The Changing Role of Theological Education

In Trust Magazine

Theological Education has for millennia played a leading role in shaping the Church.  It has, through various eras and methods, served to inform the mind of leaders, guide the behavior of ministry, and ultimately shape the nature and direction of the Church.  The precise nature of its role has varied from time to time based on the particular ecclesiastical tradition in which it is functioning, the prevailing culture and, more significantly, by the condition of the Church at the time.  Each of these three influences that shape the nature of theological education are in a significant state of flux within the North American context in these days.  While it may seem to be more dramatic than at any other time in history, it may be so only because we personally experience the nuances, influences, and full extent of the dynamic condition around us.  Yet the moment remains significant and requires careful, prayerful engagement in seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in shaping the future of this vital task.

In the current evangelical context there is particular scrutiny of theological education.  The recent energetic activity of local churches in reaching their community and multiplying their ministries has outstripped seminaries in their ability to meet the missional needs.  As aggressive and entrepreneurial church leaders experiment in highly pragmatic ways, the academy has been found wanting in its effectiveness to deliver godly and competent leaders into the pulpits of churches begging for help.  The rapidity of shifting leadership paradigms and the unique phenomenon of proliferating mega churches has left theological educators at the drafting table designing strategies of response that are obsolescent.  Although there is great desire on the part of seminaries to meet the challenge, the fact remains that the teaching institutions are insufficiently flexible and mobile for an adequate response.  The result is an ever-widening chasm of discontent between the institutions of theological education and the Church in its ecclesiastical and local forms.  Many well-intentioned efforts have been made to adjust programs and curricula, but the net effect is that of placing new wine into old wineskins.  Ultimately these programs are seen as a valiant though incomplete effort which remains ensconced in the classical, traditional patterns of education that fail to provide substantive help.  The smattering of special tracks, accelerated programs, scholarship plans, and marketing strategies usually fall prey to the constant concern of any educational institution – accreditation by the academy. 

The resultant flurry of activity in the Church is a reaction that has moved the seminary out of its shaping role for the Church.  When the seminary is determined to be out of touch, irrelevant, and unproductive in its ability to develop godly, competent leaders for the dynamic churches of today, thoughtful and capable church leaders respond according to their nature – they see a need and move to meet it.  The result has been a proliferation of church-based training programs and schools, and multiplication of parachurch organizations focused upon equipping leaders for vocational and practical roles in the Church.  At first glance, this response may cause a small celebration among church leaders who feel that the Church should be providing such training based solely on the practical and functional needs of the current context.  The fatal flaw in such thinking, however, is that “times change,” and “wells must be deep for ongoing fresh water.”  Soon these highly focused, pragmatic and effective leaders find the need for a “deeper well.”  They yearn for broader knowledge into which their activity can fit and out of which their ministry will be propelled with heightened motivation.  The discipline of the mind, pursuit of truth, and hunger for education calls them to reconsider the once-abandoned academy.

In the current microwave culture of the north American evangelical Church, value is placed on sound byte education, highly specialized skills, and immediate results.  Yet this propensity for the instantaneous will doubtless change and is, in fact, already showing signs of waning.  As we observe the rise in interest concerning spirituality, contemplative development, character formation, and depth of journeying with God, it is only a matter of time before the adolescence of the evangelical movement in North America will give way to integrative young adulthood.  In that context, the quick turnaround training centers that are highly focused on skill acquisition and immediate deployment will be found wanting.  And the chasm between the academy and the Church will remain uncrossed.

While historically it has been the role of the seminary to signal the vector and pace of the Church in its local manifestation, these recent events and patterns have caused an unusual shift in roles.  For recent years it has been, in fact, churches that have set the pace, provided direction, and shaped the nature of its course in a highly results-oriented context.  While it may seem appropriate for this shift to occur, when combined with the larger trend of compartmentalizing theological education into seminaries and ministry into local churches, we are left with a skewed understanding of the Church and underdeveloped leaders. 

Consider the primary point of accountability for healthy churches.  They are compelled to fulfill the mission of impacting their communities with the gospel of Christ in tangible, and transforming ways.  Consider also the primary point of accountability for the seminaries.  They are compelled to fulfill their mission to educate persons in accordance with the expectations of the academy and the accrediting bodies.  Both are noble, both are necessary, and both are good.  Yet when one without the other assumes the responsibility for both, deficiencies are assured.  Were we living in a context where the Church in its parish form held both educational and missional callings, such polarization would be far less possible.  Yet we live in a compartmentalized environment which predisposes us to segregation of duties and the resultant split loyalties in function.   Have we, perhaps, fallen prey to the increasingly secular segmentation of the Church into compartments of specialization?  Is the Kingdom principle of integrative thinking and labor perhaps the only appropriate response to regaining balance and wholeness in our current culture?

In broadening our understanding of the Church we recognize that though we are all the Church, we find ourselves in various manifestations of its nature.  While that in itself is nothing new or revolutionary, it provides a Kingdom context for appropriate patterns of delivering well-formed education for leaders of the Church and to leaders of churches.  Rethinking the role of theological education with this pattern will force us not only to maintain high accountability to the guilds, but high commitment to the Church and its mission.  It also sets the boundaries for delivery systems by which we may respond to the call of God and the desire of the Church that seminaries once again assume responsibility for leadership in shaping the Church. 

