Seminary: All Things to All Students

Fuller Theological Seminary recently announced plans to sell its 70-year-old Pasadena, California, campus and move to nearby Pomona to build a state-of-the-art facility from the ground up. Tod Bolsinger, vice president and chief of leadership formation, says the move will “enable us to do both the highest levels of academic research and graduate education, hybrid and online education with students all over the world, and offer learning experiences and an online learning community of Christian leaders for life.”

Fuller is one of a handful of seminaries moving their main campuses to new locations and/or closing satellite sites to double down on growing trends in online and hybrid education. Southern Evangelical Seminary recently moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with a similar goal of expanding their capacity to serve a growing number of online and residential students. As fewer denominations require formal degrees for church leaders, and more seminary students serve in ministry contexts they don’t want to leave, seminaries are increasingly recognizing the need to diversify and adapt their training options to meet the changing needs of this new breed of student.

Making Education Affordable

According to the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, the average level of debt for those graduates who borrowed grew from $11,043 in 1991 to $25,018 in 2001 and $38,704 in 2011. Couple that with the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 70 percent of students who earned a bachelor’s degree also incurred an average debt load of $29,400, and seminary graduates face a lot of red ink.

A couple of ways seminaries are addressing the rising cost of education include reducing the number of credits required for advanced degrees and providing more online, hybrid and intensive courses at a reduced cost. Fifty percent of Association of Theological Schools member seminaries now require fewer than 90 credit hours for an M.Div., and a number of seminaries now offer a majority of their degrees fully online.

Since Bethel Seminary started offering a number of master and doctoral programs completely online, the school has received positive feedback from many students whose only path to a degree was the online option. Jeannine Brown and Justin A. Irving, co-vice president and deans at Bethel, say, “Our goal is to offer transformational education to students who might not otherwise have been able to get a seminary education.”

Building a Solid Foundation

Seminaries feel an inherent tension between staying on the cutting edge of innovations and trends in online education and ensuring that students graduate with a solid foundation in biblical studies, theology, biblical languages, church history and so forth.

“Seminary education isn’t just a matter of accumulating knowledge, it’s a way of thinking. It’s the building of wisdom and convictional courage,” David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., writes in A New Church and a New Seminary. “Something important is lost when people preparing for ministry don’t ‘go away’ to seminary, or when too much is taught and learned in front of a computer screen.” (Abingdon Press, 2018).

Beeson Divinity School has intentionally bucked the trend toward online education. “We believe theological education should take place face-to-face in community because Christian ministry is necessarily personal and communal,” says associate dean Grant Taylor. “Therefore, we do not offer distance or online education for our degrees. We want our faculty and students to know one another as they worship, study, learn, serve and at times, suffer together in community.”

Keith Whitfield, dean of graduate studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has noticed that more students are coming in with more theological knowledge, but less biblical knowledge. He attributes this trend to “the number of qualified, gifted teachers that our students have access to through conferences and podcasts.” This, and the fact that they are enrolling an increasing number of online students is making the school “rethink online pedagogy and ways to connect with and develop our students for ministry.”

Alan Ehler, dean of the Barnett College of Ministry and Theology at Southeastern University, has also noticed a downtrend in biblical literacy. They have responded by requiring New Testament and Old Testament Introduction classes for their M.Div. and M.A. in Ministerial Leadership students.

Going Beyond Traditional Degrees

Even as seminaries strive to remain true to their roots, there’s an undeniable reality that the needs of seminary students are changing. Only 50 percent of Fuller Theological Seminary’s students go into traditional ministry, says communications manager Britt Vaughan. The other half plans to go into the either nonprofit, government or business sectors. Even among students seeking theological training, the trend is toward online continuing education and practical training, rather than a traditional degree.

“Critics of online education say that it is not as personally engaging. In reality, online education forces every student to engage,” says Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of Fuller’s doctor of ministry program. “No one can sit in the back corner of a classroom and not be a part of the course.”

Fuller recently launched Leadership Platform, an online learning community for lifelong learning, and Fuller Studio, which provides online resources from the faculty directly applicable to the church. Similarly, Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology debuted an online platform called Biola LEARN that provides courses for personal enrichment and growth. Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School offers the Lay Academy of Theology for area laypersons at which faculty members teach short courses (six to eight weeks) in their areas of their specialization. Several schools also offer certificate programs for church leaders who want training in specific areas of ministry.

Since most of it’s students are already in full-time ministry, president Randy Roberts says Western Seminary has put an increased focus on giving its students practical tools for ministry. Each student takes an entry-level course to help them discern their gifting and calling and how best to be equipped for it, since “seminary can be an expensive place for trial and error.” They have also offered an increasing amount of hybrid courses that integrate online and in-classroom learning to reduce commute times, and encouraged professors to integrate homework assignments more into students’ existing ministry.

