This past week the board of trustees met at our school, and we sorted through the challenges of theological schools as churches face decline. The state of the church and the state of the seminary are closely tied, and we need one another more than ever.
Many debate whether a theological education is necessary for effective ministry. We all know stories of the self-taught minister or of those who apprenticed with revered and experienced leaders and never went to seminary. Some have served effectively, but more have not. The challenge with this kind of limited preparation is that the learner does not hear the challenge of many voices; the learner is not confronted with the sweep of theological interpretation of “the faith once delivered.” Irenaeus spoke of the “heresy of truncation,” by which he meant narrowing the richness of the Christian tradition to one’s own bias.
We know that many seminaries are in trouble; there are few that are not fragile in some way. I recently attended a gathering of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship seminary presidents and deans, and I again heard the challenge of recruitment, the burgeoning debt of seminarians, issues of placement for women graduates, the white privilege of which many seminaries are oblivious. It is a “troubled industry.”
The mission of a seminary matters more than ever! Ministers are “stewards of the mysteries” of the faith, as Paul put it. It is their responsibility to serve as reliable guides in the things of the Spirit. Their study and contextualized learning forms a pastoral imagination that prompts them to move toward people with appropriate demonstrations of care, with appropriate boundaries.
Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment named “pastoral imagination” as short-hand for the adaptive, wise leadership capacity which excellent pastors exhibit, in the words of Eileen Campbell-Reed and Chris Scharen. Pastoral imagination refers to an individual’s capacity for seeing a situation of ministry in all its holy and relational depths, and responding with wise and fitting judgment and action.
The church is changing. As we commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we wonder if it was the first symptom of Christendom’s ultimate demise. Alan Bean describes Christendom as “the close identification of the Christian Church with the powers that be.” And it has been on a downward trajectory for 500 years. Constantinian Christianity is in its dotage, as he puts it.
We all know the trends in church attendance and the challenge of engaging younger adults. The close affinity of white evangelicals with current political agents may prove to be the death knell for segments of Christianity as we have known them in America. Many younger adults attend non-denominational churches or, more commonly, they view religion with a combination of incomprehension and derision, as Bean observes.
Public Religion Research Institute recently released “America’s Changing Religious Identity, a view of the American religious landscape:
- White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public.
- White evangelical Protestants are in decline — along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.
- Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in 10.
- America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christians. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups.
- Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religious unaffiliated. Most are secular.
- Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religious unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24 percent) who are religiously unaffiliated.
Clearly there is a generational shift in religious identity, yet there is some good news in all of this.
Visionary leaders are asking about whether present connotations for Christianity and evangelicalism have any future. We know that reinforcing the ways of Christendom, where Christianity had cultural privilege, will not do.
A seminary is still relevant if:
- It prepares students to cut through the thicket of competing claims with wisdom from above.
- It cultivates a love for the church that is in order to shape it for the future.
- It welcomes and promotes a multi-cultural ethos.
- It cultivates respect for the lived religion of others in a religiously plural world.
- It takes note of the wounds students bring with them, especially where they have experienced injustice.
- It equips learners to engage America’s changing religious identity.
Seminary graduates need equipping to form communities dedicated to transformative practices of prayer and worship, a place where belonging trumps believing — at least at the beginning. A recent graduate of our school served as a seminary intern in a progressive church, and she found a way to permeate the boundary between church and community as the congregation began to welcome those with no ecclesial home. Through their identification with the oppressed minorities of the world, a new vitality emerged, and the church created a position for her ministry. This is where authentic growth will occur.
A seminary will remain relevant as it forms people with the capacity to discern and join the movement of God in this world. It is a challenging and joyful mission.