Briefly Noted: Daniel Aleshire on the Future of Theological Education

Theological Education is a journal of consequence in religious higher education, and its recent issue on “The Future of Theological Education” is particularly interesting. In today’s “Briefly Noted,” I will (not so briefly) note the significant points Daniel Aleshire makes in his article, “The Future has Arrived: Changing Theological Education in a Changed World.” Aleshire is executive director of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. This article was adapted from his plenary address at the 2010 ATS Meeting.

Aleshire begins the article by arguing that ATS finds itself needing to re-craft its strategy given the dizzying changes taking place in the 21st century. He divides the changes into two categories: changes in North American religion, and changes in theological education. I will provide a concise summary of the two types of change, and of Aleshire’s suggested responses to those changes.

Editor’s Note: In the near future, BtT will be interacting with various questions raised in Aleshire’s article. Stay tuned.

Changes in North American Religion

1. Denominations: Denominations are in flux. Some are stronger and many are weaker, but Aleshire posits that denominations might not be “the structural center of North American Christianity in the future that they have been in the past.”

2. Christian identities: Christian identities cultivated by denominations have also lessened as a result. Denomination switching is becoming more rampant and has altered religious identities and practices.

3. Religious participation: Sixty years ago, residents of Quebec used to attend church more regularly than the Canadian average, but their attendance is now lower than that average. In the United States, more and more attendees are going to larger congregations. For adults, the fastest growing religious preference is “no religious preference.” Young adults are less active than their parents or grandparents were at their age.

4. Christianity as a world religion: More than one-fifth of all Christians now reside in Sub-Saharan Africa and in that region, Christian adherents grew to 500 million during the twentieth century. With the current trend, “North American Christianity,” says Aleshire, “will be more influenced by Christianity in other parts of the world than worldwide Christianity will be influenced by North America.”

5. Religious pluralism: In this globalized world with multiple religions in proximity to one another, stormy results can follow. Religious tensions can threaten the opportunity for human flourishing.

6. Impact of theological education: Changes in denominational strengths affect ATS schools. Aleshire says, “Changed religious preference call theological schools to reassess their work.”

Changes in Theological Education

Amidst all this change, ATS membership has added 47 schools in the last 22 years. During this time, theological schools saw more extension programs and degree programs added, as well as the birth of online courses. The growth in enrollment over the last 22 years is due to an increase in women and people of color. Faculties have also witnessed an increase in both of these populations.

Possible Responses to a Changing World

Theological schools should indeed respond to these changes, but how that should be done is a decision left up to the individual schools.

1. Adapting the gold standard: The first broad response should be to continue doing what theological schools have been doing all along, but to simply do it better. Education developed over the twentieth century has served various denominations well, bringing students and faculty together, supporting leadership needs in churches, and enabling faculty to conduct needed research. This should be continued, yet critically adapted to the changes in theological education presently unfolding.

a. Multi-faith understanding and Christian witness. Although a good deal of the current curriculum should remain as is, two areas need attention: people affiliated with religions other than Christianity and people of “no religious preference.” Within the present multi-faith context, pastors need to be able to minister to families that represent multiple faiths and should handle questions from parishioners about those of other faiths. In the past, pastors ministered to a culture that was largely Christian, but all signs point to that time ceasing. Pastors should know how to relate Christianity to those with little religious interest and commitment.

b. Pastoral wisdom. While pastoral wisdom can come from degrees, research, and writing, it should also come from the task of preparing weekly sermons, figuring out beneficial congregational relations, and living life with people dealing with immense pain and sadness. Fifty years ago, it was thought that ATS schools have too many pastors and not enough academics, but schools are now witnessing the reverse of that trend – abundant academic talent, but underrepresented pastoral talent.

2. A big tent of educational practices: The second broad response, according to Aleshire, should be “to diversity educational practice to meet an increasing diversity of educational need.” ATS has erected a big tent, so to speak, for theological education; one that needs a large fabric (graduate, professional education for ministry), tall poles (exemplar institutions), and poles around the circumference (schools that expanded to diverse ecclesial communities). This model, however, is weakening and being replaced by other more diverse models that provide diversity in educational strategies. ATS schools need a new kind of tent where the large fabric is an education that serves a broader constituency, where the tall poles are the current model of education, and where the shorter poles are diverse educational models. Diversity in educational practice is valuable only to the extent that it actually serves the present needs, reflects thoughtful practice, and has intellectual substance. This diversity could take the forms of:

a. Baccalaureate theological education. Many of the central tasks of pastoral ministry can be learned at more than one educational level. Theological education can include baccalaureate and associate degree levels.

b. Alternatively credentialed clergy. According to Aleshire, “the percentage of part-time pastors has emerged as a growth industry in mainline Protestantism across the past two decades.” Educational preparation may look somewhat different for regularly and alternatively credentialed clergy, yet hurting people need support from either group.

c. On-the-job education. Seminaries have been built on the model of training students to get a degree who then begin ministry, but attention needs to be given to those already engaged in ministry. These people need education that will enhance their current work.

d. Lay education. Some people simply want to enhance their understanding of faith without pursuing degrees or vocational ministry. The church needs these lay persons just as it needs educated ministers and seminaries are one of the best places to train these necessary individuals.

