Many of you who regularly read this website are stakeholders in theological seminaries. Some of you are seminary graduates, others are current students. Many others have been blessed by seminary-educated pastors who have taught you the Scriptures and shepherded you through life’s difficulties. All of you need to know that many seminaries are in serious trouble.
I’m deeply concerned about the welfare of theological education in the USA. Several factors have combined to create a “perfect storm” for seminaries, including the one where I spent 32 years, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. News reports indicate that even flagship seminaries with international footprints, such as Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity (TEDS, Deerfield IL) have serious problems that have led them to downsize their faculties and sell their campuses. Seminaries that serve mainline protestant denominations in the USA are perhaps in even more serious trouble.
• • • • • • •
Go here to view my conversation with John Lillis about the issues seminaries are facing today. John has been involved with international theological education for decades. The video presents two old friends reflecting on the past, present, and future of theological education.
• • • • • • •
You won’t find words seminary or Sunday School in a Bible concordance, but it would be silly to discount their importance for that reason. Both are means the church has successfully used to fulfill its mission to teach Jesus’ disciples to observe everything he has commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Many biblical texts teach that God’s people need to be taught God’s ways so that they can flourish in the world. Just as God taught Moses to teach Israel to teach their children (Deut 5:31; 6:7), so Jesus taught his apostles and sent them out to teach (Mark 6:7-13, 30; Luke 9:2). As the priests and Levites were to teach Israel (Deut 33:10; 2 Chron 17:7-9; Neh 8:9), so pastors are to teach the church (Eph 4:12). Ezra taught God’s law to Israel when the nation returned to the land and rebuilt the Temple (Ezra 7:10, 25). Teaching the whole counsel of God is still the catalyst for mission today.
Early in the book of Acts, the Jerusalem church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). The apostles persisted in that teaching, centering on the resurrection of Jesus, despite persecution (Acts 4:2, 18; 5:21, 25, 28, 42). Paul taught congregational leaders so that they could in turn teach the congregations (Acts 11:26; 15:35; 18:11; 20:20-31; 28:31). He also told his assistants that they must teach what they heard from him to the next generation of reliable disciples (1 Tim 1:3-7; 4:6, 11-13; 5:17; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:1-2; 3:14-17; 4:11-4; Tit 1:9; 2:1-15). Today it might seem surprising that, according to Paul, the only professional skill requirerd of church leaders was the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24). Over the last several hundred years, seminaries have equipped a multitude of teaching pastors who have served the church, maintaining an unbroken chain of apostolic truth for the glory of God, the building up of the church, and witness to the world.
Why are seminaries in trouble?
Cultural trends. When it comes to declining seminaries, many point the finger at demographics. In the USA, the birth-rate has been decreasing, so there are fewer potential seminary students. We’re also told of polls that show a decline in the number of people who identify as Christians and go to church on Sunday. The secular progressive worldview does not lead young adults to follow Jesus at all, let alone make the sacrifices that are required to get a seminary degree. Widespread polarization over social, racial, sexual, ethical, and political issues has impacted the solidarity of seminary constituencies. Thankfully, there are happy exceptions to these patterns in the USA, not to mention areas where the church is growing rapidly in Asia, South America, and Africa.
Costs. Rising costs are problematic for all seminaries, especially for those that are not able to rely on endowments to meet their budgets. The expense of keeping the lights on and the building comfortable keeps getting higher. Paying for health insurance and other fringe benefits for full-time employees is an increasing burden, so seminaries are relying more and more on adjunct professors who work a “day job” to make ends meet and teach a seminary course now and then (often online) for a stipend, typically in the range of $2500 per course. Bivocational professors of this sort understandably find it difficult to focus on academic research and spend time mentoring students, so the quality of education tends to decline.
Online emphasis. The internet has changed seminaries just as much as it has changed how we stay in contact with family and friends and shop for Christmas presents. Online learning is convenient and cost-effective for students. They don’t have to pull up stakes, move to a new city, and deal with how those changes complicate their families’ lives. Many who would have never attended a resident seminary can take classes online. Students can go to school in their pajamas and complete course requirements on their own terms, but at what cost? Many online classes are asynchronous—students simply post responses to course material and then reply to their peers’ responses. Simultaneous learning, where students are discussing issues with professors and their fellow students in real time, is usually absent. Zoom-style class sessions alleviate this problem to a degree, but such sessions are not a part of many courses. It is difficult to model and inculcate critical thinking in this sort of learning environment. This is especially problematic at the graduate level, where students are expected analyze ideas and articulate their own responses to them in an interactive community.
