Daniel O. Aleshire

Theological education is influenced by what happens in the church and it’s influenced by what happens in higher education. Both of those are in periods of rapid change.

Changes in the church are being experienced differently among the various constituencies within the Association of Theological Schools. Roman Catholics are dealing with one set of issues, mainline Protestants with another, evangelical Protestants with still another. What’s common to all is that all of them are going through periods of fairly substantial change.

The role of higher education within the culture at large is also changing: its methodology is changing, and its base of information in changing. When you change social status, fundamental bases of information, and practices of educating, that adds up to fairly big kinds of change.

My concern is that in a period of change, on the one hand, you must not hold on to some practices romantically and, on the other hand, you must not adopt other practices too early, before the full picture is clear. Either error could be very costly for theological education.

As the cultural roles of the church and of higher education have changed, these once privileged institutions are increasingly forced to deal with questions that once weren’t asked, questions about accountability, about the use of resources. Schools find themselves fielding questions like, What is tenure? Do professors do anything? What are the outcomes of education? What is relationship of dollars expended to benefit obtained?

Those are all questions that weren’t asked in a prior era. In theological schools, parent denominations are more and more instructive about what should be taught and learned. I’ve talked to more than one president who says, “Every time the denomination meets we’re supposed to teach two more courses.” And students coming to those schools, who are paying more tuition than they used to, are asking more educational consumer kinds of questions than they asked at one time.

IN TRUST:    You spoke of the changing “base of information” in higher education. Talk about that, especially as it applies to theological schools.

Aleshire: Information used to reside in the library or in the people of a school, it was located. Now, increasingly, information is not located. The school is still the place where information is generated and where education occurs. But while the sense of a continuation of a medieval university, where the books and the professors contained the information and you found them (and it) at the school, may still be somewhat true, it’s changing. And we don’t know how much it will change.

Will all of the information be digitized in twenty years? Will we be able to get to the texts? What long-term impact will electronic publishing have? And will anybody with a computer be able to get to any kind of text anywhere? What will the information become then? Will it still be localized? We’ve put a lot of energy in higher education, and a commensurate amount in theological education, stewing over the implications of that. What it means for teaching, what it means for learning, what it means for the resources an institution has to have and the accessibility of resources to students and faculty, what it means for the role of faculty.

That’s an example of an area where a kind of romantic holding on to the old or the too early adoption of the new is most critical. Schools could spend a lot of money right now and prepare themselves for a kind of technology that really may not be the final, determinative version of what’s going to be available in twenty years. Or schools could say all theological information is always going to be on paper between two covers. They could end up being wrong either way. So the issue right now is how do we move through changing times when the final outcome isn’t completely clear yet.

IN TRUST:    And the answer is? That’s the question that really hits a governing board right between the eyes: What do you do?

Aleshire: I think you have to move, move with some caution. But you have to move. And so any ATS school that’s not digitizing its library catalogue, that’s problematic. Any school that assumes computers and digital information are not going to influence theological education in the end is simply wanting to go back to a time that’s gone past. We not only have to think institutionally about this information, we need to think educationally and theologically about it.

At a meeting of theological librarians a few years ago when we were dealing with redeveloping accrediting standards, one person talked about the problem of theological education by “sight bite.” As more and more texts are digitized, he explained, a student goes to some kind of engine that searches for a particular word, or combination of words, and never reads an entire chapter. The student just gets to the page where that word occurs and cursors to the page before and to the page after. This raises the question, Will this kind of information change the ability of the student to read a sustained argument and to respond to a sustained argument? Will we have a parade of texts that are equivalent to sound bites by which we make a lot of other decisions and process information? That’s an educational and theological issue.

It’s one thing to say, When do we buy all of this digitized material? It’s another thing to say, It’s coming and what does that mean for how we help students learn and for how we help think about big issues that don’t reduce themselves to being amenable to searches by a word database or by key words? The searches may produce wonderful quotes for the research paper but offer the student nothing toward understanding the argument in which they’re embedded. I don’t know that students always read the chapter when they had the book in paper, but there was a chance of it. They had to read a little bit more to find what they needed, what they were looking for. Now they don’t have to read to find, they just key in.

