Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The shape of theological education. . .

America’s oldest graduate seminary is once again blazing a trail for other mainline Protestant institutions to follow. But this time it’s a path many would rather not travel.  On Thursday (Nov. 12), Andover Newton Theological School announced plans to relocate and sell its 20-acre campus in Newton, Mass. The move will be part of “a bold new direction” for the 208-year-old school as it struggles with big deficits.

“God is doing something new in this time,” said Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver. “We have to figure out what it is and get with the program.”  Whatever God is doing, it will be with a smaller faculty, lower overhead and new partnerships. On the table are two options: become embedded within a more stable institution such as Yale Divinity School, where discussions are ongoing, or shift to a lean cooperative learning model. The latter would strip away broad elective offerings, focus on core subjects and dispatch students to do much of their learning in local congregations.

I maintain that the academic model and the accreditation process has helped to kill seminaries and increase the whole cost of seminary education to the point where we question its value.  By academic model, I mean that seminary education today is profoundly shaped by what happens in the secular realm of the university and graduate school.  By the accreditation process I mean the impact accreditation agencies have over the faculties, the courses, and the graduates of most seminaries.

The truth is that most seminaries bestow professional degrees.  A Master of Divinity is a professional and not a true academic degree the way a Master of Sacred Theology degree is.  That does not mean to say at all that those who have an M. Div. are not thoroughly trained or professional.  That is not what I mean.  My point is that the academic model has taken over the arena of theological education and the whole endeavor is shaped by things larger than the doctrine of the church, the formation of pastors, and the certification of graduates for service to their church.  I am not sure it matters much what degree we bestow upon pastors -- at least to us (pastors and congregations).  But it does matter to the institution granting those degrees, to the agencies accrediting those institutions, to the government who provides educational loans to the students, and to the foundations whose money also enters the mix.

The accreditation agencies have great impact over who teaches, what academic degrees the teachers have, and what courses are required or offered in most seminary curriculums.  Accreditation is not a bad thing but it has become that which drives the whole endeavor.  And it is costly to conform to the academic model and to satisfy all the requirements of seminary accreditation.  I maintain that the residential seminary model is still the best one, that off site and online models are neither as effective or as reliable, and that the investment we make as churches and pastors is worth the high and noble calling of the pastoral ministry.  But I am frustrated by the fact that churches are dragged along by their accreditation agencies and by university models and that these may not be serving the overall best interests of either the churches or the pastors they produce.

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