Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Future of Theological Education

Discussions as of late have again turned to the future of theological eduction.  Gottesdienst Online waded back into the fray with the article "Economics in One Lesson - or - My Plan to Save the Seminaries," a followup, of sorts to a related article in 2010, "Don't Go to the Seminary." At the center of the debate one finds the recurring issue of the "Specific Ministry Program," adopted by the Missouri Synod at its convention in 2007.  The Brothers of John the Steadfast recently supplied yet another article, this one by Issues, Etc's Todd Wilken, entitled "A New Category of Pastor: A Prescient Warning."   A review of the above writings will bring you up to speed with the discussion, at least among those concerned for the current state of theological education.

When the SMP program was initially proposed and approved, I had my own concerns.  Having witnessed the weaknesses in the old DELTO program (Distance Education Leading to Ordination), it seemed that a replacement of the program might lead to much needed improvements.  However, when I heard that the requirement for Greek was waived in this new adventure, my concerns raised considerably.  Was this yet another shortcut to fast track men to the finish line?  Having had a discussion with a man a couple of years ago who wished to take advantage of the program, I remember stressing at the time that this was intended specifically for special situations, such a ethnic ministries, where options were limited and one needed to identify the man from within the local culture itself.  Since that time reports have drifted my way of situations where larger parishes are using the program, it seems, in ways not originally intended.  For the sake of the Synod a full and complete review of the program is in order, along with a detailed report to the next convention.  I hope someone is on that one.

All this brings to the fore the ongoing question of what theological education should look like in our new era.  Having recently entered back into post-graduate theological education myself, I remember weighing the various options and debating with myself which choice offered the best education.  For a long time online programs were tempting.  They offered convenience.  Reputable institutions now offered them.  With access to the internet the promise of an advanced degree of my choice seemed only a keystroke away.  In the end I chose a more residential program that was only 3 1/2 to 4 hours away, an important criteria for me.  Having now experienced the program, I realized again the value of ones education occurring in the context of community, with the dynamic of discussion between student and professor as well as between the students themselves.  Admittedly, with the technology available to us, it can be argued that the same can be reproduced via chat rooms and such.  Perhaps.  Still, something seems missing, not to mention the additional benefit of community worship.  This cannot be reproduced electronically.

I realize that the future of theological education will involve more of a distance component than in previous generations.  Many students come as second career men, some with families and debts in tow.  The unique challenge of ethnic ministries also presents challenges that sometimes are best met by extension-based education.  The article referenced above on Gottesdienst presents some interesting solutions.  However, some of the solutions simply will not occur in this Synod, in this time.  SMP, for good and/or ill, is no doubt here to stay for the indefinite future.  The Association of Theological Schools continues to endorse higher and higher percentages of distance components for accredited institutions.  Class sizes may also remain smaller in future years, forcing the seminaries into creative solutions that may not always appeal to us, as they try to attract new students who simply will not consent to a complete residential program.  Add to this the larger, mega churches, whose influence (disproportionate though it be in respect to the fact that they represent a small minority of parishes overall), will continue to press for changes to suit their own needs.  Where will this all lead?  Who knows? Still, I think we must anticipate where it is going and ask the hard questions.

I remain concerned for the future of theological education.  Hopefully I will have a voice in the decisions that determine changes yet to come.  As one who continues to be academically involved in the process I am prepared to work for better solutions.

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