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.

Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

By Andrew Spencer

Administrator’s note: SEBTS student Andrew Spencer was recently moved by an article he read that referenced seminary students and cheating. He was led to write the following open letter for the SEBTS student community and others who may be interested. We resonated with his open letter and decided to publish it at Between the Times. We hope you find it a helpful challenge, especially if you are a seminarian or collegian at SEBTS or a similar institution.

Someone recently brought an article in the May 2011 edition of Reader’s Digest to my attention. Most of the time, if I bother to read Reader’s Digest, it is just for the jokes. This article, however, proved to be worth the read, although it pained me to read its content. This was such an important article that I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

The article was a reprint from the Chronicle of Higher Education from November, 2010 entitled “The Shadow Scholar.” (It is available through EBSCO if you care to find it.) Ed Dante, a prolific writer using a pseudonym, explains how he makes over $60k every year as an author of other people’s academic work. He has written for everyone from undergrads to PhD candidates, sometimes writing complete master’s theses for students. He writes:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.

This sounds pretty dishonest, and certainly as future pastors, seminary professors, and educated laity this cannot be a significant problem at SEBTS. Every student has to sign an acknowledgment of the academic integrity policy at SEBTS before they are admitted. That statement declares that “Students should . . . maintain the highest standards of academic integrity in all of their work.” Fortunately, we Christians are immune to this phenomenon.

Or, perhaps not. The next paragraph in Dante’s article states:

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

This was the depressing paragraph, and the reason that the article was pointed out to me. What makes it worse is that Dante, presumably a non-Christian, gets it while his conservative Christian customers do not. He sees the “inherent contradiction” in seminary students cheating, and uses that as leverage to point out the hypocrisy of paying someone to write an article denouncing someone else’s sin. The fact that Dante references papers criticizing abortion, gay marriage and evolution make it clear that some of his customers must be conservatives. This isn’t the “social-gospel liberals” compromising on academic integrity; rather, this is an indictment of people who profess to believe the Bible on social issues, ignoring the blatant dishonesty of their actions.

How did we get here? I think there are three probable answers. The first is that sometimes we tend to focus on the goal, rather than the journey. We think that we will be prepared for ministry when we get our MDiv, MA, BA, PhD or whatever. Somehow, we get confused and begin to idolize the resume bullet over the real treasure: the opportunity to delve deep into the Word and theology so that we are better prepared to answer people’s questions and glorify God by serving the church effectively. Getting a degree doesn’t prepare us for anything, even the study doesn’t prepare us for ministry, really. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches that we must have a degree in some form of religious studies to effectively teach the Word. The journey to earning a degree should be helping to mold our minds into what God wants us to be. If we shortcut that by cheating, then we are sinning by cheating as well as by wasting an opportunity to grow.

The second probable answer is that some of us don’t belong at seminary. In Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon spends his second lecture discussing what the call to ministry includes. (If you haven’t read this chapter, then get it from the library and read it, then ask yourself why you are at seminary.) One description of improper candidates for ministry jumps out when I think about cheating seminarians: Spurgeon references an “exceedingly large class of men [who] seek the pulpit they know not why. They cannot teach and will not learn, and yet must fain be ministers.” If you are willing to cheat our way through seminary because you are not academically capable of getting through, then either find another path into ministry or do something else. Cheating your way to a degree so that you are “qualified” to be a pastor will leave you living a lie for the rest of your career.

A third probable answer to the question is that some of may just be lazy. Friends, if we are too lazy to do our own research, then soon we’ll be stealing our sermons from the Internet. God is not honored by the lazy person in ministry, or the lazy student of theology.

There is more to be said about this problem, and the purpose of our seminary education. However, this article from Ed Dante should give us pause as we press toward the end of the semester and maybe even graduation. It should make us stop to ask why we are at seminary, and whether we ought to be. If we have cheated, it should make us repent and sin no more; it should make us ask each other, not just how our prayer lives are, but whether we are being honest in our research and on our exams. In the end, we worship by writing our papers, just as we worship when we sing on Sunday morning. 1 Cor. 10:31 applies to your class paper as much as it does to your diet.

