How seminaries are innovating to more effectively train the next generation of church leaders.
A changing world demands a changing church. As the job of ministry becomes more challenging, seminaries are innovating to better equip their students. From new delivery methods and course structures to different partnerships and inventive internships, theological schools are shifting paradigms to meet the needs of a diverse group of students.
A DECADE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Back in 2010, most people had a flip phone, iPad seemed like a strange name for Apple’s new tablet computer and seminaries offered courses during business hours for residential students.
A lot has changed since then.
“We have become more student-centric in both our course and modality offerings,” says Tommy Lister, vice president for academic procedures, planning and learning excellence at Fuller Theological Seminary. “We are more online, more hybrid and more flexible in our scheduling. As a result, our courses collectively connect students and faculty in over 120 countries worldwide. The richness that comes from such diversity is extraordinary.”
“All seminaries are offering shorter degrees, in easy-to-apply formats and with less research required,” says Scott Sunquist, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “We all struggle to keep our expectations and standards high.”
Not only has the approach to education changed, but seminary students are different today as well.
“Like many seminaries, Talbot initially started as a place for men to train for pastoral ministry,” says Clint Arnold, dean of the Talbot School of Theology. “Today, nearly a third of our students are women. Talbot has become increasingly diverse with about 60% of our student population being nonwhite and reflecting the range of ethnic groups represented in Southern California.”
Lynn Cohick, provost/dean and professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, notes, “Our counseling M.A. students tend to be younger, just out of undergrad or in their late 20s. Some of our biblical studies M.A. students who want to go on for a Ph.D. are younger. Those seeking an M.Div. tend to be a bit older.”
The changes in the student body go beyond demographics. More and more students are regular, in-the-pew Christians who desire to deepen their knowledge of Scripture and God. They are turning to nondegree alternatives like Seminary Now, a subscription-based, streaming video platform, as well as traditional seminaries.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about seminary is that it is only for senior pastors or preachers. While seminary is clearly going to be beneficial for them, it actually is something that benefits all believers,” says Edward Herrelko, executive director of marketing and communications at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). “We have students who are professionals in the workforce, who are stay-at-home parents, who are in the military and law enforcement, who are doctors and nurses. The professional diversity that is represented in our student body is amazing, and it’s changing to more professionals who simply want to be prepared to fulfill God’s calling on their lives.”
Gone, too, are the days when students wanted to graduate as quickly as possible.
“We now have students who take their time and want to go deeper into certain subjects,” says Herrelko. “As the students get older and they try to balance life and work with their education, they tend to be part-time students and go a bit slower in their coursework.”
Cohick agrees. “I think in the past, M.Div. students put their lives on hold and traveled to seminary to prepare for ministry. Today, students fit seminary into their full schedules, which means they take fewer classes each year, and thus take longer to graduate.”
PIVOT TO ONLINE
Since today’s student body is so diverse, a one-size-fits-all model of education won’t work. Schools across the country are adapting to accommodate students, starting with online education.
While most seminaries had an online component prior to COVID-19, the pandemic sent those efforts into overdrive with schools scrambling to provide all instruction virtually. The pandemic also provided an opportunity for schools to reassess their technology and approaches.
“We’ve integrated more technology into the classroom and even the professors’ home or office,” says Bo Rice, dean of graduate studies and associate professor of preaching and evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “We started using synchronous learning for students who were displaced but still desired as much personal interaction as possible. We also expanded our use of asynchronous technology where students can log on to watch a video that was recorded that same day instead of a year ago (or longer). This keeps our lectures and material up-to-date and relevant.”
Aaron Johnson, Denver Seminary’s associate dean of educational technology and author of Online Teaching with Zoom, explains that the challenge facing all seminaries now is to serve the different needs of very different students.
“All of our courses are available in distance learning formats, including online asynchronous courses, 100% videoconferenced courses and on campus courses that have videoconferencing accommodations,” he says. “For those students who have moved here from out of state, we want to preserve the on campus options. However, we also know that circumstances are constantly changing, and those same students may need a way to attend class from home. Others work full-time and take asynchronous courses because they are fitting their education into their demanding lives. The key has been to offer a strong variety of courses so that students have options.”
Providing education through different methods has become standard at other seminaries, too. DTS began to “do more prep work for what we call ‘remote viewing’ where live courses are taught in the classroom and online simultaneously,” says Herrelko. “It allows students who cannot come to campus to actually participate in real time.”
“I don’t know of anyone who would argue online learning and other asynchronous forms of learning are better than the traditional classroom pedagogy; however, as students find opportunities to serve in communities and villages all over the world, educators must do whatever it takes to equip those students where they serve now,” says Rice. “While we still highly value the traditional on campus learning model, we adapt our methods to impact the ever-changing needs of our students and the churches they serve.”
However, the more virtual classes become the norm, the more important it is for instructors to establish relationships with students outside of class.