Seminaries will do what comes naturally in educating for ministry.  But without connection to the Church, they will tend to be introverted and out of touch.  Churches, likewise, will do what comes naturally in practical activities.  But without linkage to the academy their ministry activity will become shallow and myopic.  A healthy linkage between the academy and the Church will bring the richness, depth, and discipline of theological education to bear on shaping the engagement, practices, and outcomes of churches.  Conversely, such a linkage will bring the relevancy, passion, and urgency of the Church to bear on shaping the curriculum, pedagogy, and goals of the academy.  Such a linkage must be intentionally crafted with care and prayer, listening to both those who have given themselves to theological education as well as those given to the pastoral role.  In the rapid-paced context of this new day, a new design must be engaged with boldness while recognizing that modifications will be necessary as we gain experience through trying.

Imagine for a moment a great engine of activity that we might call the academy.  Assume that the seminary, in its effort to provide theological education for the Church, is represented by this engine.  The activity inside the engine is often hidden and many times not understood by the casual onlooker.  Yet every part of this engine is vital to its effective operation.  In maintaining the quality condition of the engine, it is checked regularly and held accountable to predetermined standards.  While many may not understand these standards or their motivation, they exist to ensure quality control in the engine and to assist in strengthening its performance.  These standards are agreed upon and lodged with the accrediting bodies.  This becomes a major point of accountability for the seminary in fulfilling its educational call.  Yet to assume that this is the singular or even primary point of accountability is misguided.  It is dangerous for the students who have submitted their developmental process to the seminary and wind up deficient for having been so trusting.  This is not the problem of the accrediting body, since it is doing exactly what it is intended to do.  Rather it represents an abdication of responsibility on the part of the seminary.  Instead of seeing the accreditation process as a means to maintain the quality and operational condition of the engine,  the seminary may become hostage to accreditation by thinking that its full responsibility is to meet those standards.  A smooth running engine by itself is of little use to anyone except for study and inspection.

Now imagine a great set of wheels in motion that we might call the Church.  The motion of these wheels is mandated by the call of God to “go into the world” as “salt and light.”  This transformational calling results in innovation, incarnational relevance, and responsiveness in healthy local church leaders.   While there are, and perhaps should be more, ecclesiastical systems to intentionally hold church activity accountable, it is generally a deep seated conviction held by every lay and clergy person that this mission is the primary point of accountability for churches and their leaders.  Healthy churches are generally found to be effective in fulfilling this culture-transforming mission in the name of Christ.  Although not all are effective,  it is not optional in a theological tradition that holds a high view of scripture, an evangelistic compulsion, and a holiness character.  With the rise of ineffective churches in North America and a subsequent heightened concern regarding  our commission by Christ, local churches and leaders have looked to seminaries for help.  In the absence of clear direction or help due to the inordinate focus upon accreditation and operation, churches have attempted to address their own need by assuming that motion and activity alone are the valued commodities in fulfilling its mission.  Hence the emphasis in parachurch and local church training programs becomes vocational in nature, emphasizing skills and immediate results.  The flaw becomes evident when the immediacy of results reveals the shallowness of the preparation.  Remember, wells must be deep for ongoing fresh water.   Fast moving wheels by themselves are of little use to anyone except to roll to a faltering stop for lack of power.

Clearly the analogy breaks down at various points when comparing the engine and drive wheels to the seminary and churches.  Certainly it is only God through His Holy Spirit who provides the energy that drives any Kingdom enterprise.  But allow the principle of the example to heighten our awareness of the dynamic relationship between the two entities that we so easily compartmentalize, but which in reality are vitally connected in the larger work of the Church.  While the example is obviously a generalization, it serves well to clarify 1) the need for connection, 2) the resultant dysfunction where they are not engaged, and 3) the role of each as an integral part of a healthy understanding of the Church in its broadest and truest sense.  The wheels represent churches in motion in community as manifestations of the Church.  The engine represents seminaries in action developing leaders who will be effective when deployed to lead the Church in relevant and effective fulfillment of its call.  The manner in which those leaders are formed and developed will have irrevocable impact on the nature and direction of the Church.  The stewardship responsibility for seminaries cannot be understated at a time when the momentum of the churches is seriously waning and in dire need of deep, well-focused power from the engine.

The obvious question is, “So what connects the engine and the wheels?”  The coexistence of each, good though they may be, is not sufficient.  The critical question is how they will be engaged so that one draws from the other the necessary energy for each to be effective.  To make a point, consider two possible methods of connecting the engine and the wheels.

