Skeptics of theological education used to rely on bumper-sticker phrases to build their case against graduate degree programs. Fearful that seminaries produced "puppets in the pulpit," they clustered clergy into two groups and gave them equally negative labels. Better a "fool on fire" than a "scholar on ice," they argued, differentiating between persons who bypassed formal training from persons who chose the academic route to ministry. No middle ground existed. In answering God's call, campus-bound students often left home with mixed blessings from their sending congregations: "Excel in your studies but don't let seminary ruin your faith."

Fast forward several years and proponents of theological education face new challenges as they defend their programs against new critics. The paths to ministry have multiplied and now are crowded with persons pursuing alternative credentials. "We're at a pivotal moment in American and Canadian religious life," says Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. "The forms of theological education are going to change dramatically."

Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools, by Daniel O. Aleshire (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008, 177 pp., $20).

In his new book, Earthen Vessels, Aleshire likens well-governed seminaries to durable pottery that can sustain knocks, undergo repairs and remain useful. Continuing the analogy, he warns that schools are also fragile, and those lacking strong leadership may be "one or two bad decisions away" from a shattering mishap.

In Trust recently spoke to Aleshire about his book's message, its intended mission, and his motivation for writing it now.

The subtitle of your book is "Hopeful reflections on the work and future of theological schools." Were you signaling that this book isn't a doom-and-gloom document?

Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director, Association of Theological Schools: I was signaling that this is not another discourse on how schools have failed and deserve to die. The "hopeful" part is a forecast, not a longing. People frequently ask if there will be theological schools in the future. The book is an effort to say I really think there will be. There needs to be.

Is the case against theological schools mounting? If so, where is it coming from?

I think it's coming from three sides. First, some folks are committed to the old argument in favor of theological education and are frustrated by the changes they're seeing — their dissatisfaction is about how much schools seem to be changing. A second challenge comes from new-paradigm churches that have invented a way of doing congregational life that's different from the medium-sized, solo-pastor church that was dominant 40 years ago. They say that theological schools have not changed enough to be effective for their kind of ministry. There's legitimacy to that case because you don't learn to be the pastor of Willow Creek [a nondenominational megachurch in South Barrington, Illinois] at an ATS school. ATS schools educate people who are going to be pastors everywhere else. A third objection comes from some thoughtful people who are wondering if it's fair to ask clergy to do all of this education when congregations and parishes are smaller and the pay is not what it should be. None of these [three groups of] folks are necessarily anti-seminary. It's just the way they react.


"Things are changing, and a new case for theological schools has to be articulated if the schools are to have a viable future." (Photo by Allison Shirrefs)  

You've been at ATS for 18 years and have served as executive director for 10. What motivated you to write this book now?

It was a gradual realization that there needed to be a case for theological education that would carry it into the future. The [old] case provided support for schools at a time when denominations were healthier and religion had higher social status in the United States and Canada. Things are changing, and a new case for theological schools has to be articulated if the schools are to have a viable future. How threatened are theological schools by the new paths — some might argue "short cuts" — to ministry? We're in a transitional time, so it would be hard for me to predict that in 15 years all the paths that are being invented right now will be viable. We're creating more kinds of clergy education than we may need. But whatever falls out, I think the type of theological education that ATS schools provide will be a part of the mix. There's a good chance that theological schools will broaden their scope of work and pick up some of the successful experimental or transitional models that will be looking for long-term homes.

You write that the next 25 years will result in a great deal more change in theological education than the previous 25 years. Should schools be on the offensive or defensive? Should they initiate or respond to change?

Schools should be on the offensive as much as they can be. The nature of institutions is they can't turn on a dime; they can't change as quickly as needed at times, so they must think intentionally about how they should change. The flip side, of course, is that they can keep a thing going, too. The future will require both inventing new kinds of work and continuing some old practices. The forms of theological education are going to change dramatically, and what we are educating people to do in the lives of U.S. and Canadian churches is going to change. It's not as if everything is new, though. Some forms and practices will be new, but the subjects and content that we care about in theological education will be just as important in 25 years as they are now. Because theological schools are so connected with denominations, the schools are going to change as those denominations change.

