The verdict is in. A growing body of national studies and initiatives all indicate that cultural shifts in society and demographic changes among seminary students demand a reconsideration of how we educate and train people for ecclesial leadership for the third millennium. Students have educational needs and backgrounds significantly different than they did 25 years ago, when many current seminary leaders began their careers in theological teaching. Churches themselves have needs that are significantly different from those they had 25 (or even 10) years ago, and they are looking for new kinds of leaders to meet those needs. These changes have led to a growing realization that old modes of theological education are no longer adequate and in many cases fall far short of what is needed to provide leadership for today’s church.

Early Efforts

This realization has been growing for several decades. In the 1960s, action trainers issued a call for change as they attempted to respond to the urban context, with its new demands for the relevance of theological education. Bold experiments conducted by the Inter-Faith Metropolitan Theological Education program (Inter-Met) from 1971 to 1977 and New York Theological Seminary from 1969 to 1975 sought to respond to substantial population shifts to urban centers and the rise of diverse constituents from under-represented communities, including women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. At New York Seminary those previously excluded from theological education became new and vocal partners. In the case of Inter-Met, the experiment ended, but New York Theological Seminary has sustained its distinctive emphases on urban realities and gender and ethnic diversity to this day.

In addition to these efforts, the rise and development of doctor of ministry programs sought to address the ever-present needs for continuing education among clergy as they addressed the changing contours of their ministries with resilience and faithfulness to the Christian Gospel.

Calls and actions for reform in the content and shape of theological education emerged from changes in the kind of people attending and being served by seminaries—such as increasing numbers of women and ethnic minorities—and from shifts in their contexts, with urbanization influencing life in suburbs, small towns, and rural settings in addition to cities.

Today, calls for reform in theological education are coming from people within the walls of theological seminaries and their various constituencies who are responding to shifts in the wider world. The demise of Christendom and the end of modernity are two of the most obvious of these. They have placed us in a post-Christendom, postmodern world in which most of the answers and even many of the questions that were valid in a modern Christendom world are no longer pertinent. Without the cultural support for Christian values and activities, lacking a means of effectively communicating the faith in a world that is skeptical about truth, Christians are in many ways a people living in exile. Much of what we depended upon to bring meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives and faith is gone. Our current model of theological education is a product of a world that no longer exists. It worked effectively in the world for which it was intended, but no longer enables the effective and faithful formation of the pastoral leadership that is needed in our churches. Change, therefore, is essential.

Recent Research and Experiments

In response to changes in the now globalized and increasingly fragmented world and the skills required for ministerial leadership, seminaries are required to assess how they go about informing and forming church leaders. While some essential skills are not new ones, all of them require both a revitalized understanding and new insights for implementation in order to be effective in today’s world. Some of the most significant of these skills are communal and societal analysis, community organizing, and the ability to lead transformational change, nurture spiritual formation, and encourage faith practices.

Denominations and local churches are beginning to propose alternatives to traditional master of divinity programs, and some megachurches are opting to develop their own educational programs for the formation of leaders they desire. The emerging church movement and related networks are fostering linkages across seminaries to respond to the needs of developing leaders for “the missional church” in the third millennium. Discernment and historical perspective are required to distinguish priorities and how best to respond to the call for reform.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, under the leadership of Charles R. Foster and an able team of researchers, completed a landmark study of theological education in 2006. Their study is described and analyzed in Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination, which is being widely read and digested by theological faculties across the nation.<sup>1</sup> This study provides a common terminology for understanding the processes of professional preparation for pastors, priests, and rabbis and how best to reflect upon current practices in theological education while planning for the future. Theological faculties are revisiting their priorities and reconceptualizing theological education as the formation of character and virtues in relation to the mentoring of students.

In his recent book God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations, Jackson W. Carroll calls for excellence in pastoral ministry and excellence in the theological education that prepares people for that ministry. He proposes combining the best of formal, basic theological study in seminaries with apprenticeship and continuous reflection on the practice of ministry throughout one’s service. The current dominant model of graduate theological education is to be supplemented with the earlier model of apprenticeship that predated the Andover experiment that began in 1808, combining the ideals of piety and intellect in the formation of pastor/scholars. The Andover model later became the Andover Newton model, which linked effective practice to the formation of piety and intellect. Over time the implicit curriculum that shaped piety was stretched thin, partly due to the decreased time many students spent on campus as increasing numbers of commuters entered the student body, and partly as the result of the arrival of people with limited actual church experience who responded to God’s call for professional theological education. To address this deficit, theological schools are called to attend more directly to the spiritual and faith formation of students in nurturing their pastoral identity and imagination.

One noteworthy broader-based effort has emerged from the Allelon Foundation with its Missional Schools Project. A group of 26 schools of theology from diverse traditions are exploring missional leadership formation within the changing context of North America. Their hunch is that a new understanding of the church as missional calls for new leadership that can respond to new demands and expectations for pastoral leaders. This effort sustains connections with the emerging church movement and Church Innovations. What has become apparent in this effort is the need for schools of theology to renew their partnerships with both churches and denominations in forging a new educational ecology or configuration of interlocking institutions and organizations committed to effective Christian witness and mission in the world. From the perspective of theological schools, such renewed partnerships in the formation of church leadership call for both revisiting field education programs and spiritual formation efforts in a direct way.

Once seminaries deepen their church connections, the issue of the theological educat
ion of laity re-emerges along with the formation of clergy to work in partnership with informed laity if Christian mission is to happen in the world. In discerning the relationship between laity and clergy, Gabriel Fackre, Abbott Professor of Theology Emeritus of Andover Newton, proposed that clergy have ministries of identity and laity ministries of vitality in their joint mission. Ministries of identity are afforded clergy with their access to church traditions and histories through their theological study. Ministries of vitality are afforded laity with their larger daily engagement with the world. It is obvious that both clergy and laity are bound together in being the whole people of God formed to bear witness to their living faith in the world. For such engagement with the world, creative and critical theological reflection, spiritual imagination, and transformative practice are needed by both clergy and laity. The danger exists in forging new partnerships that settle for quick fixes that fail to honor the particulars of distinct settings while grappling with a common challenge.

No one knows yet what a seminary of the future will look like, but we can make some guesses about the kinds of questions that will need to be asked in the discovery process. It appears that this new form of theological education probably won’t be theological education at all—at least in the exclusively graduate, professional, degree-granting school understanding of the term. While Educating Clergy makes a significant contribution to this discussion in its in-depth look at the pedagogy used in a limited number of seminaries, it offers a largely in-house perspective on the issue. It assesses what is happening and in doing so points to some best practices. There is a need, however, for a broader discussion, one that looks beyond the academy and even to the margins in order to gain insight for what the seminary of the future might be. That discussion can follow three separate yet related avenues: re-shaping clergy formation, re-imagining the purpose of the seminary, and re-envisioning the place of the seminary.

Re-shaping Clergy Formation

Seminaries need a dynamic new partnership with congregations and practicing clergy. Jackson Carroll’s work starts in the right direction in that it moves beyond the academy to the congregation, drawing on its understanding of leadership needs, skills, and arts. It is no longer a semi-isolated field work experience that provides practical experience. Rather, practical experience becomes the very grounding of the formation of clergy.

Jeff’s younger son, Ben, a recent college graduate, has begun work in a small financial planning and investment firm. The core of his experience is an apprenticeship, as he works closely with the president of the firm. But there is another essential dimension to his formation. It is a rigorous series of certifications he must pass to qualify as a certified financial planner, to trade securities, to offer insurance, and more. It is through these that he acquires the knowledge he needs to practice his profession. That knowledge is essential, but it is of little use unless it is coupled with the “art” of financial planning that he is acquiring through his apprenticeship experience. The certified financial planner “imagination,” to adopt a phrase from Educating Clergy, cannot simply be taught. It has to be lived into. If, in a similar fashion, pastoral imagination cannot be taught but must be lived into, that suggests a reordering of the focus of clergy formation. At the very least it requires a movement away from semi-autonomous field education programs to an approach that thoroughly integrates practice into every dimension of theological education. In a more radical form, it suggests moving the locus of theological education from the academy to the congregation so that academic work provides the essential knowledge but is no longer the primary experience.

Brian McLaren, one of the leaders in the emerging church movement, briefly alludes to the possible seminary of the future in his popular book A New Kind of Christian. It will be, he says, “one part monastery, one part mission agency, and one part seminary.”<sup>2</sup> The monastery would care for spiritual formation, the mission agency for involvement in God’s work in the world, and the seminary for the essential knowledge. It’s an intriguing notion. Certainly not a full-blown plan for re-forming the seminary, but it does move beyond the essentially academic model that has shaped theological education the past 200 years.

Re-imagining the Purpose of the Seminary

But it does not stop there. The seminary of the future will need to address the formation of laity for their discipleship in much more significant ways than it has to this point. The financial realities facing many congregations, as well as the reinvigoration of the theology of the priesthood of all believers, will demand it. Congregations that take seriously their role in the equipping of laity for their ministry in both the church and the world are looking for partners in meeting this challenge. These congregations are already providing the place of apprenticeship. What they need is a way for laity to acquire the knowledge they need to minister faithfully and effectively. Might a seminary contract with a congregation that is already nurturing potential leaders to provide the knowledge base those leaders need? There would be little attention to formation issues on the part of the seminary because the congregation itself would already be providing that. There would be no comprehensive curriculum requirements to meet to qualify for a degree, for that would not be wanted. The seminary would simply respond to the request of the congregation by contracting with it to provide essential credentialing in a specific area, be it Christian education, Bible, leadership, or the theology of institutions.

Businesses today are re-forming themselves around core competencies. What if seminaries were to determine their core competencies and begin to offer them in a variety of different packages, each tailored to meet the needs of a specific audience? What if a seminary were to offer not just degrees or programs but portfolios of knowledge, constantly adapting to new realities, appearing in different forms but always based in its core competencies—the unique, special, and essential wisdom it has to offer?

Re-envisioning the Place of the Seminary

There is yet another, even broader, avenue of discussion. That is the role of the seminary, not just in relationship to the church but to society more broadly. For this discussion a return to the insights of Robert Greenleaf might be helpful. Writing more than 25 years ago, Greenleaf posited a hierarchy of institutions in which seminaries played a primary role. The lower level of the hierarchy consists of the institutions that directly serve the public—banks, hospitals, businesses, etc. The middle level is composed of churches on the one hand and universities on the other. Both these institutions serve the lower level institutions by providing the leadership they need to effectively serve society. The third level consists of seminaries (which relate to and serve churches) and foundations (which have the potential to play the same role in relationship to universities). As Greenleaf wrote, “I see the opportunity for the seminary to stand as a constant source of intellectual rigor and prophetic vision, of spiritual energy, and as the support and inspiration for strong leadership and society-shaping influence in churches.”<sup>3</sup>

What is intriguing here is that an outsider has provided a vision of the role of the seminary as one of the most important institutions in society—an institution that exercises primary leadership in the transformation of society. It is a vision that has largely been ignored by seminaries
themselves. Perhaps it’s not the vision itself that is troubling but the changes in seminaries that Greenleaf wrote about—changes he believed were essential to being able to play this role. These included a new and enhanced role for trustees, a movement away from academics to formation, and significantly stronger ties to local congregations that would enable a genuine servant relationship to develop. He also called for a major seminary effort in the development of a theology of institutions that focused on ways institutions engage issues of sin, power, and redemption.<sup>4</sup>

Another perspective on this issue comes from the work of Kenneth Underwood in the 1960s. He explored how seminary education related to the church, the world, and the university. This issue of relationship and the crises that Underwood explored in The Church, the University and Social Policy: The Danforth Study of Campus Ministries must be creatively revisited today if theological education is to maintain its relevance to its wider publics.<sup>5</sup> The crises Underwood named were the crisis of integrity and community, the crisis of celebration and conservatism, the crisis of understanding and inquiry, and the crisis of action and governance, all of which have parallels with recent discussions among theological educators. Theological schools too often fail to effectively interface with the world, the church, and the university, and creative models that will enable these relationships to flourish must be renegotiated today.

We have suggested three areas of essential change that we believe are vital in determining the future shape of the seminary: (1) the reshaping of the process of clergy formation to focus on active engagement in ministry; (2) the re-imagining of the purpose of the seminary to include the equipping of laity for discipleship, and (3) the re-envisioning of the place of the seminary to assume a significant role in the transformation of society through its institutions. Followed to their logical conclusions, discussions in each of these areas will inevitably lead to deep and profound change in the purpose, structure, and offerings of seminaries.

Clearly, discussions in these three areas would serve only as a beginning. The realities of the changing face of mission, technology, the impossibility of ignoring diversity, and the developing global consciousness are all issues that have a profound impact on theological education. Many of these will emerge in discussions in the three areas we have described. None of them, however, can be ignored as the discussion continues.

Discussions such as these are not easy. They call into question virtually everything we are about in seminary education—not to criticize or condemn but to evaluate and enhance, to test and transform. They require more than adjustments in pedagogy and revisions of curriculum. They demand deep change. When the challenge to something we care deeply about is this great it is easy to feel overwhelmed, even defensive and depressed. But there is reason for great hope in the midst of this challenge and every reason to enter these discussions in the spirit of hope. God is at work in our midst to call us to greater faithfulness and more effective ministry. The seminary of the future can be an even more faithful and effective instrument of God’s mission than it has been in the past. The words of a graduate of Andover Theological School from another era who pioneered new forms of God’s mission are important ones to keep in mind any time the challenges are great; Adoniram Judson reminds us today that “the future is as bright as the promises of God.”


1. Charles R. Foster, Lisa Dahill, Larry Golemon, and Barbara Wang Tolentino, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).
2. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 150.
3. Robert Greenleaf, “The Seminary as Servant” in The Power of Servant Leadership, edited by Larry C. Spears (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1998), 176.
4. See “Toward a Theology of Institutions” by David L. Specht with Richard R. Broholm in Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness, ed. by Larry C. Spears and Michelle Lawrence (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 167–200.
5. Kenneth Underwood, The Church, the University and Social Policy: The Danforth Study of Campus Ministries (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).


Questions for Reflection

  1. For those who are seminary graduates: What skills and knowledge that are essential to your ministry were not part of your seminary education? For those who did not attend seminary: What do you sense is most lacking in the leadership “repertoire” of pastors as they provide leadership for congregations in today’s world?
  2. What social and cultural realities do you think are most significant in shaping the role of pastoral leadership in today’s world? In what ways do you believe seminary education responds or does not respond to those realities?
  3. If the seminary is to move beyond an understanding of its role as primarily academic and secondarily professional, what should the new dimensions of that role include?
  4. In what ways might seminaries more effectively serve the faith formation needs of laity?
  5. What would it mean for seminaries and churches to assume the role in the transformation of society through its institutions that Robert Greenleaf describes? Is this role a realistic one?

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