Three Big Questions for Seminaries

The Chronicle of Higher Education is right: There is much talk these days about the future of theological education. It is a conversation I follow with keen interest for several reasons: One, I am a graduate of not one but two seminaries. (Nerd alert!) Two, I am an adjunct faculty member at four institutions of higher theological education. Three, I started a nonprofit organization that offers graduate-level, practical leadership education for ministry leaders. Four, last fall I wrote an article for Leadership Journal about options for ministry leaders considering additional education. Five, this is a pressing issue for a number of my friends and colleagues, and therefore a frequent topic of conversation.

I am convinced that the current system is broken. Sure, there are a few institutions implementing some innovative programs, but for the most part they are still locked into an antiquated, entrenched system that has lost its missional bearings. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would like to ask three big questions of all seminaries and theological/ministry graduate schools, in the hopes that these questions will encourage an honest look at what has become reality. I’m talking about going beyond stated or “espoused” values, to looking at what actual behaviors communicate about real underlying values.

  1. Why do you exist? Is it to produce scholars; theologians; or practitioners? Do you serve and staff a particular denomination, potentially to the exclusion of broader kingdom impact? Sadly, I know of too many seminaries that have strayed from their original mission — and if you think I’m only talking about those that have “gone liberal,” think again and shine a mirror on your own organization.
  2. Whom do you serve? When push comes to shove, whose concerns have the most influence on organizational decisions and direction? Faculty? Donors? The accreditation committee? Or students, the local church, and global need? I have observed that in many institutions, preparing students for real-life ministry is no longer a priority. Rather, the accrediting body has become the tail that wags the dog, and administrators give greater consideration to keeping faculty members and donors happy than to serving ministries and the men and women called by God to serve in them. There is a lot of whining and excuse-making going on at these institutions, and it needs to stop.
  3. What is success? A large endowment? Academic prestige? Super-selective admission? Maintaining your pride at protecting your theological “right-ness” and your own understanding of truth? In my experience, many institutions have come to define success as “succession” or continued existence, rather than the equipping of servants for a lifetime of fruitful fulfillment of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

I believe and hope that it is only a matter of time before enough churches and renegade institutions rebel against the existing system. As with the NCAA in college sports, the bureaucracy has become too rigid and too far removed from the actual work of preparing people for effective ministry. Many churches are already bypassing seminaries entirely; all it will take is a group of like-minded organizations to band together to form their own alliance with a more flexible system with fewer layers, gates and hoops. Such a network may not have the same power as the establishment (think NAIA or NCAA Divisions II and III), but this new collaboration will have different motivators and measures anyway, focusing less on power and more on effective preparation for ministry.

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3 thoughts on “Three Big Questions for Seminaries

  1. Steve says:

    Challenging, bold post! You address theological institutions but the same questions are valid for any organization. The local church should continue to ask these critical questions. It is too easy to avoid critical thinking and rest in the assurance of our own assumptions!

  2. Ken Schenck says:

    1. Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan exists to create practitioners, no question. We're probably even too heavy on that side. We especially want to serve those ministers from churches who would not normally get a seminary education.

    2. Since we've just started and are in a climate where you don't start a seminary for money, the mission is the overwhelming driving force. The mission includes bringing "on the job training" to ministers in the trenches (everything from large African-American churches whose seminaries don't do diddly squat for them to picking up online students in places like Puerto Rico and New Zealand).

    3. Success is an ever-multiplying number of "church plants" or rather "seminary plants" across the world and in the under-served churches of North America. It's seeing people "from every tribe and nation" in a seminary community that is ever equipping and enriching the church as it participates in God's mission in the world.

    I don't think it has ever dawned on the establishment seminaries that the overwhelming majority of the over 20,000 denominations in the world aren't from groups that require or typically go to seminary. That's one of our primary targets right now, including our own denomination, The Wesleyan Church, only 15% of whose pastors up till now have sought out a seminary education.

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