Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Future of Seminary Education

Seminaries across North America (and the rest of the world too, I suspect) are facing numerous challenges as they move into the future. There are economic realities to be faced, but there are also major shifts occurring in the nature of education today. I try to pay attention to what is happening in primary education, because those students will be our students in a decade. I fear that pedagogical practices for most seminary programs is looking more and more outdated. We have made the obligatory moves of updating to email and web sites and using PowerPoint and having tech podiums in our classrooms. We have seen the writing on the web and have created more opportunities for online classes. Of course all this has created new challenges of having to learn how to do all this technology stuff in addition to all the academic proficiencies we are expected to have. We are also having to figure out what the move to more and more virtual/online experiences means for being able to support an expensive residential campus.
A lot of the changes we are making seem to me as if we are simply doing things the way we have always done them and merely adding a little digital glitter. We need to be reflecting more broadly--and more pointedly--about the nature of seminary education. We have begun this process at my institution (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg), but we are having troubles even identifying where we should be starting.
Is it going to continue to be viable to expect our Master of Divinity students to complete a required four year course of instruction which includes one year of internship when it means multiple relocations, accumulation of significant debt, and the prospects of a position where it will be difficult to pay off that debt? How do we respond to the move by other institutions to reduce the degree program to two years post-bachelors or even bundle it with an undergraduate program into a five-year total program? Can we increase our online offerings without reducing the viability of our residential program? Should we be going ahead on our own, or is this the type of thing whereby we should be partnering with other institutions? Do we need to be rethinking our education requirements altogether so that, in their present locations, persons in ministry are students in training? What do church leaders really need to know and what skills should they have one/five/ten years after graduation? Is the future going to be in training professionals or providing ongoing continuing education for laity?
My 'feeling' at this point is that residential institutions are going to need to clearly define their reason for existing. We cannot assume that students will come simply because it was just the thing to do. We are going to have to consider the goal of seminary education in a world that is decreasingly defined by denominations and increasingly shaped by non-Christian perspectives even as it is also becoming more 'spiritual.' We are going to have to define our niche as an institution of higher Christian education. We are going to have to be more sharply focused... Yet, even as we become more particular, I think we also will need to become more globally-aware. I am not talking about preparing more missionaries. I am talking about the need for greater interaction with the global Christian community that already exists.
It is easy for a Christian in the United States to have a pretty limited view. This blog has helped me realize the international scope of those who are interested in biblical studies. Look at all those red dots on the map at the top of this post, even from countries where Christianity is severely limited or even persecuted! How, then, can we focus on our special strengths and at the same time develop a global vision?
So, for lack of a better forum, I am posting here. If you have exemplary practices or ideas, please share them. I also would like to propose one possibility of my own, and I will describe that in the next post.

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