The Church as the future of seminary education – a reflection on Seattle Pacific Seminary

November 7th, 2011 § 0

Over on my blog – I recently spent some time reflecting on a recent spate of posts in the media and blogosphere trying to get at the so-called “Future of Seminary Education”.  The web portal Patheos.com has sponsored a large online symposium addressing the question that continues to grow.

As a seminary graduate myself, faculty member at a few seminaries mentioned in the discussions as well as the Associate Dean at Seattle Pacific Seminary, I have been following the discussion but must admit that I am left scratching my head a bit with what I am seeing as the conclusions and predictions.  Here are some thoughts to add to the discussion.

For starters, given that the changing face of Christianity is certainly not white and male, reviewing just the faces of the key discussion leaders offers up a pretty ethnically and economically homogeneous group to write reflections on what they see as the future… given that they themselves are not the future in a majority sense.

Secondly, just reading through the essays in this online discussion seems to point the focus into strange places – whether it is “innovative pedagogies, online and “hybrid” programs, and praxis-based education“, or stating that”while traditional mainline seminaries are struggling, this is more a reflection of the problem of mainline Protestantism than the future of seminary education in general“, or simply offering *themselves* as the solution by stating that “none of the majors would hire me. If seminaries are to survive, they need to find a place for non-traditional scholars like me” or bring the writer in to be “the Mayor of Seminaryville” as if seminary education can be reduced to a hybrid of Farmville and being the social media mayor of a local resturant ala Fourquare was just all over the place.

Much of what has grieved me thus far with the various essays and blogs aggregated into this discussion is that the conversation seems to be circling around the margins and not the heart of the matter.  Whether it is either renovating the age-old models akin to dropping a Prius hybrid engine into a 1965 Mustang (lines like “new technologies, particularly those associated with “online” or “distance” or “distributed” education, are changing the educational landscape, impacting everything from institutional budgets to pedagogical practices, from pedagogical values to demands on faculty, from student desires to student needs” are peppered throughout just about every response) or assuming that seminary is about personal enrichment and intellectual rigor just seems to fall short of the real issues.  In Kurt Willems’ blog he summed up the pros and cons of seminary in this way:

So yes, seminary is great.  It’s amazing.  It could be tweaked here or there, but theological education in my experience is transformative.  Seminary also sucks.  Sucks students into a financial hole that in this economic climate, might be difficult to dig out of.  Young pastors are slaves, slaves of Jesus Christ and slaves to mammon.  May the church and educational institutions dream about fresh ways to send graduates into the world, to change it – not to worry about paying the mortgage.

In this post as well as many of the ones posted was the core question of affordability – that the big issue is whether the economics of seminary was sustainable and whether it was worth the cost given the debt in relation to our goals whether it is having a mortgage or getting a fair wage.  Certainly something that we need to take seriously and I have counseled my share of students out of seminary because they didn’t have the resources to take on such a journey.  But I think the question is both more basic and more profound.

My two cents on all this? Well, it is a very interesting discussion and certainly one that I encourage readers to chime in on.  But I am left pondering what seems to be missing from the vast majority of essays and blog postings and it sums up with these two words:

The Church

What I just don’t hear in the midst of all the new curricular delivery models, the cost efficiency issues, the personal formation questions and the call to a more diverse, rigorous, fluid, emergent, traditional, engaged, reflective pedagogy is what the church even needs or wants out of all of this.  In what ways does the Church universal need or want what seminary is offering and how has the mantle of power been challenged in the intellectual marketplace so that it is the Church that guides and mandates our curriculum and formation practices and not merely the academic guilds and the intellectual curiosities of tenured white males like myself? This is what I would like to hear more about.  I really don’t think it matters that much whether a course is offered online or in-class if both the faculty and students understand that they are there to ultimately serve the Church in what we do.  Yes, delivery models matter.  Yes, new innovative pedagogical methods need to be looked at.  But after the Church asks us to.  Why?  Because my job as a faculty member and Associate Dean should not be concerned primarily as to what the future of seminary education is until I have wrestled with what the future of the Church is.

To this end faculty and seminary administration (in my estimation mind you) should be responsible to ecclesiastical bodies more so now than ever and students should come to seminary with the blessing of their church… not merely the encouragement of a small group and some intellectual curiosity.  The seminary is a equipping and encouraging community for the sake of the Church before it is to service the various academic guilds and ideological varieties of cultural forces that surround it.  That said, we are not to be exclusive regarding our allegiance and commitment to the Church, but the Church is what the seminary was always intended for.  To put a sharper point on it, if seminaries have outgrown that calling, then they need to own up to it and walk away from the Church to become another player in the various secular guilds (good luck with that by the way…)

Since I am working within a new model of seminary as Associate Dean of Seattle Pacific Seminary, I suppose it is only fair to offer up what we are doing and invite your comments as to what you see in this model.  Getting back to putting the Church in the center of the conversation, what follows is the model we are hoping will be “the future of seminary education” for the sake of the Church we are called to serve.

