When Is A Seminary Not A Seminary, or Is It Even Possible That It Not Be?

Bob Carlton called my attention to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (no, it’s not the thermonuclear-ly ignorant blogpost that got so much attention) concerning ‘the future of the seminary’. I want to emphasise at the outset that I applaud the authors for their research, and for earning an attention-getting article in the Chronicle — very well done! But I have reservations about the article too, and in the spirit of taking such research seriously — even when reported in the Chronicle, whose standards now seem a little dented and tarnished — I’ll pose some follow-up questions to our intrepid oneiromancers.*
First, let’s bear in mind that we’re talking about ‘the future of seminaries’ or perhaps (it sometimes seems, hough maybe not in careful reporting of the research data) ‘the future of theological education’. If we’re going to ponder the future of such institutions, might we not first of all ask, ‘Is there something about seminary/theological education that needs to persist, or else we’re not talking about seminary/theological education any more?’ That is: Yahoo! can start out as a curated search company, branch out to become a general Web portal, then buy Flickr and show the beginnings of a promising social media hub, then start buying this and cutting that, en route to becoming a successful… or… well, maybe that wasn’t a good example. (Or maybe it was an all too good example.) But if a seminary starts out with educating people for positions of leadership in [Christian] ministry, let’s say, and then adds modern language instruction to its brief, and then notes the value of leadership training for church leaders, and eventually cuts out most of that outdated old theological education, are we still talking about the same institution, the same mission?
True, the times they are a-changing, “time makes ancient good uncouth’, ‘the Spirit will lead you into all truth’, and I’m not arguing that anyone should pretend time has frozen and seminary/theological education has to build a fantasy crystal dome to keep the modern world at bay. Rather, before we pose the question of what sem/theo education will be in the future, I wonder whether there’s anything that one might reaonably expect sem/theo education to be in general. If it turns out that language instruction and leadership training bring home the pedagogical bacon such that a place that once called itself a ‘seminary’ now devotes relatively less time to teaching about the Bible, or doctrine, or history, or theological ethics, or liturgical theology, and more time to topics related to the exercise of a professional office (and PR), do we want to say that the appropriate usage of the term ‘seminary’ has changed, or that the Grace L Ferguson Aluminum Storm Door and Theological Seminary should now just call itself GLFASD and Language and Leadership Institute?
I’ve been skeptical on this point for a long time, so for fairness’s sake, let’s mark my questions down to obdurate traditionalism. A. K. M. Adam, postmodern theorist, technologist, and narrow-minded retrograde stick-in-the-mud, that’s me. Let’s do some figuring, though. The article cites as one of the ‘changes’ facing sem/theo education that seminaries encounter ‘increasing numbers of seminary students who have not grown up in the church’. While not all churches do a great job of teaching the rudiments of faith to young congregants, it’s hard to imagine that in the aggregate, recent Christians know a great deal more about Christian faith than would lifelong adherents — or does keeping away from church convey a better sense of what church is about than remaining in and participating? (If that’s the case, if not growing up in the church is better formation than growing up, we have some fascinating years ahead — but having learned and taught in theological academia for the past thirty years, I have not encountered evidence that avoidance of church provides better education than long-term participation. In a word, the article posits a reason for suspecting that entering students know less under the general category of sem/theo education than they have in the past.
The article also notes that sem/theo institutions are ‘giving greater attention to training in leadership, business practices (such as budgeting), and evangelism, as well as… interfaith dialogue and the inclusion of religious education for their students’. So students who know less about theological topics coming in the door, are now being taught less in theological disciplines. (You obviously can’t add all these courses to the curriculum and at the same time keep the same number of hours in theological topics — as it is, we who teach ministry students face pressure to get them out the doors faster, thus saving precious time and money.)
I doubt there’s a coherent way to compare church leaders who trade away leadership training in favour of theological instruction (on one hand) to church leaders who make the opposite choice (on the other), but the results would be fascinating. As it is, we who read the research learn that clergy whose training emphasises leadership talk about how helpful it has been (terrific!), and many who take a theology-heavy curriculum complain about it (booo!). That’s an important data point — but it doesn’t show that churches should move to leadership training rather than, oh, say, theological education. If one wants to draw conclusions from that sort of research, one will have to control for a great many more variables, and show a strong set of links to support one’s hypothesis. Among the variables one will have to control for, I’d nominate: Does the research assume that the sem/theo educators were doing a good job at theological education in the first place? (It’s entirely conceivable that the reported widespread dissatisfaction with theological education has to do with mediocre theological education, after all.) Do we know that the sem/theo graduates who are enthusiastic for leadership training understood [Christian] ministry in the same way that graduates who opted for a theology-heavy curriculum understood it? (Again, it’s not at all out of the question that we’re talking about two populations with significantly different goals.) And there are the well-known problems with drawing simple inferences from complex past cultural ecologies (though the leadership trainees may have skipped a few semesters of history, so that might not be equally apparent across the curriculum).
To return to my opening rumination, as this is already getting too long, and even longer with each parenthetical digression: before we diagnose the future of theological education, might we not begin by thinking through what we mean by, want from, ‘theological education’? Before we rush wholesale into competing with one another to incorporate more ‘leadership training’, might we begin by checking to ascertain the tremendous benefits that have accrued to the practice of management through the introduction of ‘leadership training’? (We sure dodged a bullet on that financial crisis — imagine how much worse things would have been if we didn’t have a class of business leaders and middle managers who know their stuff when it comes to leadership!) And since church governance has been putting an emphasis on ‘leadership’ for more than a dozen years now, can we check the health reports of our churches to get a rough sense of how much worse off the churches would be if their leaders had spent those terms learning about theology?
Most of these questions involve research data that we probably can’t get at, and that few if any people really want to know about anyway. As the article notes, there’s ‘a widening chasm between Christian churches and seminaries’ (though before we get excited about that as a ‘trend’, we might recall the very many theologians whose students are reputed to have stabbed them to death with their pens — a cursory survey pulls up Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Artemas of Pozzuoli, Felix of Pincas, Mark of Arethusa, Cassian of Imola) (oooh, no, not church history!) (but wait, those aren’t all examples of teachers killed for their bad pedagogy!) (but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t care about sound ecclesiastical historiography, so theological education wins that way, too). Might part of the problem lie in churches’ growing dissatisfaction with the graduates whom seminaries produce, to which seminaries have been responding by sending out graduates who are less and less well-formed as parochial theologians? (Maybe, maybe not, but assuming that the right response will be ‘even more leadership training’ doesn’t constitute a scholarly conclusion to the problem under consideration. Nor, of course, does my shooting from the hip — though I’m not advancing my marksmanship as scholarly evidence, either.)
The academy is a very peculiar place, with forces and customs and practices and neuroses distinctive to its own milieu. As culture changes around theological academies, we ought by all means expect the seminaries to change, too. We ought probably allow for them to change in some unforeseen ways, and we ought to wish they’d make some changes that seem as plain as the nose on my face. Heck, we can wish someone would change my nose, while we’re at it. But when we undertake analyses of the current state and the future state of theological education, let’s ask questions about theological education itself, and not solely supplements or alternatives to theological education.


