Dropping the Gauntlet, the Changing Face of Theological Education

20150109_08024120150109_083357The Oikonomia Network began it’s retreat in earnest through a video presentation by Paul S. Williams, the David J. Brown Family Associate Professor, Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College, that, in essence, dropped the gauntlet on theological education in general. The video was arranged by Greg Forster not to chastise but to set a reflective theme of the challenges we face.

Williams presented at the Faith@Work Summit, and has already received a lot of consideration through blogs and stories. The video set a strong theme on the real challenges faced by seminary education. The litany of critique included the following.

  •  Average professional layperson has to undergo five years or more of professional continuing education, yet often possesses the equivalent of an 8th or 9th grade theological education.
  •  A faulty theology of work, vocation, & mission has been a significant contributor to the secularization of western society.
  • 20150109_081533For all the genuine advances made in formal theological education (T/E), T/E remains primarily clerical in focus and analytical in form (resulting in a separation between theory and practice)
  • Seminary education needs: a stronger partnership with the church, to hire more reflective practitioners, and to collaborate

In particular Williams asserts pastors-in-training need to experience first hand what it means to work in the secular world. Also, theological education needs to be accessible yet not compromise ministerial formation and discipleship

20150109_081550Williams noted that theological education is living in an economic and financial crisis, in part because the mission drift within T/E has caused some churches to abandon seminarian training for more innovative adaptation… while short circuiting the long term formation of ministers critical for global church. He closed by challenging churches to “put their money where their mouth is” to support T/E but also resource creative ventures within those schools.

20150109_081317Forster cautions that the Oikonomia Network need not accept all of the observations, but the overall force and wisdom of the presentation might give us pause. This presentation merely set up a day long conversation on the changing nature of theological education.

20150109_083525The video was followed by a presentation by Dr. Robert Cooley, president of Gordon Conwell for 16 years, past president of ATS and former editor of Christianity Today. Cooley noted that the church has gone through a period of tremendous cultural change and offered a caution:

Culture has the power to triumph mission

20150109_083556Cooley discussed culture change in the macro environment, surveying large historical shifts.

1600: society was governed by an agricultural Technology, the village served as the primary social locus built around kinship relationships (such as the family). Food production was the primary vocation in colonial culture, where the church and schools served as central institutions served 20150109_081523by cottage industries: ship building, mining, mills, fishing and fur trade. Community was “on the move” toward the frontier and congregations operated as communities of faith in Village-Farming communities all around the focus of relationships.

 20150109_0839021800: Industrial technology emerged, resulting in urbanization alongside social stratification yet also an open society of relational exchange. Manufacturing required specialized labor so people were identified by their function 20150109_081615(their job). Identity was linked to profession, and organized itself around organizational hierarchal forms (now seminary presidents were called CEO). Corporate bureaucracy reigned all serving the overall focus of function.

 20150109_0853151990: Informational technology brought about a new period, culture, of change that we find ourselves today. This transition creates a new threshold of transformation of cultural change (paradigm change) that calls for new rules, new practices, and new relationships, creating the 20150109_083634opportunity of creative deviance. The shift today entails a sense of globalization (rather than village relationships or urban stratification) where knowledge asset management serves as the base for labor, moving from a teaching centered to student centered networks. Rather than professional identity, people thrive through networks, embracing horizontal organizations that embrace empowerment. Rather than the village or corporations, the team serves as the central social agent where systems, based on self selection and self involvement, serve as the primary social fabric.

 20150109_083602Cooley also dropped a couple of conceptual “bombs” in his presentation. He argues that in ten years the role of the professor, as we know it, will be an “artifact” in education. In addition administrators (deans, registrars, etc.) will also be “artifacts” since people will access education through self-directed networks based on perceived need. Cooley also noted that seminaries as we know them began at the start of the industrial age (1800s) listening carefully to German technology (in the university) as well as German theology. As such liberal theology shaped aspects of theological teaching. Similarly the role of professional and organization nature of the industrial era shaped administration (including administrators and the creation of seminary “boards” of governance). Today both theology and administration has begun to change alongside the shift in delivering educational content through distance education.

20150109_083532 Cooley posited that we have to ask ourselves “what kinds of changes to we need to anticipate?” If the church is becoming globalized, what does this mean for our understanding of work? How do ethnic views of work (Hispanic, Arabic, etc.) shape our articulation of the role of work and vocation? How will the teaching and learning process change? Students get their content technologically and come to class to do their “homework.” Cooley argues the rise of adjuncts should not surprise us as the role of the tenured professor is dying. Institutional networking, among institutions, also helps alleviate the need for specialization. Likewise “middle management” is disappearing as institutions revise their business plans.

20150109_083415Of course the rise of secularization places its own pressures. Cooley noted that recent reports indicated that 90 churches close daily in the U.S. while two-thirds of the Roman Catholic parish churches have closed in Europe. Underneath this loss of infrastructure of support how will seminaries survive? Cooley argues that the task remains for seminaries to explore new models of education.

20150109_09260620150109_093012Cooley’s presentation generated a strong conversation among the presenters. Different faculty presented ideas moving forward, from moving students into the global settings to faculty serving more as curators and librarians rather than knowledge specialists. The ground was set for a full day 20150109_092816of serious conversations around the future of theological education.

About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
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One Response to Dropping the Gauntlet, the Changing Face of Theological Education

  1. Pingback: From Life to the Bible | Discipleship Commons

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