Much of what we are doing as a seminary is framed around what ATS Executive Director Daniel Aleshire once termed the call of the Academy, Abbey and Apostolate:

Academy

Seattle Pacific University is known for its robust scholarly environment since its founding in 1891. The Seminary students learn in a collaborative milieu with faculty colleagues from many disciplines across the University. This is a radical shift from seminary education in America that has seminaries either as free standing entities apart from universities or have little to know cross over with other disciplines in the large university.  Our students are taught by faculty from the School of Education, Business, Psychology, Humanities as well as the School of Theology.  In this way we expose students to professors who are Christian scholars that value academic excellence, research, and teaching all for the service of the church.

Abbey

Our seminary stresses the importance of accountable discipleship, and provides opportunities for worship and informal fellowship in intentional Christian community — all for the purpose of forming students and faculty in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

Apostolate

Seattle Pacific Seminary is an “apostolate” — a place of sending forth, a kind of 21st-century mission agency. All seminary students participate in service activities, especially with the poor (acts of mercy and justice) and frequently find themselves socially dislocated — for the sake of the gospel — through urban or global multicultural experiences.

In the our seminary community, prayer, and service provide the seedbed for scholarly study, vocational exploration, and preparation for leadership in the congregation, the campus, and the classroom. When we speak of the “future of seminary education” we feel that this combination of academy, abbey, and apostolate is unique among seminaries.

To establish the priority of the Church in their formation, every incoming student to ourMDiv and our various MA programs is partnered with a ministry mentor who meets with the student three times a term during their first year to foster a practice of building what the PCUSA Re:forming ministry project has termed “theological friendships” for the journey of ministry.  Additionally, all our students participate in a Wesleyan ‘class meeting’ where a small group of students meets with a faculty member for the purpose of encouraging each other in growing deeper in our life in God and having our practices in word and deed match our calling.  John Wesley formed class meetings to be intimate gatherings of 10 or 12 people who met weekly for personal supervision of their spiritual growth that were to be places of “inquiry” as to the subject matter of “how their souls prospered.”  Rather than a place to vent, to air dirty laundry, to be the “worried well” with other people present, the class meetings are to be places where faculty and seminarians alike can spend one hour each week  asking each other what is “prospering” their soul and how do we encourage that together as a community.  In this way, with the Presbyterian emphasis in theological friendships and mentorship and the Wesleyan call to holiness in class meetings and other aspects of the life together, the future of the seminary is the joining together of streams from the manifold denominations that inform and shape Christian life today in a collaborative spirit rather than a competitive posture.

As an academy we foster an intellectual community that promotes a thoughtful faith.  We teach so that:

  1. Students will develop an informed and reflective faith.
  2. Students will develop confidence in the Christian faith.
  3. Students will be able to interpret Scripture deftly and thoughtfully.
  4. Students will understand how the divine revelation of Scripture and the canonical tradition is informed by reason and the experience of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Students will learn and evaluate different worldviews operative from the perspective of Christian faith.

As an abbey we foster a relational community that promotes love for God and neighbor.  We teach so that:

  1. Students will shape their lives around Christian character and values.
  2. Students will cultivate personal spiritual disciplines in their lives.
  3. Students will engage others of different beliefs in civil discourse and with a catholic spirit.
  4. Students will be able to nurture others in the Christian faith.
  5. Students will recognize their membership in the body of Christ, entering into the moral and theological discourse of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

As an apostolate we foster a missional community that promotes service in the Church and the world.  We teach so that:

  1. Students will be prepared to discern, own, and be equipped for their vocation.
  2. Students will be deeply rooted in the worship and ministry of a local congregation.
  3. Students will articulate their faith in a winsome and engaging manner, in order to share it with others.
  4. Students will be prepared to engage global and intercultural settings.

I would love to hear your thoughts and freely admit that as a community we are praying with many of you as to what the future of seminary education might be, but our deep prayer at Seattle Pacific Seminary is that the will of the Lord is done, that we can be a centering community that places the Church before the seminary as the “norming norm” of our work and life together, and the world that Jesus died for is the world that breaks our heart and becomes our calling as well.

 

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