3. Tapping a broad array of resources

a. Higher education conventions. ATS schools tend to model themselves after research universities rather than other practices such as community colleges. This model tends to employ expectations such as tenured faculty, a nine-month academic year, and time away from instruction to read and research. While these practices are fine, they are expensive. Some, not all, schools may need to look more into other higher education conventions.

b. Other theological education providers. According to Aleshire, some schools “have tended to undervalue what can be learned in field education, have assigned too little credit for learning in context, and have not required as much contextual learning as ministerial practice requires.” It may be beneficial to develop ways where appropriate undergraduate level learning, such as that found Bible institutes, could count toward a graduate degree.

c. Technology. Schools should embrace opportunities available to them through the use of technology such as digitized literature. In this world of ever-increasing online courses, technology can help meet current educational needs.

Aleshire’s Conclusion

Aleshire concludes that it is important to remember that Christianity in North America has not diminished, just changed. Moral values still exist and the message of Christianity is still pertinent and powerful. Also, in this changing world, theological schools are needed just as much, if not more, than ever. Finally, adequate resources will be available to accomplish whatever needs to be done through providence, hard work, good budgeting, and creative strategies.

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  1. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I can’t keep from saying how much I like your “Briefly Noted” series.

    Below, I’m just going to write a few thoughts along these same lines which is going to seem like a criticism or a critique of something, but I’m just thinking out loud here and would love feedback/interaction, even rebuttal.

    I still have a lot to learn about how education has been done in the past and how it has changed over the past century. It seems the way students have been educated at primary levels has trickled up to affect the way students are educated at secondary, undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate,etc. As such, several decades ago, the very same degree we call the MDiv was once called the Bachelors of Divinity. Not much changed in the courses required for the degree, nor the level of instruction. We just experienced degree inflation. I suspect this went a long way towards influencing the move towards research among theological schools mentioned above.

    It seems from my limited vantage point, that the MDiv we are left with finds itself stuck between two worlds, that of academia and pastoral ministry. As a graduate degree, it has become, in the US at least, the requisite stepping stone towards an advanced theological degree. Yet, as a divinity degree, it is seen, by churches, as the minimal prerequisite for a pastorate. Institutions find themselves either drawn to one pole more than the other, or trying to balance between the two. Honestly, I wonder if either is truly done well.

    As a graduate degree, I personally think the MDiv is too broad and not deep enough to be a sufficient preparation for advanced studies. This is personal opinion, but I think this is also reflected by the fact that European schools see the THM as the prerequisite for advanced study. True, their model is different than ours, but there may be wisdom in it.

    As a divinity degree, I personally think the MDiv is too academic, as alluded to above and tends to pull students out of the life of the church. Some students even come to seminary out of college ministries having been only cursorily associated with local churches. (Here I think SEBTS, with Hybrids and the GCEN are working towards bucking this trend).

    It is too easy to get through the MDiv and not be sufficiently prepared for either ministry or advanced study, even if one gains a pastorate or is accepted into a doctoral program.

    Having obtained an undergraduate in Biblical Studies from a theological school, there were few classes at the grad level that added significantly to my education. This doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from them, I took my seminary classes seriously. But I would have been better served with either a more praxis oriented certificate, or a strictly academic MA. But I don’t think I would have valued either because of the educational environment. No one was advising students in either of these directions. But I don’t think the fault is to be laid entirely on theological institutions.

    Churches and pastors are just as much to blame for our current modes of theological education as anybody, at least in the free church tradition. Few home churches expect the students they send off to seminary to come back and serve at home. Rather, the paradigm is to send them off, let them get educated, then find a small church somewhere. Once in this small church, if they are any good, they will work themselves into a bigger church, then into a bigger church, then into a bigger church, until they are fat and happy with a 6 figure salary. If they get a DMin, or possibly a PhD, along the way, that student is likely to get a better position quicker. No one talks about it this way. It’s always the Lord leading them, they say. And pastor search committees are a big part of feeding the system. Churches almost always hire from without and only those with significant education, skill, and experience. Churches aren’t in the process of begetting leaders, much less other churches. They are totally dependent on the theological institutions to pump out these more pedigreed candidates. Since money is a big issue for some institutions, as is denominational fidelity, they follow suit. Even if money is not a driving factor, theological institutions want to serve the church, so they strive to provide what churches are looking for, to serve them. Churches, then, are often in the drivers seat of theological institutions even when it doesn’t seem like it.

    But shouldn’t churches be in the driver’s seat? Isn’t it primarily the responsibility of the church to disciple people, the develop leaders that the Holy Spirit sets apart? Why has theological education been relegated to theological institutions in the place? What would healthy church-based theological education look like?

