A series of articles on theological education from EthicsDaily.com recently caught our attention. Here’s a quick summary:
In “Churches, Pastors Can Access Tailored Theological Education,” David Bronkema, the dean of Palmer Theological Seminary, points out that many of the struggles seminaries face with enrollment are similar to the struggles churches are having filling pews. While the larger cultural shift is something no single institution or effort can affect, there is much seminaries can do — and are doing — to attract students.
Bronkema describes four approaches theological schools are taking to offer students better access to theological education in ways that meet their specific needs and wishes.
- The content of the curriculum. Degrees are being offered that more closely meet the needs of individual students in their own contexts.
- The method of delivery of education. Classes are being scheduled at times that are convenient for working people, and more schools are offering online education.
- The experience and background of instructors. Schools appear to be hiring faculty with practical ministry experience, which gives students a more practical perspective.
- The deliberate building of a seminary community. There has been an increased effort to grow a sense of community in theological schools.
In “Six Ways Seminaries Train Church Leaders on Their Home Turfs,” William D. Shiell, the president of Northern Seminary in Illinois, offers an overview of the challenges facing schools today. Shiell lists six reasons commonly cited for declining student enrollment in seminaries:
- Declining church attendance
- Student debt
- Student experience
- Callings to pastoral ministry that have become more co-vocational
- Churches are training their own ministers
- Global growth of the church
Tackling each in turn, Shiell explains how Northern Seminary is addressing all these issues. Looking ahead, he imagines a subscription model of seminary education that resembles a Netflix account. There are already organizations that offer a buffet-style seminary experience, like BibleMesh.com, where students can pick and choose their own path. They can choose from different options, such as earning a degree from an accredited seminary or just taking classes for personal and professional development. It’s a short hop to charging students a monthly rate instead of a per-course fee.
In the last article in the trilogy, “Why We Must Rethink Theological Education in Time of Flux,” Lina Troth, assistant principal at Scottish Baptist College, addresses how schools should be preparing students differently for the current “time of flux.” It’s not just that there are fewer pulpits to fill, she says. Rather, congregations are changing and their role in communities is changing as well. As such, she explains, “An understanding is emerging that, more than anything, the theological students of today need help in developing such skills as theological imagination and reflection, which will aid them in navigating the shifting sands of church life, ministry and mission over the coming years and decades.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to each of these articles, and they’re all worth a read. The shifting currents of theological education continue to pose challenges to schools large and small. Read these articles and consider how best to pilot your own institution.