I don’t think that the digital information is going to change us nearly as much as some people think. But it’s going to change us more than some other people are saying it will. Technology has never lived up to its educational promise. Educational radio, which was going to bring so much to rural America, never quite delivered. Educational television never quite delivered. Prior twentieth-century innovations didn’t live up to their early promise, and I’m doubtful that technology’s going to live up to the promise or the panacea that we expect of it.

But it’s going to wield more influence than some other people want. Many institutions of higher education are doing more and more in Internet-based teaching. That’s going to put pressure on theological schools, because the consumers of one kind of education are going to come over to theology and say, I can get accounting this way, I can get history this way, I can get business management this way, why can’t I get my ministerial studies this way?

I don’t think we could have imagined thirty years ago, in the middle 1960s, that the theological education landscape would be as different as it is thirty years later. I don’t think anybody was really predicting that. I have this vision that’s it going to be even more different in another thirty or forty years than it was thirty or forty years earlier, but I don’t know all of the lines of that.

IN TRUST:    How is theological education now different from theological education thirty years ago?

Aleshire: The student bodies are different. They have redefined practices in theological education, and they have redefined some characteristics of theological schools. Most denominational seminaries are less denominational now than they were thirty years ago because they have a multidenominational student body that they’ve got to be responsive to. That makes it harder, more complex for denominational schools to provide socialization to ministry in particular traditions—because they’re trying to do that faithfully for so many traditions. A second major difference is the dramatic increase of alternative patterns of education in terms of multiple sites where education is conducted. A far higher percentage of ATS schools are involved in extension education than was the case thirty years ago.

A third difference is that increasingly the seminary is assuming the role that used to belong to the undergraduate denominational college. Not only are seminaries doing all of the formation for priests and ministers, some of which used to be shared with denominational college programs, they’re doing the enrichment education in theological disciplines that used to occur in a lot of denominational colleges. These days half of the student body in a typical ATS school is not in the M.Div. program.

IN TRUST:    Half?

Aleshire: Fewer than half the students are in the M.Div. program. If you take the M.Div. and the D.Min. together, you get more than half, so the center of the theological school is still vocational. But now you put 35 or 40 percent of the students in there who are either in lay professional programs or enrichment programs or academic study of religion, or academic study of theological disciplines. It becomes a more complex educational effort to deliver effectively on all of the goals related to an increasing variety of degree programs. Thirty years ago I think it would’ve been closer to 70 to 80 percent of all students who were in either an M.Div. or a fairly traditional Master of Religious Education program. They were preparing to minister in the local church. There were a few who would’ve been in academic programs then, but now there’s a great increase of academic programs, programs for the enrichment of baccalaureate-trained persons who never want to work in a church but want a broad exposure to the theological disciplines—and they want it beyond just a noncredit evening course that was a pattern of delivery thirty or forty years ago.

Another change that mirrors higher education in general is the increasing use of part-time faculty. The percentage of persons teaching part-time in ATS schools has increased much more rapidly than the percentage of persons teaching full-time.

IN TRUST:    Why is that?

Aleshire: I think a major part of it is economic. Three part-time people—or four part-time people—each teaching a course will be less expensive to an institution than one full-time person teaching three or four courses in a semester.

Another factor is the proliferation of denominational schools which once taught only, say, Methodist history that now have to have somebody to teach Presbyterian polity and somebody to teach Episcopal polity—So it adds up. For every additional polity course in a denominational seminary you tend to add an adjunct professor. It reflects the diversity of educational needs. The increase in part-timers also reflects the diversity of educational location. The more work you do away from the main campus the more you tend to use local adjunct people to supplement the faculty from your main campus who commute to the extension site.

IN TRUST:    Do you see any rise in activity of schools trying to recruit specific kinds of students? Or are they mostly operating passively, simply taking those who come to them?

Aleshire: The theological school, particularly the denominational theological school, is not necessarily the best recruiter of people for ministry and priesthood. Ultimately it’s the church’s job to call out potential leadership. What I think has happened in the last twenty-five years is that the seminaries are trying to pick up a task which, for whatever reason, the church has forgotten or abandoned. Every school I know of is giving far more attention to the recruiting of students.