Imagine, on the one hand, a hard shaft that provides a direct drive from one to the other.  Efficiency would be high and responsiveness would be immediate.  With a single, solid, direct drive shaft, the moment the engine started, the wheels would move.  Further, the wheels would move at exactly the speed of the engine, no matter what the nature of the terrain.  Conversely, when the wheels began moving faster, perhaps going downhill, or slowed with uphill or rough terrain, the immediate effect would be felt in the engine.  Consider that each of these – the seminary and the churches – have a somewhat separate point of accountability.  The seminary is tied to accreditation, and the churches to the mission.  Such a direct drive system sets up automatic tension between the two.  Each is trying to stay connected to the other while meeting the expectations of their accountability points.  The tension may actually develop into an adversarial relationship in its extreme condition.  Faced with such stress, a choice is required – to stay connected in a direct drive relationship, or maintain commitment to the point of accountability.  Again, a disclaimer is appropriate.  Clearly such extreme language and allusion serves not so much to define the reality as to identify the tendency of each.  As well, the implication that the mission of the Church is void of concern for academic rigor or that the interests of the guilds are blind to the mission of the Church is over-pressed.

Now, on the other hand, imagine a system of connection that may look like a clutch.  Two plates come together in engagement with varying degrees of pressure.  Slippage is allowed depending on the particular context of the wheels or the engine.  At times, the clutch is fully engaged and the drive is direct.  At other times there is less pressure and one is spinning faster than the other.  Energy is transmitted from one to the other but in a manner that allows each to keep faith with their primary point of accountability while also remaining dynamically connected.  

Few complex systems, physical or organizational, have direct drive systems.  Most have an intentional system that allows for such engagement with slippage as necessary to maintain effectiveness in the multi-faceted environment of accountability.  While it is a truism to say that seminaries and churches should be connected, contemporary efforts at intentionally designing such a system of engagement have been lacking.  Quite honestly, the very survival of current institutions of theological education may depend on the success of such an endeavor.  While all seminaries must grapple with these matters, those within a university environment may need to do so most. Yet they may have the best platform from which to design new patterns of engagement.

Into this milieu, the concept of centers as an appropriate and effective clutch system between the academy and the churches is a viable paradigm.  The term “center” has a variety of meanings even within the seminary context.  On the one hand it may be a general descriptive term for the school as in “our school is a center for theological inquiry in the Wesleyan tradition.” Or, it may describe a freestanding organization singularly devoted to some dimension of academic pursuit or practical engagement, as in the Ottawa based “Center for Faith and Culture.”  For our discussion, centers fulfill the role of the clutch as a means to extend the impact of seminaries into the life of the Church.  They should exist in a symbiotic relationship with the academic platform on which they are built.  They should connect the academy with the Church, allowing some slippage in order for each to maintain integrity with their point of accountability.

Centers of this kind are:

–         defined by a particular need within the Church

–         not an academic program or degree

–         linked closely with the academy for validation

–         relatively easy to dismantle should needs within the Church change

–         primarily designed to resource the Church and inform the academy in regards to the practical needs of the Church

–         channels for recruitment into academic programs directly related to the center

–         a means by which the seminary may directly influence the nature of the Church in timely, relevant ways.

Take for example the rising need within the Church for youth to more seriously consider ministry as a vocation, and for youth pastors to be strengthened.  The seminary is best equipped to develop a highly sodalic center to meet this need.  A traditional response might be to develop new degrees that prepare persons for this particular need.  The problem is that these kinds of needs may shift over time, leaving the seminary once again with a degree program that is irrelevant. Further, it misses the need for broad and deep reflection at a seminary level and falls prey to the lure of vocational training.  Instead, the seminary identifies this “youth ministry” need and moves to initiate a “center for youth leadership.”  The academic degrees remain strongly committed to academic excellence and the standards of accreditation.  However in defining the functions of the center, the seminary may include activities such as:

·        Networking among youth pastors

·        Theological reflection events for youth

·        Certificate programs

·        Coaching for leaders

·        Mentoring

·        Research among youth in the Church

·        Publication of findings

·        Resourcing events

·        Clustering peer groups

·        Others

None of these activities supplants the academic programs nor do they require accreditation for academic excellence. Their design and purpose are derived from needs within the Church.  Yet everything done serves to influence, inform, and strengthen the ability of faculty and academic administrators to keep the academic programs engaged with the contextual needs of the Church.  The appointed leader of such a center may or may not have academic credentials for faculty status.  However they must have practical experience and respect within the Church as a youth ministry expert.  Accountability of the center should be directly to the appropriate seminary department so as to maintain tight linkage.

Although the costs for initial development of such a center may need to come from a grant, loan, or investment by the surrounding university, new income streams can meet ongoing costs.  If the university in which the seminary exists, the board, or a foundation invests with start-up capital, the initial years will be better secured operationally.  Even a modest allocation from the seminary operation budget can begin a process that will grow over time into an effective center.  Once operational, new streams of income can be developed to ensure solvency and growth.  Certificate programs, resourcing events, research findings, coaching relationships, and other services can generate fees that will provide for ongoing operational costs.  The resultant new students into the academic programs of the seminary further underscore the operational wisdom of centers.

While not everything done in the academic programs may be translated into resourcing activity through the center, these programs will have influence and provide depth.  Further, participants in the center may well become so engaged that they move on in pursuing an advanced academic degree. Conversely, the activities of the center may not conform to the academic standards of the seminary. They will, however, provide an invaluable laboratory and source of information to keep the academics well-focused on the praxis dimension of the seminary’s call.

Kevin Mannoia