Dispelling Myths and Musing about the Future
by Robin Steinke
A changed and changing context for mission as well as the economic recession have converged to prompt ELCA seminaries to rethink and reimagine once again how best to prepare leaders for ministry.
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). This Scripture reference was engraved into the cornerstone of the Gettysburg Seminary Chapel in 1940. “Equipping the saints for the work of ministry” captures the primary mission of theological education and serves as the cornerstone of our work today. Equipping the saints includes the work of teaching people who are preparing to serve as pastors, diaconal ministers, associates in ministry, and deaconesses. It also includes robust programs of theological education for laypeople who want to learn more about how God is at work in the world.
What is challenging today is the rapid pace of a changing environment within which our institutions serve. Wonderful increases in our seminary endowments due to market surges in the nineties let us flourish through an artificially inflated economic time. The dramatic reductions in our endowments in the last couple of years have brought us to some harsh realities about the sustainability of the current model of theological education.
This time of seismic transitions in the landscape of theological education can be both a time of great anxiety and of great possibility. A primary question that needs to drive our own reimagining of theological education is, what do the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission needs of the church require of the seminaries? One of the presuppositions in this question is that the seminaries have something important to contribute to the flourishing of the gospel and the ministry of the church through its many expressions.
I want to dispel some myths about the work of seminaries, and then offer some modest questions for further conversation on how together we can strengthen theological education.
Myth 1: If the church would just send more money to seminaries the problem would be solved.
This myth is similar to what Anthony Robinson, noted author on congregational leadership, describes as the blame game. This directs the problem outside of one’s own institution. Robinson notes that when congregations practice the blame game it looks like this: “We just haven’t been able to get the right pastor; not since wonderful Dr. Lewis was with us.” For clergy it looks like this: “This congregation just doesn’t get it. No one here really wants to change.”1 For seminaries it surfaces like this: “If the churchwide apportionment were larger, we wouldn’t have this problem of sustainability.” The seminaries clearly need to do some things to gain greater efficiencies. Our schools also have the capacity to do some imaginative work on the shape of theological education that better serves the church.
What do the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission needs of the church require of the seminaries?
Myth 2: Fewer seminaries will result in great cost savings.
If this were true, then larger seminaries across the landscape of theological education would not be facing the same issues of long-term sustainability. Using the comparative data on cost of attendance, the actual cost of attendance at some very small schools associated with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is less than at very large schools. What this data tells us is that simply increasing enrollment, or having fewer seminaries, will not solve this problem. The data from all ATS schools tells us that theological schools already provide a level of quality education well below the cost of other “professions.”
We must wrestle with the fundamental economic formulas within which we operate and together reimagine long-term sustainable ways to serve the mission needs of the church.
Myth 3: Seminaries are preparing leaders for a church that no longer exists.
This critique is leveled by some who haven’t looked at what seminaries are actually teaching since they graduated from seminary. Sometimes it reflects the experience of a congregation that had a pastor who wasn’t very effective. The ongoing work of asking what our graduates need in order to be effective leaders, and modifying our curriculum and teaching to reflect those needs, is assessed externally by our accrediting agencies, as well as by candidacy committees and others, for concrete evidence of learning.
A stellar example of this kind of collaborative work that resulted in developing core competencies for ministry is the work done at the direction of the ELCA Blue Ribbon Committee on Mission Funding. Competencies were developed for both rostered and lay and are accompanied by attributes one could expect to see in a well-formed steward leader.
For example, one specific competency is: “grounds oneself in biblical and theological principles.” A core perspective is “Stewardship is grounded in biblical and theological principles (trinitarian orientation)”; a core practice is: “embodies an ability to listen to and interpret all of Scripture with an ear for stewardship themes.” A core skill is: “can teach and preach Scripture from a holistic stewardship orientation.”2 The seminary that includes this competency in a specific course or degree program provides both direct evidence, such as written assessment by a faculty member or assessment from an internship congregation, and indirect evidence, such as the student’s self-reflection, that the student has this competency.
We must together reimagine long-term sustainable ways to serve the mission needs of the church.
Another resource that informs the work of the seminary is attentiveness to ELCA churchwide actions and stances of our full communion partners. An example is “Imperatives for Theological Education” that was approved by the 1993 Churchwide Assembly.3
Seminaries are attentive to ensuring that the curriculum prepares students to be nimble in responding to mission needs that have yet to emerge. Regular consultation with internship supervisors and our churchwide colleagues helps us respond to changing mission needs.