Additionally, as Kirsten Sanders points out here, when faculty and students do not share a residential campus, there are many fewer opportunities for after-class conversations and extracurricular gatherings where mentoring occurs. Professors don’t really get to know students; neither do students form lifelong friendships with their classmates. A true Christian learning community ceases to exist in many cases.
COVID. Government shutdowns related to the pandemic have had catastrophic effects on seminaries as well as churches. Schools that did not already have online classes or the capacity to start an online program quickly have suffered the most. Other seminaries scrambled to make online learning available by facilitating a class delivery system that allowed students the choice of simultaneous “zooming” into a traditional classroom setting or viewing a video of the class session later on their own schedules. Mask mandates have made classroom instruction and discussion much more difficult—it’s harder just to hear what’s being said, let alone to catch the facial expressions that nuance conversations. The quality of classroom conversations inevitably declines.
Curriculum changes. Under pressure to recruit more students, accredited seminaries have begun to lower the requirements for the traditional Master of Divinity degree from around 92 credit hours to 78 or even 72 hours, all with the approval of the Association of Theological Schools. Typically this involves consolidation of two-part courses into one course, and lowering the requirements for courses in biblical languages and/or theology. Master’s degree programs requiring around 60 credit hours or less have proliferated. These programs enable students to get a more focused graduate degree with a biblical, theological, or ministry emphasis. These degrees are more affordable and take less time, but lack the comprehensive instruction that the Master of Divinity degree offers. The goal is to make a seminary degree cheaper and easier to obtain, but one has to wonder about value. You get what you pay for. On the other hand, curriculum revision is an opportunity to rethink priorities. In many cases, seminary classes and overall curricula could focus less on the generic content of various disciplines and more on the methods and tools needed to incorporate those disciplines into ministry practice. Professors need to be less concerned with “covering the material” and more concerned with modeling the values and showing the relevance of the material for church ministry.
Church-based alternatives. Some pastors, especially those serving at mega-churches, have downplayed the need for a formal seminary education or have abandoned it entirely. Such churches have their own apprentice-type processes of preparing people for ministry, featuring individual mentoring, directed studies, and shadowing a seasoned pastor through ministry duties. This hands-on approach can be very valuable; traditional Master of Divinity programs usually have residency requirements that include mentoring by ministry professionals. One potential weaknesses of this approach is lack of academic rigor. Another is that students are susceptible to the idiosyncrasies of one mentor since they are not taught by a faculty team. Following the example of a seasoned ministry leader is a biblical pattern, but cloning is not educating.
Competence-based theological education. CBTE is a response to real and perceived weaknesses in traditional graduate theological education. Interest in CBTE has increased with the decline of traditional seminaries. My seminary alma mater has launched a CBTE program that emphasizes “competency-in-context” rather than mere academic achievement. In such programs a seminary and a church partner to assess each student individually in the areas of theoretical knowledge, spiritual formation, and ministerial skill. Students are evaluated by what they are able to do with what they are learning in field ministry rather than by writing research papers and taking exams that are detached from the ministry context. Academic supervision from the partnering seminary is paired with mentoring in field ministry by pastors. Advocates stress that CBTE provides a practical, field-based, holistic experience, as opposed to the scholastic think-tank approach that has characterized some traditional seminaries. Some CBTE proponents have caricaturized traditional seminary programs—few traditional seminaries are ivory towers devoted to a strictly theoretical approach. Most traditional seminaries require students to participate in some form of ministry residency while in seminary. Nevertheless, CBTE programs have strengths that have led the Association of Theological Schools to publish guidelines for this recent approach. CBTE’s stress on spiritual formation and ministry practice is admirable, but there is legitimate ongoing concern about academic standards. Granted, seminaries should not be think-tanks, but should churches be the primary place for grad-school level academic preparation?
Is it the end of the seminary as we know it?
