Angel by Michelangelo

Creating a sculpture is simple enough, Michelangelo once explained. If you see an angel in the marble, carve until you set the angel free.

This is an explanation of a sort, but it does little to help the novice carver create art. In practice, sculptors use a repertoire of skills to coax meanings from stone.

We who lead theological schools want to shape religious leaders. That's why it is important for us to pay attention to research about how schools actually shape students into ministers. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) provides some tools for discovering how the process works -- like the "Graduating School Questionnaire" -- that point to key factors in the process. It will come as no surprise to learn that, according to students, faculty and field work are important components of their seminary education.

Researchers who study the culture of seminaries have documented that theological education is a kind of contest between (on the one hand) the commitments and ideas that students bring with them to seminary and (on the other hand) the school's vision of what matters. Upon graduation, most students leave seminary with new information about the Christian tradition, tools for reading the Bible, and insights about working with people. Many of them also leave with a different take on what it means to be a Christian and to do good in the world.

In the July 2010 issue of Teaching Theology & Religion, I proposed a model of students-in-seminary that seeks to map the complex educational journey that seminarians take. The model takes seriously what we have learned about the difficult lives of seminary students, who frequently are simultaneously students, spouses, parents, and workers.

The way it is for people going to seminary today is not the way it was in the 1970s or 80s. And there is no going back -- just as there is no going back to the funding patterns that schools enjoyed two generations ago. It is important for trustees to educate themselves about the nuts and bolts of how their schools shape students into pastors today, lest we default to thinking that what works in 2010 is the same as what worked in 1980.

We want our schools to train angels in the Gospel sense -- those who proclaim God's good news. We know that students are not stones and the process of shaping a minister is more complex than making a sculpture. Trustees would also be wise to learn how some pedagogies transform students, while others don't.

Read an abstract of the article in Teaching Theology & Religion here.

Guest blogger Timothy D. Lincoln is associate dean for seminary effectiveness at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.


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