* I use the term ‘oneiromancers’ for variety’s sake, compared with the shopworn ‘prognosticators’ or ‘crystal ball-gazers’; I don’t question the integrity of their research results in the slightest. In fact, it’s the research premises that seem problematic to me, as you will have seen if you read to the bottom before you looked for this note. If you jumped straight down to the bottom, well, I guess I should have said ‘spoiler alert!’ first. Sorry.

2 thoughts on “When Is A Seminary Not A Seminary, or Is It Even Possible That It Not Be?

  1. Thank you for taking an interest in the article we wrote. I don’t disagree with many of your points. I think you make a fair assessment in the need to further qualify the results from the premises of what we presented. I likewise think that your critique of our statement on leadership education is interesting and, perhaps, appropriate. However unsatisfying it may be, we had 900 words to work with and so we made content choices based upon that limitation. I will say that the original submission to The Chronicle was substantially longer. Below is a link to my blog, to which I posted the original first half of the essay. This might give you a clearer idea of the motivations behind writing on this topic and the questions we asked and, therefore, the issues that seemed most relevant to cover in a brief essay.


  2. Dear Jason,
    First of all, You should know that in the 70s I bought a $150 Bottechia and gradually rebuilt it with Campy parts; I wish I still had it, but my academic/ecclesiastical career has involved many relocations, only one of which was fully subsidised, and somewhere between Pittsburgh and St Petersburg it fell by the wayside.
    You and Ms Douglass have my full sympathy about writing to a 900-word limit. That scale makes it hardly possible to produce a sensitive reading of complex data in way that will catch and hold a reader’s attention. You’re to be commended for snagging the opportunity to present your research in the Chronicle in the first place, and I hope it draws attention to your more extensive analysis.
    I do hope that you consider the possibility that the mania for ‘leadership’ may reflect more of a cultural fad than an integral element of Christian education (one that we somehow neglected for two thousand years, but only just now noticed was necessary, to no noticeable benefit for the churches). Where do positive assessments of the benefits of ‘leadership’ come from? Does Harvard Divinity School — institutionally tied to one of the bastions of the very best in leadership education, Harvard Business School — devote a significant proportion of its curriculum to leadership? (Maybe so, it’s an honest question.) Here’s another: is ‘leadership’ a fungible quality, for which knowledge of particular institutions, especially institutions whose mission derives not from market forces but from a historic (if not transcendent) mandate, doesn’t matter? Should seminaries turn out ‘leaders’ who could just as easily move into corporate management? How much, if anything, ought a church leader understand about — you know — the church?
    So, two caveats: First, I’m just a biblical theologian whose Scholasrhip doesn’t overlap much with Ronald Heifetz or Jack Welch. Any skepticism I express may simply reflect my vocational interest in teaching people about the Bible, theology, and church history, whereas the advocates for leadership may be disinterested spokespeople for a natural, necessary desideratum. And second, because I’m more oriented toward parsing verbs and examining historical records, I’m less likely to be an expert reader of social-scientific research; there may well be nuances of proof, or demonstration, or persuasion, that social-scientific research deems sufficient, but which I don’t understand well enough to accede to.

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