As I look back over 40-some years of seminary teaching, I’m deeply saddened that the three schools where I served have all experienced serious difficulties and decline. But then I remember that Jesus didn’t say he would build the seminary—he said he would build the church. He obviously didn’t mean that every local congregation would thrive, let alone every seminary, and certainly not any one way of doing theological education. Seminaries are one of the important ways Jesus builds the church, nothing more, and nothing less. Forms of theological education come and go, but the ongoing function of theological education will always be vital for the church and its mission in the world.
Seminaries need to find a way forward that’s based on Jesus’ promise to build the church. Unfortunately, seminaries and churches seldom seek out mutually meaningful partnerships. My late GRTS colleague Carl B. Hoch Jr. sardonically spoke of this problem in terms of Jesus’ parable as “a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:26) as he lamented the difficulty in bridging the chasm between the academy and the church. Here are a few suggestions that would help in spanning this seemingly impassable gulf:
- Seminaries should hire faculty members who are as committed to serving the church as they are to furthering their personal academic goals. In some cases this may result in bivocational pastor/professors who serve in an ongoing church/seminary partnership. Seminary faculty and staff should be willing to sacrifice financially when economics make it difficult for students to afford seminary tuition.
- Churches should value the academic work of seminary faculty as a means to more accurate biblical teaching of congregations. Theological education should be an important part of churches’ mission budgets. People who are called to ministry should receive financial support from their churches when they enroll in seminary.
- Seminaries should maintain lifelong relationships with their alumni/ae that go beyond asking for money. Alumni/ae should stay in contact with their seminaries, providing them with affirmation of program strengths as well as constructive criticism and suggestions about program weaknesses.
- Seminaries should sponsor monthly website forums where faculty can air their recent research and have Zoom discussions with alumni and other stakeholders about its relevance for pastoral ministry. Such forums would also enhance pastoral networking and mutual encouragement.
- Seminaries should host conferences that speak to alumni/ae concerns with biblical expertise, theological depth, and cultural awareness. Alumni/ae should prioritize attendance at such conferences.
- Pastors who serve as trustees of seminaries should be especially effective as bridge-builders, especially if they are alumni/ae of the seminary they are serving. Such trustees are essential for the oversight of traditional as well as CBTE programs.
Mark Young, the president of Denver Seminary, is a strong voice for a sort of theological education that retains the strengths of traditional approaches while incorporating the insights and emphases of CBTE. Young’s Hope of the Gospel calls us to recognize the historical trends that led to seminaries as we know them. He calls us to eliminate forms that are longer effective and to articulate a more profound theology of the cross that will impact societies as well as individuals. Most of all, he stresses that theological education must be missional. This may be the most important sentence of the book:
“Pushing beyond boundaries that serve academic guilds better than the broader people of God, theological education for the next evangelicalism must integrate into every discrete curricular unit theological, hermeneutical, missiological, and formational learning outcomes built around the question ‘How can the people of God live out their identity as a sign pointing the world to the gospel of the risen Christ and his kingdom?'” (p. 117)
The real problem in bridging the gap between the seminary and the church is apathy. It’s easy to maintain the status quo of perfunctory relationships that mask the apathy, not to mention the biases, that keep churches and seminaries apart. It’s easy for seminary faculty to scoff at pastors who haven’t kept up on their studies, and it’s easy for pastors to dismiss new publications by seminary faculty as irrelevant for ministry. Seminaries and churches alike will continue to decline unless they see themselves as members of the same kingdom team. If the church is the primary agency which God uses to extend the kingdom today, seminaries are primary agencies God uses to develop leaders for the church. The problem isn’t just that the task is difficult. The problem is a lack of will. By the grace of God, and for his glory, where there’s a will, there will be a way.
• • • • • • •
- Daniel O. Aleshire, Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021.
- Justo L. González, The History of Theological Education. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015.
- Cameron Shaffer shows how a “traditional model seminary” ought to describe itself in a press release.
- Karen Stiller describes two iterations of CBTE here.
- Douglas Sweeney provides a 15-point call and agenda for pastor-theologians suggesting among other things that seminary professors serve as handmaids in preparing pastor-theologians.
- James Emery White insists that seminary professors need to serve the church first, and then the academy.
• • • • • • •
Stay tuned for our next post on Grand Rapids Theological Seminary
• • • • • • •
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19:8-10 NIV)
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV)