Ok, welcome to part 3 of the Mainline shifts towards the next Reformation of Unity.
If you have not read or desire to remember the previous posts, please go back and read them so you are on the same page, because I will reference the previous posts within this one. (Thank you!)
I feel like I’ve covered the three most important pieces on the needed white board of the R&D Departments of the Mainlines: 1. Redefine Clergy and the roles of Clergy, 2. Redefine Ecclesia (what church looks like and acts like), and today I’d like to discuss the third piece a little bit more in-depth: The redefinition of Theological Education.
Not sure if you know it yet, but the seminaries in the US are hurting. For years they have enjoyed the mainline denomination’s requirement for clergy to have a M.Div. to be considered for ordination. This was a great steady stream of income and support the seminaries needed for them to continue in their current practice. But, the reality of the slow death/decline of the mainlines is starting to affect them.
If a denomination requires a M.Div. and then turns around and tells those that graduated that they are running out of churches that can even financially support a clergy in full-connection, then the number of potential clergy attending seminary and willing to take on that amount of debt for a 96 hour Masters degree will greatly decrease. And then this in turn obviously hurts the seminary. And this is being played out more and more as the decline of the mainlines occurs.
This model is not sustainable, and needs to bring about a change. Now, mainlines could change the requirements of clergy education and that; of course, would shift the base line around, but I personally continue to see a need for educated clergy in this world. But, maybe we could shift the length of time that our theological education occurs? The education could be over the course of 7-10 years while real application of doing ministry is expected. I believe if this could be done in community (in-person or online) that would make for a much more well rounded and applicable education. We would be getting a Master’s degree while also doing our practicum the whole time. Or, in other words, we would be excising the practical nature of a “lab” class the whole time we are reading and taking our “lecture” class. This would look differently in each ministry expression being lived into and those different local expressions of the “lab” are brought back to the education of others for an even deeper education experience.
I know from first hand experience that the classes I took in seminary while I was doing ministry were much better applied and understood when I could apply them the very next day in my ministry setting. I could bring to the class the questions of those I was leading that I did not have an answer to, and not only did it helpmeet own education, but the seminary was proving an education for those I was in ministry among.
Now, I believe that the church growth movement was based upon the attractional model of church [“If you build it (and pour tons of money into marketing), they will come”] seeped into the seminaries, as well. I know of several seminary professors that are adamant about never allowing a theological education completely online because there would be a loss of the the in-person community that is formed and grown by forcing the students to move and develop that community to where the seminary is located. While that is a beautiful expression of the church and theological education, it is also just not a sustainable reality financially, nor a model for a missional church.
So, while several seminaries speak of the Misio Dei(The mission of God), and the fact that God being a sent God is the very nature of our God! They teach that the church should stop playing the church growth game and the church should be just be joining God where ever God is already moving. The church should be going too, and not just sitting or staying in one place or building waiting for the world to come to them.
Well, the seminaries of the world need to live into this missional stance. The seminary will be forced to be missional in their approach to those that need a theological education.
One expression I’ve heard of is the seminary is creating a 96-hour M.Div. model that is broken up into 35-hour segments. These 35 hr segments would each come with a certification from the respected Seminary, and they could all be combined eventually into a M.Div., or used separately as a level of certified education that mainline denominations could accept as a new required piece for clergy and they would be specific for their specific area of ministry.
Buit, here is the kicker…. The seminaries GO TO THE PEOPLE!!! I can not tell you how many church planters are in the middle of a church plant, and when the conversation among the leaders in the mainline denomination turn to ordination, the seminaries then tell them they MUST stop the effective fragile ministry they are doing to go get a M.Div., or even offer an online class, but still be gone for 2-3 weeks at a time to go have some in-person time.
The seminaries now have the opportunity to send out professors (maybe 2-3 at a time) that would have similar teaching areas to fulfill the 35 hr segments in 2-3 week-long intensives (similar to J. Terms or Summer 1-month long classes) co-horts that would be located in the areas (all of the US or world) that the church plants are occurring and supplemented through online education. I could see them doing lot of reading for 2-3 months prior to the in-person cohort meetings. This would provide the communal aspect and not expect the students to leave their current ministries. Plus it would provide a missional model for seminaries to, “go where God is already at work”, instead of assuming God only works in theological education ON THEIR campuses.
I’m sure there are several other ideas around this. I know Fuller Seminary just released a M.Div. completely online, so that is an option now, as well. But, there is still a lot of debt to go with that. If these 35 hour segments would come with an “approved by the accreditation board” certificate, then that would go a long way into the future of theological education. What are your thoughts and ideas? What other seminaries are doing things differently for the sake of their future?