Championing Diversity

In addition to their changing educational needs, the demographic profile of seminary students grows more diverse with each passing year. Schools have responded by seeking to diversify their faculty and providing more intercultural classes and experiences.

For example, Northern Seminary has recently created Urban Leadership and Christian Community Development tracks. President William Shiell says they are aimed at mobilizing churches “for justice and the gospel wherever they’re located.” They have also intentionally constructed a racially diverse faculty, provided scholarships for persons of color and at the core of their master’s degree programs are deliberate about reading and studying scholars from racially and ethnically diverse communities. “You can’t graduate from Northern without reading James Cone (theologian and advocate of black liberation theology),” Shiell says.

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has introduced a required cultural exegesis course to its M.Div. curriculum as part of a major intercultural ministry project funded by a Lilly Foundation grant. The school also has introduced a popular weekly program called Mosaic that is open to the public and focuses on the importance of reconciliation and intercultural ministry.

Reconnecting with the Local Church

In a recent blog post, James Emery White, lead pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, argued, “Many seminaries are simply irrelevant to contemporary vocational ministry or, even worse, in an adversarial role toward its mission and theology.” In essence, he argues that a disconnect is growing between the priorities of the local church and what seminaries are offering.

Denver Seminary president Mark Young acknowledged this disconnect in a recent interview with In Trust magazine. He says they are seeking closer partnerships with churches and mission organizations because, “We bring a level of expertise that we are best able to provide, and they do the same. … We have to create a better linkage between education and occupation.”

According to Deans Gabriel Etzel and Ed Hindson and Provost and Chief Academic Officer Ron Hawkins, Liberty University has a three-pronged approach to encourage better local church engagement: incorporating experiential learning through internships and practicums in local church contexts, hiring faculty who are also in local church contexts, and creating dedicated staff positions tasked with connecting students with local churches.

Last year, Southeastern University’s Barnett College of Ministry and Theology launched a pastoral advisory board that convenes some of America’s most influential pastors to review its course offerings. Dean Alan Ehler says the aim is to make sure they are “producing graduates who are ready to deal with the unique challenges and opportunities they will face in vocational ministry.”

Northern Seminary is at the forefront of equipping missional leaders for the local church. According to school president William Shiell, they have refocused their vision on the local church in several ways. First, the school has ended its on-campus housing program and now concentrates on commuter and distance learning students. They also have started a new degree program centered on contextual theology that “trains students how to think theologically and to plant and renew churches.” Additionally, Shiell says they have redesigned their supervised ministry year to allow students to “choose the kind of setting where they see themselves later serving (e.g. hospital, church, prison, etc.).” Finally, next year Northern will sponsor a small and rural church conference in Bloomington, Illinois.

Tending the Pastor’s Soul

Burnout has become a real issue in pastoral ministry, and seminaries have been addressing it head-on with a greater focus on spiritual and personal formation.

All master’s level students at Denver Seminary are required to find three mentors from different walks of life, says Marshall Shelley, program director and associate professor of pastoral leadership and ministry. Denver’s leadership classes place an emphasis on self-leadership, and the spiritual formation programs are “at least in part a response to leaders ‘talking further than they’re walking’ in terms of spiritual health,” he says.

Grant Taylor, associate dean for academic affairs at Beeson Divinity School, says, “Friendship is incredibly important for sustaining people in hard work through hard times.” To cultivate this mutual support, students are required to participate in weekly faculty mentoring groups, chapel and shared lunches, and are encouraged to build relationships with faculty members and other students. Samford values this face-to-face interaction so much that it does not even offer online training options.

Talbot School of Theology leads its students through a series of courses, retreats and spiritual direction aimed at spiritual formation. Dean Clinton Arnold says, “We believe that helping facilitate their growth as believers will help them be more effective in ministry to others and to persist in what God has called them to do.”

According to Gary McIntosh, professor of Christian ministry and leadership, Talbot also assigns a professor to follow recent graduates for their first five years—a period during which pastors are statistically more prone to leaving ministry—being available to listen, advise and encourage. He says it’s a major reason around 90 percent of recent grads are still in ministry beyond five years.

Staying Relevant

As the staff at Fuller looks forward to the school’s new chapter in Pomona, they strive to continue its reputation of innovation in increasingly uncertain times.

“Seminaries like Fuller must be courageous enough to chart a new path forward for theological education,” says Fredrickson. “Education must be accessible and affordable and relevant to the changing ministry landscape.”

It’s this ability to adapt to the changing needs of today’s theology students that will be essential for seminaries to be successful in the future.

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