“The digital revolution is not yet complete. Continued advances in technology will have an ongoing impact on learning and how education is mediated. But there will always be a place for in person and face-to-face contact,” says Arnold. “There is nothing that can replicate having a meal together and lingering around a table with meaningful conversation. Contact time between professors and students will become much less lecture-based and far more interactive.”
Online education in all its forms has put a spotlight on the practical aspects of ministry and how best a seminary can help develop those skills. There is, after all, so much that can be learned in a classroom.
Scott Wenig, professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary, understands the importance of including practical training elements and courses within the seminary, but cautions, “Apart from preaching and a little pastoral ministry, seminary cannot teach much about practical ministry because most professors are academics, not pastors/leaders, and it’s difficult to teach skills in an academic context. Preaching is the exception here, but even that is limited simply because most of us only get better as we practice over time.”
One practical training solution is internships, and schools like the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity assist students in finding internships in a variety of ways. According to Interim Dean Troy Temple and Online Dean Gabriel Etzel, “The pandemic has required us to come up with multiple contingency plans for student internships and practicums, which include serving with ministries with a strong digital presence, serving at headquarter offices in the U.S. for various global ministry organizations and assisting ministries in developing digital platforms.”
It’s not just internships that can help prepare future church leaders—mentoring and partnerships also play key roles.
“We partner with local churches and parachurch organizations to supplement the education that students receive through the use of technology,” says Rice. “In fact, I like to say that our mentoring program is taking the very best of what the seminary does online and partnering with the local church and/or ministry to give the student the real-world life application in their current context. Faculty members teach courses from the main campus and direct students in their conversations with their mentors. Mentors are not required to teach any material—they simply supplement what the faculty member teaches weekly. This incredible delivery method has opened the door to students possibly receiving almost half of their degree while working with their local church and/or ministry.”
At Gordon-Conwell, partnerships with denominations also help the school stay on top of needs and concerns in the church.
“Working closely with a denomination keeps us in touch with local church ministries,” says Sunquist. “On the denomination side, we bring a more robust reflection on theology and mission that local churches do not have the luxury to pursue. There is a good discourse in such relationships that, I would argue, will be good for the future of Christianity in North America.”
Training future church leaders must be tied to the local church, according to Daniel Aleshire, former executive director for the Association for Theological Schools and author of Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education (Eerdmans, March 2021).
“The congregation is where human hurt, need, hope and failure are manifested in individual lives. If theological schools do not know what is happening in congregations, they can’t educate leaders for congregational leadership,” he says, adding that congregations need theological schools, too. “The faith is best served when schools pay careful attention to the work and worry of congregations, and congregations take seriously the scholarship of faith that is advanced in theological schools.”
Many seminaries are proactively cultivating relationships with local churches. DTS’ partnerships with churches range from those that provide internships to individual students to those that host seminary courses on their campuses to those that have a fully integrated degree program that blends the school’s theological and biblical expertise with the ministry DNA of the church.
Talbot has had an informal relationship with many churches throughout Southern California and is building formalized partnerships with churches and parachurch organizations that have their own in-house training programs. At the Rawlings School of Divinity, staff is committed to putting ministerial training back in the hands of the local church by letting churches take the lead in building more intentional experiential learning opportunities into the curriculum.
THE SEMINARY OF THE FUTURE
Given the enormous changes 2020 has brought, it is difficult to picture what seminary education will look like in the future, but school leaders have ideas. (Sunquist and Aleshire expand on their visions in “Reimaging Theological Education” and “Formational Theological Education” below.)
Herrelko believes seminary education will be more open and available thanks to technology.
“It’s very difficult to get a visa and study in the U.S. But all over Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia, the Christian church is growing at a rapid pace,” he says. “There are pastors who lack training, Christians with a hunger for the Word of God and people who want a seminary education. The seminary of the future has to have a way to educate people where they are at, across the globe.”
Cohick thinks the trend to access courses via Zoom or asynchronously online will continue because this flexibility helps students remain in their jobs and stay connected to their families and churches. “I don’t think the desire for residential courses will go away, but intensives or weeklong experiences will continue to be in high demand.”
From a practical standpoint, Herrelko says tomorrow’s seminary must remain affordable. “Higher education in general has seen years of large pricing increases that way outpace inflation and the cost of living. Seminary education cannot fall into the trap of pricing itself out of existence. But this is tough for many schools that rely on tuition revenue.”
Because she believes they will want ways to put what they have learned into action, Cohick says tomorrow’s students “will expect more in the way of what I might call practical ministry applications of their biblical and theological training. They will expect more tools to combat social injustices.”
Amos Yong, chief academic officer and dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and School of Theology at Fuller Seminary, advises seminaries to consider three interrelated aspects as they envision the future.
“Seminaries need to clearly communicate the outcomes of theological education they are nurturing, not only in terms of competencies of students but also the skills and capacities of graduates for the church, organizations or other spheres within which seminary alumni emerge and develop as leaders, that the latter are considered essential. Such indispensability involves seminary courses and programs forming students for Christian discipleship and participation in the mission of God that works for the redemption of a hurting world.
