It’s that time of year again. New books, backpacks, technology, schedules, classes and teachers conspire with learners to develop their lives. At every level of education, including graduate study in seminaries, the goal is to engage students in the practices that will allow them to flourish in pathways of meaningful employment.
Observers know that it is not an easy time for higher education in general, and the challenge for theological schools is even greater in this unsettled cultural moment. We do have more mission than money; perhaps we also have more mission than workers for God’s harvest (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2), at least traditional ones.
I have just attended my 33rd faculty retreat, one every fall since 1984. (I will have an exemption from purgatory for these acts of supererogation). I actually love this annual kick-off to the academic year, and the time spent with thoughtful colleagues is renewing. One might surmise that every possible problem that could possibly arise would be solved by now, but much has shifted in these past decades of ministry preparation.
Faculty retreats provide time to look ahead at what is next in theological education and what the seminary needs to do to prepare creative leaders for the church and community. During our school’s recent time at Conception Abbey — a wonderful Benedictine context for prayer and reflection — faculty members explored how demographic trends for churches, and consequently seminaries, call us to new approaches in recruitment and formation.
We considered the implications of America’s changing religious landscape, especially the decline of Christians as a predominant share of population. According to the Pew Research Center, the “unaffiliated” and other faiths continue to grow. Where will we find students interested in ministry? The usual feeder systems for seminary — churches and college religion departments — are not as robust in our time. Many congregations do not think sufficiently about the next generation of ministers and thus do not practice the discernment processes of noticing, naming and nurturing giftedness among their members.
Younger adults in their 20s and 30s are particularly prone to move toward an unaffiliated status, and the reasons are varied. Many are suspicious of institutions, preferring to lessen the overhead in order to use resources for more direct impact. Many perceive the church to be judgmental and intolerant; some perceive its “doctrine” as fixed and irrelevant to urgent contemporary concerns. The necessity of frequent moving for jobs also contributes to a lack of connection with a community of faith.
One of the most striking reasons for younger adults to avoid affiliation is the perception that churches believe arcane, scientifically vacuous notions about the origin of the earth, environmental issues, human identity and Christian triumphalism. Others contend that faith and reason are in opposition, which is a gross over-simplification, in my judgment.
Yet, God continues to beckon these to devote their lives to bringing about horizons of transformation in this broken, upside-down world. Their yearnings to put the world to rights, as N. T. Wright says, is an echo of a voice that summons their very lives. God is still speaking, but the world makes it hard to hear. Habits of distraction, especially, contribute to neglect of the true self and its holy aspirations.
Even so, burning desires for justice will find expression. Where do these younger adults congregate to fuel their passion to overcome myriad forms of oppression? Recently one of our professors attended a forum on payday lending, and the venue was crammed with young adults. They also populate the numerous gatherings and demonstrations that protest racial violence, unjust policing, unfair urban policies and educational disparities. Recruitment efforts may need to reconsider the social space prospects inhabit.
What passes for Christian ministry also requires expansion. Jürgen Moltmann considers a spiritual gift anything that is used for the common good; it is not relegated only to the Body of Christ. In the same way, Christian leadership functions both within traditional ecclesial settings and far beyond. Many professions — teaching, social work, business, health care, etc. — lend themselves to creative ministry. Theological education hones attentiveness to the spiritual contours of humanity and imbues these vocations with a transcendent meaning. The boundary between church and community is becoming more permeable, and this is a constructive development.
I am grateful for wise faculty members who seriously engage this shifting religious terrain. They continue to adapt pedagogical approaches and even how they articulate their theological grounding in order to make their wonderful expertise and ministry practice more accessible and attractive.
It is imperative that theological schools continue to innovate in order to provide the creative leaders churches and society need. The mission of preparing Christian ministers who will serve in diverse contexts is more important than ever, and schools must eagerly seek to engage what is occurring now and anticipate what may come next.