There was always the recruiting of people who were vocationally committed for ministry—“Come to our school instead of that school over there”—a kind of friendly recruiting and competition for students. What’s new is that now seminaries are trying to help persons discern whether they should be in ministry. They’re trying to help persons imagine the possibility of being in ministry. That’s a more complex pattern of recruiting.

I don’t think schools are set up to do that kind of recruiting particularly well. That’s really the church’s job, and one of the areas where we can help the church is to remember through the variety of its ways of expressing itself that a primary task of the church is to evoke, to call out, leadership. And then seminaries can do an effective job of educating them.

IN TRUST:    Some of this, however, was done—at least in the mainstream churches—by denominational organizations that no longer exist.

Aleshire: In Roman Catholic life, recruitment went on through seminary high schools and seminary colleges. But that whole system changed and all of a sudden there weren’t as many vocations coming through. Concurrently, in mainstream Protestantism patterns of campus ministry, patterns of youth ministry, patterns of congregational life, that helped bring forth leadership have been changed.

What these communities have to think about now is, How do we go about this function that’s important to our well-being as a church, and to our vision of the gospel, given that we no longer have the organizations that used to carry this activity? I believe that the gospel is sufficiently compelling to invite talented people to ministry. I have great confidence in the goodness of the gospel.

The issue is how the variety of churches reinvent what should be a fundamental activity. The schools can help but the schools can’t recruit people for ministry.

IN TRUST:    Let me ask a couple of questions about you. Why is it that you have decided to sit where you sit and do what you do instead of teaching somewhere or being a pastor somewhere or engaged in one of the other shapes that your calling might have taken? What draws you to the particular things that you have been drawn to in terms of working with the ATS?

Aleshire: I don’t know that one comes to any point vocationally and says, “I am doing what I’m doing because I decided to do it.” Vocation emerges and grows over time and it’s dependent on ability and opportunity and experience and decision and personal will. So, in the truest sense, I didn’t decide to do this job. It was a combination of all of those things. The experience and opportunity and, maybe, ability contribute to the fact that I am doing this work. This a position that depends upon the election of the member schools.

IN TRUST:    I’d like to press you toward helping our readers see what you see as the link between what you do and how you love the Lord. Sometimes we take faith statements too much for granted. I’d like to press you a bit on it.

Aleshire: I’ll respond to that, I appreciate the invitation. It is not theological education qua theological education that is my central focus. My real heart and passion is about the gospel I understand and about my commitment to it. It’s about what kind of pastor my children might have who could introduce them to this gospel and its goodness and the claim that God makes on human life and the longing God has for God’s will. I don’t talk that way very often. Perhaps I worry too much that some people have talked too publicly about things that are held tenderly and privately. But that’s what I’m about.

What ATS is about is not whether in the end students have learned particular things, but whether the church is empowered to do what it needs to do to raise up leaders with a basis of information and sensitivity and longings that will serve those communities faithfully and well. That’s why I was a seminary professor before I came to ATS. That’s why I’ve been engaged in ATS accreditation. Because, ultimately, however far it’s removed, some student being educated in some ATS school is going to be my son’s pastor.

I like doing the work that I do because ATS gives me a chance to be a part of the wide variety of expressions of Christianity in North America in the context of those expressions. I get to see Methodists and Methodist chapel, and Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic liturgy, and Anglicans, and Episcopalians in that context. I like my work at ATS because in theological education there are a vast number of talented, able, committed people impassioned about things that are important. That’s the greatest joy of this work, the number of truly talented, gifted people who are deeply committed and care about the gospel and its proclamation and its life.

Furthermore, I like the activities of school. I like learning, I like teaching, I like reading, and I like engaging issues. I like seeing people have experiences of recognition. I like the community that occurs in educational environments when it’s done well and the capacity of those environments to have influence long years down the road, in recollection and memory if not in continuing active engagement.

But why should people give money to theological schools? And why should students leave jobs that pay real money and put their lives and sometimes their families in economic austerity? It’s the gospel, it’s about really important stuff that can make a difference in the world, and it’s worth that kind of effort and gift and commitment. We are not just curators of a prior religious culture that needs to be preserved for study and reflection. We are participants in the purposes of God. I care real deeply about that.

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