    Well, this is an abrupt end to my ramblings. I wanted to think out loud a bit on this, my intention has not been to ruffle any feathers nor to offend anyone. Honestly, I love theological education and I want to be involved in it for my entire life, particularly in and through local churches. I want to know what is the best way forward.

    Thank you for your time, if you choose to read such a gargantuan response.

    Your friend,


  2. Kevin Smith   •  

    (I write from the perspective an accredited distance education seminary in South Africa.)

    Dr Aleshire is clearly moving in response to the times, but like the Titanic he is turning too slowly. He needs to be much more radical and dynamic in embracing sweeping changes if ATS and its affiliate schools are to remain relevant. Perpetuating past best practice and just “doing it better” won’t work. How is it that the head of the theological accrediting agency in the US is only now starting to say that ministerial training can be accomplished at Associate and Bachelor levels (as opposed to at MDiv level, I assume)? Talk about living with your head in the clouds!

    I fear that the popular view that spiritual formation can only take place when theological training has a substantial residential component is a paradigm that is too entrenched in many of the older generation who lead organisations like ATS, and it continues to hold back the development of alternative models, which may be not be “the gold standard”, but they may be the only practical way to respond to many of the contextual realities and make some meaningful contribution. I praise God for South Africa’s Council on Higher Education, which gives our seminary (South African Theological Seminary) the freedom to offer online and distance degrees–the secular CHE is more relevant and pragmatic than ATS.

    All the trends Dr Aleshire mentions with respect to the church are right on, and the recognition that more and more part-time clergy and lay leaders need training is a question with which we need to grapple afresh. (Residential MDiv programmes won’t help them.) The imporance of on-the-job training is also a critical point, and a topic about which our seminary could think more deeply.


  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wes and Kevin,

    Sorry its taken me so long! Your posts are thoughtful and thought-provoking. I agree with much of what you said. Here are a few thoughts in response. First, local churches are the central institutions/organisms for theological education. If seminary is a component of theo ed, it is complementary to the church’s role. Second, the shape of theological education (just like the shape of anything God’s people do) is shaped partly by context. Right now, many/most churches think that seminary is a helpful component of shaping future ministers. In this particular historical/social/cultural context, seminary ed often is appropriate and helpful for ministry training. Third, the reason for this is both positive and negative. The positive reason is that there are things that 75 seminary profs can do that a solitaire church cannot. The negative reason is that many local churches long ago gave up on serious theological/spiritual education, and gave themselves over to pragmatics and superficial self-help programs. So they had to rely on seminaries to do the theological education. Fourth, our six seminaries should be ever-reforming, adapting to what our churches want/need. Fifth, I think you are right that our churches need us to form creative delivery mechanisms (hybrid, online, etc.) forms of education that allow their people to study even while they stay in their home context and minister. there are many potential students who OUGHT NOT leave their ministries in order to be ripped up and re-rooted in a seminary context for several years.

    Those are a few thoughts in response…

  4. Wesley L. Handy   •  


    Thanks for your response. In light of reason 3 you gave above, I agree that there is great value in learning from specialists. Also, I appreciate your concluding thoughts.

    I still wonder about the educational philosophy behind the MDiv as a graduate degree. I would be greatly interested in hearing this articulated. I really don’t have much else to offer to this discussion at this point, so I’ll conclude with that request for articulation.

    Your friend,


  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Oops. Sorry i forgot to answer that part of your post. Here’s an initial response. The MDiv is considered to be a “professional” master’s degree instead of an “academic” master’s degree. What that means is that the accreditation agencies recognize that it is different than the majority of master’s degrees (which are “academic” master’s degrees) in that some of the students entering have already taken undergrad courses in this area, while others have not done so at all. This is why the MDiv is a longer degree than other master’s degrees, so that those without prior coursework can catch up. I don’t have a problem with that format. It does have its challenges of course. In relation to your first comment above, i do think that the MDiv reuqirements are significantly greater than Bachelor’s requirements, in terms of # of pages read, complexity of reading, testing, etc. It *might* be the case that our MDiv requirements today are similar to BDiv requirements of yesteryear (and therefore you would say “Why do we no call it a master’s degree?”), but that is not an apple-to-apple comparison. The BDiv students from yesteryear had to pass entrance requirments which included translating Latin tests. And the reason they could do that, and we cannot, is the dumbing down of the American education system. Students graduating from high school are dumber and dumber (and yet, ironically, more and more ecstaticly confident in their abilities).

    that’s an initial response, although it is hastily written and you may not find it very helpful…

  6. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Thanks Bruce for the response. I want to think through this issue more in the future. As part of a church planting team, seeking to plant a church planting church, we will have to face the issue of pastoral and theological training and want to do so in a way that is most beneficial for the long-term growth of the church. At the same time, we don’t want to re-invent the wheel. I am thankful there are men like you, Aleshire, and others, putting serious thought into this issue. I look forward to learning more from you all.

    With love and respect,


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