seminary’s study “The Seminary of the Future,” by R.J. Mouw and A. Crouch.

Posted Mar 01, 2013