Andrew Spencer lives in Wake Forest. He will be graduating SEBTS in May with the MDiv and beginning PhD studies in Christian Ethics in the fall.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Place of the Liberal Arts within a Theological Education, Part 1

Our guest author for this article is Ed Gravely, who serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the History of Ideas at Southeastern Seminary. His teaching responsibilities include courses in New Testament at both the graduate and undergraduate level and courses in the History of Ideas for undergraduate students at The College at Southeastern. Though Ed is a text critic by training, but he is the quintessential “Renaissance Man” with interests in philosophy, intellectual history, economics, political theory, and modern fiction. This is the first article in a series of two. The second part will be published tomorrow.

Not long ago I sat with a student in my office and listened to him explain to me all the reasons he had concluded that most of the education he was receiving in The College at Southeastern was a waste of his time. The student was especially keen on explaining to me how my History of Ideas course, in particular, was really just not that important. He had a number of reasons prepared, but nearly all of those reasons could be distilled down to one core assumption on his part. “If the Bible is sufficient,” he said. “I don’t need to study anything but it.”

Since I began teaching at Southeastern in 2001, I have had this same conversation dozens, if not hundreds of times, at least once a semester. “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible” is a familiar refrain in my office and in my classrooms, and I am glad the statement is made or the question asked. It affords me the opportunity to make an apologia for the robust liberal arts education we offer.

To clear the air first, I know that when students say, “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible,” they don’t really mean that exactly, especially since many of the students who make such claims got the idea in their heads from reading books other than the Bible. Most people are astute enough to know that when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture, we surely don’t mean that the Bible is the only thing worth studying or worth knowing. I know of no one who would argue, for example, that heart surgeons should only study the Bible to learn how to perform bypass surgery or that the Bible is a sufficient source to learn vector calculus. When students say, “I don’t need to study anything but the Bible,” they usually mean, “I want to be a minister. I don’t need to study anything but the Bible to be trained to do that job.”

Clearly, for students preparing for vocational Christian ministry, the study of the Bible and all of the accompanying disciplines (Greek, Hebrew, Theology, etc.) are of vital importance. I will be the first to say that in-depth biblical education is of vital importance for all Christian students, not just those who are preparing for vocational Christian ministry! Knowing God’s word is of paramount importance in the life of any believer. But it is naïve to say that the other disciplines crucial to a robust liberal arts education don’t matter, disciplines like Philosophy, History, Science, and Literature. These subjects do matter, and they are especially important for those training for vocational Christian ministry. We at Southeastern think they are so important that we have created a series of courses for our undergraduate students that specialize in the study and integration of these disciplines. Those courses are appropriately named History of Ideas (HOI), and all undergraduate students are required to take at least 12 hours of HOI alongside their biblical and theological courses.

The reasons for the importance of a robust liberal arts education are legion, but they can be summarized in three simple axioms: tradition matters, worldviews matter, and ideas matter.

First, a robust liberal arts education is key to any quality Christian ministerial training, because tradition matters. It should be noted on the outset that idea that ministers-in-training only need to study the Bible is a relatively new one. It is not representative of any historic Christian tradition from ages past. It is Calvin who boasts, “Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom” (Institutes 1.1.5 – and Calvin may be making reference to Seneca here). Surely Jonathan Edwards believed that study outside of the Scripture was vital to true devotion to God as he wrote essays on the human mind, optics, and spiders. Even when Tertullian infamously hails, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem or the Academy with the Church” (De praescriptione, vii), he makes his case against the philosophies of his day with all of the logical and rhetorical tools available to a highly educated lawyer. It is hubris of the grandest kind to think that we have outgrown the need for a robust liberal arts education for future ministers when our spiritual forefathers demanded it. Don’t forget that our “Ivy League” schools, the greatest centers of academic learning in North America, all began as places to train ministers. To claim that the Scripture is the only proper material for education, without also studying how the Scripture answers some of the great questions of western civilization (philosophy), how to address questions of right and wrong that aren’t specifically dealt with in the Bible (ethics), how to understand what role the arts play within a Christian theistic worldview (aesthetics), and so on, is actually representative of a low view of the sufficiency of Scripture rather than a high one. Christians, historically, have understood this and held their students, particularly ministers-in-training, to a very high standard of learning in the liberal arts. We should too.