Every theological school wants good students. All seminary leaders claim to have many good ones — a few, in moments of candor, admit that they have some bad ones too. In this issue, Barbara Wheeler’s excellent article on “Pathways to Seminary” explores how and why the vaunted “amazing students” end up in seminary. The article also provokes a number of important questions:
What is a “good” theological student? How do we know one when we see one? Do faculty members have one ideal good student in mind while, at the same time, churches, pastors, and lay people have other ideals? Do students themselves have a different understanding of what would get them labeled “a good theological student with great potential”?
The article reminds us that theological schools are inextricably linked to communities of faith. From these communities come their missions, their support, and their students. In fact, Wheeler finds that among the various factors that have shaped seminarians and led them toward theological education, the most important is “the long, slow nurture of faith in community.” The nurture takes many forms — including families, religious groups, education, and role models — and it’s vital.
If seminaries want to attract students who are appropriate for the education they offer, they must continue finding ways to stay connected to their religious constituencies. After all, students come from religious communities to theological education and formation, but then they go back out to serve in those communities.
Another article in this issue — “Got Faith?,” which starts on page 10 — raises additional interesting questions. Schlumpf points to the growing number of people, often under age 30, who say that they are religiously unaffiliated, or “none of the above.” Oddly, some of them are enrolling in seminary! It makes you wonder — can they be among Wheeler’s “good students”? Author Heidi Schlumpf gives us examples of several theological schools that are welcoming the best and brightest of the “nones,” seeing in them evidence of a universal spiritual hunger that is unrestricted by traditional religious practices and structures.
Is the concept of a “good” theological student defined by its context? Most leaders in theological education would probably agree about some common characteristics of good students — they earn good grades, enjoy working with people, exhibit spiritual maturity, and have a capacity for leadership. Yet the ultimate test of “good students” may be what happens after seminary is over — as these students return to their home communities or launch into new ones, how well do they serve, teach, preach, and lead?
What does this mean for theological schools and their supporters? In this volatile century, seminaries and their supporters have much
to grapple with, and much to pay attention to: How students are nurtured before they enter seminary, and where they go afterwards. Where support for theological education comes from. And how changes in religious communities will affect all of these, especially among the rising number of students who don’t fit the religious mold of yesteryear.
This column is my last as interim president of In Trust. I have been associated with theological education for more than four decades, and I still believe these precious schools, small though they be, have a significant mission and formidable influence on their faith communities and even the larger culture. As a stone thrown into still water, their ripples reach the farthest shores.
I have been part of In Trust in one way or another for two decades — as a reader, financial supporter, and board member. Now, as In Trust begins to offer new programs and services, I’m excited to see what will happen. With an updated name, the In Trust Center for Theological Schools is on the move with new ways to help seminaries.
To all theological school boards, administrators, faculty, and students: You have a great calling, and the In Trust Center for Theological Schools is your partner in this calling. Our newly elected president, Rick Bliese, brings imagination, energy, experience, and creativity to this new effort. The best is yet to come.
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