“Students want flexibility to make progress in their theological education and value interpersonal relationship and access to renowned faculty,” he continues. “Excellence in online pedagogy and intensive face-to-face instruction with core faculty will mark such theological education at its best.
“Finally, the seminary of the future will be constituted increasingly by those from many nations, tribes, languages and ethnicities. Faculty, curricula and other initiatives and programming will need to be attuned to and engaged with–theologically, missiologically and otherwise–these realities.”
No matter if the delivery methods, student body or technologies change, the mission of seminaries remains the same.
“Seminaries must never forget that they exist for the local church,” says Rice. “Whether a student moves to the main campus or takes the majority of classes online, success will be determined by how they function and lead in the church while in seminary and after graduation.”
Read more on seminaries at OutreachMagazine.com/seminary.
Reimaging Seminary Education
A Different Approach to Teaching Is Key
By Scott Sunquist
Theological education in the West, even evangelical theological education, has failed.
Here is evidence of our failure: About 8% of Americans under the age of 30 are evangelical, compared to 25% of Americans in their 60s. That means in less than two generations—during the time of the growth of evangelical seminaries, evangelical student ministries and the crusades of Billy Graham—evangelicalism has declined by over 66%.
We must repent and admit that our theological education did not respond to the changing trends in our society and in our subcultures if we are going to move forward. It may be best to think of restarting how we do theological education.
Looking at the technological, demographic, global and social trends (and after much reading and many conversations with Christian leaders who are better informed than I about some of these areas), I have come up with six themes that we must reflect on if we are going to be more responsible in our calling:
1. Take contexts seriously.
2. Form disciples—don’t “teach” students.
3. Teach empathy.
4. Teach humility.
5. Make evangelists.
6. Keep theological education communal, even when it is online.
This does not mean we stop teaching good Greek exegesis. Instead, it means that when we teach it we must be aware of teaching it in such a way that we help our students on their path to greater empathy and awareness of contextual issues in hermeneutics. For the past decades we have taught in a very similar manner, a very similar content and with a very similar detachment from social changes and challenges to the faith. That has to change.
For example, we should ask how reading electronically is different from reading actual books that you can hold and scan across pages. The answer is that it is very different, and the difference may determine what is learned. Closely related is how we respond to social media; this is a spiritual matter that relates to virtue formation.
We are right to teach Bible, theology, counseling and evangelism, but we need to think differently about how we are teaching, and more fundamentally, how we understand the task. We, in the pattern of Jesus, must be forming disciples in community.
—Scott Sunquist President Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Formational Theological Education
A New Model for Seminaries
By Daniel Aleshire
Education for ministry is influenced by the needs of communities of faith and the cultural context in which those communities undertake their work. Theological schools have changed in many ways to address the changing expressions and needs of ministry in congregations and faith-based organizations. Not as much, perhaps, as churches would like schools to change, but they have changed a great deal.
The changes needed to address a shifting cultural context are more subtle and, perhaps, more profound. Across several decades now, Americans have grown increasingly suspicious of the value of religion, evidenced by declining confidence in religion and trust in religious leaders. Part of the reason for this decline is the moral failure of religious leaders.
I am proposing that the next model of theological education must take more responsibility for the moral, relational and Christian formation of theological students.
Formational theological education, as I intend the term to be used, includes the educational goals that enhance moral character, spiritual maturity, and relational integrity as well as the pedagogical practices that are necessary to attain these goals. My proposal is that, in addition to teaching the content of faith and the skills religious leadership requires, theological schools need to assume more responsibility for students’ authentic formation in faith, in relational integrity and in moral maturity. Religion cannot make its case in a suspicious cultural context if Christian leaders are not truly Christian and relationally mature. It cannot assert a believable prophetic witness if leaders are prone to moral failure.
Theological education has always been formational, in one sense of the word. Students’ study of Romans as an academic pursuit, for example, has formed them in the intellectual understanding of the text. That study could, and I think should, influence how they understand themselves to be Christians, but how the text influences Christian identity and commitment has not typically been a goal of a course on Romans. Preparing and preaching sermons for a homiletics class forms students in how to communicate a text with skill, but the traditional educational goals of preaching classes have seldom focused on what preaching does for or to the preacher’s own faith.
Seminaries tend to change by adding something new to their existing practices rather than giving up an old practice in order to take on a new one. This can be problematic at times, but in the case of my proposal for the next theological education, it is exactly what is needed.
Schools need to continue their efforts to educate leaders in the content of the Christian faith and the skills necessary for religious leadership. This kind of education, however, is no longer sufficient. Schools also need intentional and thoughtful efforts to cultivate relational integrity, moral character and spiritual maturity. This addition will require theological schools first to accept responsibility for these qualities as outcomes of good theological education and then adjust learning goals and educational efforts to address these desired outcomes.
—Daniel Aleshire Former Executive Director Association for Theological Schools