Through churchwide collaboration, all eight seminaries are participating in an alumni survey provided by our accreditor, the Association of Theological Schools, for graduates five years after graduation. This should give us more data to assess how we are doing. Together we are working hard to learn from the past, and we need the partnership of everyone.
Myth 4: Seminary faculty live in an ivory tower and are disengaged from congregational life.
Faculty and staff regularly preach and teach in congregations representing many denominations across the country and abroad. Though this is clearly a different kind of participation in the life of the church than that of a pastor who is serving in one congregation for years at a time or a diaconal minister who serves in prison or hospital chaplaincy, it gives faculty and staff a sense of the broad sweep of ministry outposts across the country and indeed around the globe.
This summer, over the course of just a few months, Gettysburg faculty and staff have been involved in some aspect of teaching, preaching, or research in England, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, as well as served as staff for church camps, participated in advocacy conversations, led worship in inner city contexts and multiracial congregations, and so on. This is just one summer of work for one seminary faculty.
Multiply this by the eight seminaries of this church and add many of the faculty in our church-related colleges, and one can see that this kind of theological education touches a very broad sweep of the diverse landscape of theological education. This firsthand experience informs faculty about ways to strengthen courses and the curriculum overall in order to better prepare our students to respond to both global and local mission needs of the church.
Faculty and staff also write books, articles, and educational materials for both the church and the academy. This creative work is facilitated by the sabbatical support our institutions provide. This kind of creative space is under threat due to the significant financial issues that face theological education.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:2–3). This is a text that continues to inform my thinking about how our seminaries and the network of theological education can best serve the mission needs of the church.
I wonder what could happen if we viewed all seminaries as “my seminary”? It does not help us when we pit one school against another or refer to the seminary from which one has graduated as “my seminary.” This passage from Romans keeps before us the virtue of humility to which we are called. All of these schools are “my seminary,” for we have a stake in the flourishing of this work that transcends local loyalties and is open to how God’s Spirit may be at work through some new collaborative arrangements and creative possibilities.
I wonder what it would look like if seminaries were able to provide space and conversation for rostered leaders for a portion of their sabbaticals? I wonder what kind of character faculty meetings would take on if a half dozen colleagues serving in different parts of this church were also around the table?
I also wonder how congregational leadership could reflect a deeper connection to its church’s seminaries? A modest beginning was launched at a joint meeting of the Association of Teaching Theologians and a group of experienced pastors with the support of the Vocation and Education program unit in August 2008. I think seminaries need to listen anew to graduates and those serving in diverse mission settings in order to find more ways to receive their wisdom, which then results in adaptive change in our schools.
I wonder if the time is ripe for together reimagining the vocation of “faculty”?
I wonder if the time is ripe for together reimagining the vocation of “faculty”? I have been working with the idea of seeing our faculty who are full time and in residence as “residential faculty” and describing the very large cadre of wise, experienced parish pastors and diaconal ministers as “deployed faculty.” Many in this latter group have advanced degrees and expertise in theological fields, and currently serve as mentors for our first-year students and internship or project supervisors. This group of deployed faculty would also include hundreds of colleagues who serve in agencies and institutions, including our churchwide and camp staff. Could they be invited to share in the collective preparation of leaders in a more intentional way than has been the practice at many schools?
I wonder what could happen if we more fully lived into the aspirations for theological education adopted at the 1993 and 1995 Churchwide Assemblies. Can seminaries think anew about how we might better serve as places that convene important conversations about issues before the nation and the world and as robust places of lively theological discourse? Can we live into new ways to model the public face of the church? What could it look like if we worked together as a network of theological education to prepare thousands of lay evangelists for God’s mission in the world?
Robinson calls for greater collaboration: “We cannot offload responsibility for learning to be the church in new ways in our new time onto clergy or seminaries or lay leaders or denominational staffs. This adaptive work requires the engagement of the church, of congregations, of all God’s people.”4 This collaboration may mean that we have to let go of some long-established habits and practices in order to be open to new and sustainable ways to live into God’s work for the world.
This is a time of enormous transition, but it is also a time of enormous creative possibility if we are willing to do the hard work of wondering together how we might craft a constructive, sustainable way forward that attends to this central question: What do the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission needs of the church require of the seminaries?
Robin Steinke is associate professor of ethics and public life and dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
- Anthony Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 43.
- The competencies for a well-formed stewardship leader can be found on the Stewardship of Life Institute Web site along with many resources for stewardship education. See http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/coaching-2/
- The 11 imperatives are available from the ELCA Theological Education Web site. You can download a PDF of the Study for Theological Education; turn to Appendix C.
- Robinson, Changing the Conversation, 48.