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Changing Theological Education: Reforming From the Bottom Up

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Even for those of us who were aware of the challenges and difficult decisions announced by Luther Seminary recently, it was stunning to read Libby Nelson's account last week, "The Struggling Seminaries," in Inside Higher Ed.

The shock wasn't so much that there was a story about another seminary facing financial crisis. The shock was that it was Luther. For those not familiar with theological education, it would be as if a baseball fan found out that the Boston Red Sox couldn't fill a 25-man roster because of financial concerns.

I am no seminary consultant. I am certainly no expert. But I have spent the past several years visiting seminaries and divinity schools around the country in an effort to better understand them and find ways to strengthen them. What I have discovered is a contrast of great challenges and powerful hope. Below are some of the things that need to change. Quickly.

Campus Life

Intentional Communities Over Dorms

One of the major challenges for well-established institutions is the burden of the traditional dorm, the kind where men lived two to a room in bunk beds and showered as a group down the hall. Not going to happen anymore. Some schools try to keep their dorms filled by incentivizing them with financial aid. Better to do the new, hip thing which is to create intentional Christian communities where students live together in local settings and commit to follow a community rule of life which includes spiritual practice and promise to engage in the community.

Food Matters

One of the lines I have said over and over to anyone who would listen is that this generation will not come to your school if you throw food away. Environmental stewardship, food security and sustainable farming are major issues of concern and commitment. So are healthy food choices.

The leading cause of student debt at some institutions is the requirement to be on the meal plan. Students must pay for meals regardless of whether they eat them, so at a time when every penny counts, they might be paying exorbitant prices for food they don't -- or can't -- eat.

A seminary meal plan ought to be promoting healthy living and setting an example, since the leaders of the church are called to model healthy lifestyles, including dietary habits.

Forcing students to be on a meal plan for food they don't like and won't eat is inappropriate. The strategy of the food services should be to serve the student, not the other way around.

Community Life

When was the last time you walked onto a seminary campus? They are often very quiet, if not sleepy. Too sleepy. I was visiting one campus recently and assumed that the school was on spring break, only to discover that enrollment was so low that it did not feel like school was in session.

As hard as I have tried to interest energetic, creative and faithful young adults in attending seminary, many of them aren't intrigued if there is no apparent vibrant community offering opportunity for fellowship, fulfillment and fun (even if the faculty is excellent!).

In many cases, little effort is made by the schools to create community life. Some argue that since seminary is graduate school, there is no need for efforts around student life. True, these students don't need the school to bring in comedians or magicians or rock groups. But there is a need, a desperate need, for community life.

Recruitment, Selection and Retention

Break Into the Community Service Movement

Where is the seminary recruiting its students? What is the sales pitch? What does it mean to receive a "call" and if you don't get one, does that mean you don't belong? Or get accepted?

The general perception is that you have to have it all figured out before you begin seminary. That is a limited pool that will often have limited capacities.

Seminaries have to find a way to connect the community service movement that defines this generation with the social justice commitment of the church and the powerful message of the Gospel.

Fund Students Who Are Capable of Leading

Some of the most inspiring accomplished and capable leaders in our society are seminary graduates. There are also people attending seminary that either have no interest in (or limited ability to) lead the church. The systems that used to exist for community discernment, which traditionally would screen students for seminary and the ministry, are not as present as they once were.

Seminary can be an important place for self-discovery and restoration. But do not spend valuable scholarship dollars to fund personal journeys.

We need to lift the prohibition of providing financial aid to part time students -- often times they are the ones that need it the most and have the greatest promise for powerful leadership of the church -- and start providing financial aid to part-time students.

While we're at it, let's rethink accepting students who are right out of college. Let's consider taking a page from places like the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, where 90 percent of those accepted have at least two years of working experience. Very few recent college graduates are ready for the kind of seminary experience we are talking about here and for the few that are, it will only benefit them to have another year or more of engagement in the world.

Centers of Engagement

Seminary can't be a time-out from engaging in the world, but must be an incubator for engaging in it.

Gone is that old belief that students must be isolated from distractions so they can learn Hebrew and Greek and study the classical curriculum. These things are important but it makes no sense to ask a generation that wants change the world not to integrate that energy in their academic pursuits.

Seminaries have to create ways where students, either through work-study jobs, part-time employment or field education, have the opportunity to fold their passion for the world into their study.

At Candler School of Theology (Emory University), first year students, as part of contextual education, enroll in a class that immerses them in a social service setting throughout greater Atlanta.

At Wesley Seminary they have launched a new campus in downtown D.C. at Mount Vernon Square so that students might "answer their call to dynamic, applied ministry in the complex social systems of the inner-city." The Urban and Missional Fellows programs provide financial support to students so that they might engage deeply and consistently throughout their seminary experience.

And with 39 non-profits started by Vanderbilt Divinity alumni in the greater Nashville area, students have both opportunities and role models to consider and construct community focused ministries

Reforming at the Core

The Outdated M.Div.? Calling for Reform

The Master of Divinity is the cornerstone of theological education and required by many denominations in order to proceed with the ordination process. Calling for the reform of the M.Div. is perhaps the most unoriginal idea I have suggested here. Many know that it needs to be changed. As grateful as I was for many of my teachers at seminary, their courses left something to be desired in terms of leadership training and skill development.

Critics will argue that seminary is not a trade school, but when students graduate they are expected to run churches and lead publicly. If the M.Div. is going to remain the cornerstone of theological education (and I think it should), it needs to me modernized and inspired.

Joint Degrees

Many of the strongest students I have seen are part of duel degree programs. An obvious match is the M.Div./Masters of Social Work. Less obvious but equally compelling are pairings with law, business, medicine and nursing as offered by places like Vanderbilt Divinity School.

MacAfee School of Religion at Mercer University offers three joint degree programs including Master of Science in Organizational Leadership with a Concentration in Nonprofit (M.Div./MS).

Moving Forward

Back to Luther. Who are we to judge what happened at Luther? Speculating on what leaders at Luther did or should have done is Monday morning quarterbacking.

But all of us who care deeply about Luther and about theological education and the church need to figure out what we might learn from this crisis. With no judgment intended, it feels to me like Luther invested in a future that looked too much like the past, rather than being led by the changing landscape and radical influences that are defining our future.

I believe that when we vision a new understanding of seminary education and create that, alongside the very prophetic voices of these upcoming leaders, we will have the learning lab and launching pad that seminaries need to become.

Don't count Luther or many of these seminaries out. The schools I work with are filled with the prophetic voices of presidents and deans, have creative leadership in the faculty and dynamic individuals in the student body.

We are a resurrection people. Luther will not only survive, but also thrive and regain its leadership role. Faculty like Rolf Jacobson will lead curriculum reform and Jessicah Duckworth will bring her fresh and creative inquiry and initiatives around engaging young people in the church. Carrie Carroll will continue to create a culture of engagement in her role as Vice President for Student Affairs as the and students like Lindsey Bulger, Jason Clifton, Asher O'Callahan , Kristen Wilcox and Jessica Schenk will lead the campus to a new understanding of itself, rooted in tradition yet relevant and hopeful for the future.