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Issues Facing Missions Today: 38. Ministerial Formation and its Cost at a Time of Change

Issues Facing Missions Today: 38. Ministerial Formation and its Cost at a Time of Change

An interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st century: theological education as we knew it began to change dramatically.  To be sure, not everyone realizes this even now—the process of change is still underway.  Consider several factors affecting the changes in theological education, but the one factor that might be top of the list is the increasing cost of an academic education. 

Some Factors Leading to Changes in Theological Education

Technological Changes
By the end of the 20th century, residential education had a new rival: online education.  This is still an unfolding story, but it began with the use of computers in the 1980s and powerpoint slides, e-mail, and the internet in the 1990s.  Alongside these presentation developments were research capabilities as primary and secondary sources that could be searched online or in databases began to appear.  In 1994, one could send one line of e-mail at a time.  By 2005, one could search ancient sources in Greek, Latin, or in translation on the web in a way that could rival most theological libraries.

Theological and Ecclesiastical Changes
Other, non-technical changes began to unfold in the second half of the 20th century.  Mainline denominations increasingly opened themselves up to unorthodox convictions and practices, often championed by faculty in their theological seminaries.  Students increasingly came from non-denominational churches that had no expectations regarding the curriculum—particularly the three-year, Master of Divinity degree.  Churches began asking whether ministerial training did not involve spiritual formation and mentoring of interns as much as in-class, academic studies.  The demise of the Bible School, where there had been more integration (but weak academics), left seminaries to rediscover the need for more than a primarily academic focus in the seminary.

Educational Changes
Postmodern notions about truth pressed for alternatives to classroom lectures, as did pedagogical theories about how learning best takes place.  Accrediting agencies lagged far behind the technological advancements that were creating new options for learning, such as flipped classrooms and online education.

Global Changes
Internationally, other developments began to unfold.  In Eastern Europe, the demise of communist governments opened up the possibility of theological education without persecution, even with state-supported funds if programs could be validated.  Some institutions in the United Kingdom explored the possibility of validating degree programmes outside the UK, although this was an uncomfortable arena for the government.  At the same time, European nations increasingly wanted to provide their own validation—formerly communist governments and universities were trying to get their heads around validation for theological education.  Unsustainable theological institutions proliferated, only to fade after a decade or two because, in part, fewer and fewer students enrolled.  Initially, some students saw theological education as a way to get to the West; others saw it as a way to advance in the Church or socially, as in any profession.  Yet the small size of Protestant churches in Eastern Europe meant that many ministers had to be bi-vocational, and it was better to spend one’s time and money for education on some university degree rather than for a theological education.  Many theological colleges quickly found that the costs of residential education were prohibitive.

In parts of Asia where the Church had grown (except in China), theological education quickly became academically competitive with Western programs, at least at the master’s level of study.  Many South Koreans valued a Western theological education, and their willingness to pay high prices for a non-contextual theological education helped to keep some Western theological seminaries afloat financially.  The future ‘market’ for future theological education in Asia is particularly in China, although government policies towards Christianity have made development difficult.

Africa, with the fastest growth of Christianity in recent times, has a tremendous need for theological education.  Over 80% of those involved in ministry lack any theological education.  Syncretism and unorthodoxy thrive alongside a vibrant orthodoxy.  There are some fairly well developed seminaries on the continent—a continent three times the size of the United States.  Yet every country could benefit from more and better programmes for theological education.  South America has seen considerable growth of the Protestant Church as well, although much of this growth has been in Pentecostal Churches that traditionally do not value theological education—or that are content with weak academic programmes.  On both continents, there is a tremendous opportunity for theological development, but the need for stronger academic programmes could mean a duplication of the West’s mismanagement of ministerial training if it is not pursued carefully—and differently.

North America is seeing quite a shift in theological education.  Mainline denominations are dying due to liberal theological agendas: who would spend all that time and money to study Scripture when it is not considered authoritative?  Who cares about a curriculum of theology and the historical Church when it is thought to be the product of sexually repressed authoritarians who could not celebrate diversity and creativity?  In such a context, what, other than social work (called ‘ministry’), is worth studying at a theological seminary?  This situation has created a need and opportunity in North America for new Evangelical theological seminaries and programmes to develop alongside older ones, but this comes at the same time that statistics suggest that Christianity is beginning to wane in the US.  Moreover, population growth in the country is largely from Hispanic immigrants, for whom master’s level theological studies are not that appealing at this time (give it a generation—or perhaps this opportunity is already unfolding).  A consequence of all this—and an indication of the pressures on theological education—is that some newer Evangelical denominations are dropping the expectation of a three year M.Div. degree and exploring alternative two year degrees.

Financial Increases
Financial pressures more than anything else seem to be driving the discussion of the need for change in theological education.  The cost of education inflated phenomenally after the 1980s.  Students entering master’s level theological programmes in the US came with huge debts from their four-year bachelor’s degrees.  The American model of a four year liberal arts degree followed by a three year Master of Divinity meant seven years of training for pastoral ministry—a luxury that could really only make sense in a fairly wealthy economic context with young persons starting their preparation for ministry early.  It especially worked well in the US in the 20th century (although Archbishop Cranmer was able to take eight years at Cambridge University in the 16th century).  It makes no sense in Africa, even today.  If a residential programme is more costly than online education, if foreign students help pay the bills, if a two year degree is financially much more affordable than a three year degree, then seminaries are opting for changes.  Change seems to be coming more for financial reasons than any desire for greater academic quality or better ways to prepare people for ministry. 

It may well be that some online courses are better than classroom courses (I believe so), and it may be that a two year, academic study of Scripture and theology could be better than a three year degree.  This change, however, must come with a much greater focus on discipleship and spiritual formation and on practical experience and mentoring in ministry.  Yet the current discussion seems to be dominated particularly by financial concerns.  This is a very sad situation, since there is good reason to make major changes in theological education.

Planning For the Future
Where entirely new ministerial training is being developed outside the West, the opportunity to do this well presents itself.  The problem is that the ‘standard’ seems to be the approach that was developed over centuries in Europe and North America.  Among the various things that could be said—a book-length discussion would only begin to engage the issues—a few things might be suggested here.

We should understand ministerial training to involve academic study, spiritual formation, and mentoring in ministry.  Academic study should involve classroom and online study.  Spiritual formation should involve the local church, internships, retreats, and discipleship under a spiritually mature believer.  Mentoring in ministry should involve actual engagement and supervision in various ministries.  Imagine ministries that are largely run by ‘students’ but under the guidance of capable ministers—children’s ministries, Bible studies, church planting, and so forth.  

Academic study should cover areas of Biblical studies, Church history, theology, and ethics in particular.  Training in ministry should be conceived as a life-long learning programme, even if one obtains certificates along the way.  Spiritual formation is the most difficult training to plan as it involves the heart of an individual.  Some focus could be given to internships of various lengths and to retreats, but perhaps the most important thing would be to spend time with mature believers engaged in ministry who can disciple people in the faith.  For each of these foci in ministerial training, different kinds of validation or certification would need to be developed.

We have some precedent in all of these suggestions in what has come before—this is not entirely new.  But there is a lot of room to reconfigure what has been done.  We need to move away from the university model for training people for ministry—but without dumbing down our academic training.  We need much more involvement of ministers, churches, and ministries in theological education.  Such changes to ministerial training would improve the present training offered by Western theological seminaries. 

There would also be financial changes.  Seminary training might be reduced to two years and the plethora of degrees that have come into existence to address an ever-widening understanding of ministry could be limited to perhaps two degrees, or one degree with two foci: one in Bible and one in Christian Thought (theology, Church history, ethics).  Denominations or networks of orthodoxy serving various ministries would be the constituencies for theological colleges, rather than the Western approach of offering theological education for interested individuals, who may or may not know where they want to serve in the Church after their theological studies.  These groups of churches would also be expected to develop robust mentoring in ministry programmes leading to certification in various types of ministry.  Also, they should validate programmes that they or others develop for spiritual formation.  Thus there need to be three different programmes: academic study, spiritual formation, and training in ministry.

In conclusion, the Church is facing tremendous change for a variety of reasons, and this includes challenges facing theological education around the world.  These changes offer an opportunity to rethink how we go about ministry training.  The danger is that we will let financial issues drive the discussion.  Financial issues should be addressed, and they can be addressed in creative ways, but we must first rethink how to do ministry training. 

The suggestion offered here is to stream-line what theological colleges and seminaries offer, focusing study on Bible and Christian thought.  This does not mean reducing the focus on other areas of ministry training; it rather means rethinking how this is done.  Opportunities for spiritual formation and certified programmes in ministry that are supervised by mentors—apart from the seminary and directed by denominations or other groupings of churches—could be developed apart from the seminary.  This should not, however, lead to a purely academic focus in the seminary—that would be disastrous.  Rather, courses in the seminary should still focus on spiritual formation and preparation for ministry.  The courses covered in formal theological education, however, would be ones that teach Biblical languages and translation, methods for study in Bible and theology, Church history, Christian ethics, and the like.  Finally, the suggestion has been given that life-long learning, offered by both churches and the seminary, should be a part of the life of the minister—over against the notion that one only studies to prepare for ministry.  (There should be no such thing as ‘alumni/ae’). 

As all this rethinking of ministerial training takes place, it will also reform financial structures.  One result should be that no individual student enters seminary on his or her own and pays for the education.  This should rather be a responsibility of the sponsoring churches or denomination.  Faculty, for that matter, should be funded by their churches and denominations as well.  This will free the student from debt, tie students and faculty to the churches they serve, and free the Church from depending on a financial loan system (offered in some countries) that makes it beholden to the agenda of the government.