When you say that "forms" will be different, what do you mean?

In 25 years there still will be places doing residential theological education, but a school that does most of its instruction between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekdays won't be typical. Instruction will be more varied. The range of educational programs, degree and non-degree, will be broader. I try to argue in the book that just as an institution can use its institutional character not to make changes, it can use the same assets and resources to make the necessary changes. The care of the gospel and the tradition of faith are not going to be different, but we're going to see lots of differences in the practices of ministry. Those are going to translate into differences in the practices of theological education.

You write that seminary education weaves together believing and learning. Is the balance between fiery passion and cool academics a fragile one? Are they equally important?

People don't want a pastor who doesn't believe what he or she preaches. Theological schools have to understand that educating for religious leadership is not just supplying knowledge and intellectual resource. It's also cultivating authenticity of belief. Many students who come to ATS schools today have not grown up in the church. This means that the schools have become responsible for holding belief and intellectual issues together. I think that the general perception is that if you hold them together, you're going to compromise one or the other. That's not true. You can do very intellectually sophisticated stuff and encourage, at the same time, the kind of believing that provides integrity for a religious leader.

Speaking of balance, you write how schools serve as abbey, academy and apostolate. Are those equal roles? Or, going forward, do you see one gaining in importance?

David Tiede [president emeritus of Luther Seminary], whose image that is, would probably say that the dominant pattern for the future is the apostolate. We don't have an established church that needs chaplains as much as we have a culture that needs to hear the Christian story because it's not as embedded as it once was. We need folks who know how to help churches become a part of their community and proclaim a religious vision. We need folks who know how to start churches in communities that don't have them. We need folks who know how to help churches come out of a death spiral. Those are apostolate skills.

Do theological schools understand the role of the abbey and the academy better than that of the apostolate? In the future are they less likely to resemble a think tank -- standing outside the fray -- and more likely to participate in the fray?

The schools already know the abbey and academy identities; those are in their DNA. The third identity is where the emerging area of work is. By "apostolate" I mean educating people who know how to initiate, start, and spread rather than educating people who know how to manage, superintend, and care. It's a shift in what the role of religious leadership is. I don't know that the schools will be in the center of the fray — they will in some cases — but I do know that to be successful, schools are going to have to educate religious leaders who understand how to lead communities of faith at a time when the culture continues to privatize religious experience.

Does the old ivory tower perception persist? Are seminaries not communicating their relevance?

It varies; some are telling their stories very well. I think when the church is in stress, it tends to ask, "What did theological schools do [wrong]?" When business is in distress, it tends to ask, "What did the business schools do that our executives ended up doing this?" We often put pressure on the institutions that train our leaders. Right now, the church is in a very pragmatic mood; it wants stuff that works. Schools sometimes have been historically and intellectually aloof. I don't think they have a future being that way. At times, however, they need to work on intellectual problems that the church is too busy to deal with. There is a whole lot of religion that was not designed for effectiveness, and theological schools need to pay attention to that, as should the church.

What reactions are you hoping Earthen Vessels will generate? What is its takeaway value?

The takeaway will vary with the audience that reads it. I hope that some boards will read it as part of their professional development. They will get a sense of how the schools they support and govern fit into a broader ecology of schools. I hope faculty might read it and discuss it in a faculty retreat. The takeaway for them is a reminder that, yes, this is what we're trying to accomplish. I hope potential donors will read it and understand that theological schools are worth the expense and effort that they require because they contribute something truly significant to the communities of faith.

Heed warning flags

"I'm encouraged about where our seminary is and where it's going," says Dorothy Ridings, who recently rotated off the board of trustees at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary after 16 years of service, eight as chair. "At the same time, I see those warning flags flying, and we have to pay attention to them."

She cites the need to be "a little more nimble" as the 155-year old school attempts to accommodate nontraditional students who can't always attend classes Monday through Friday, during "normal" hours. "We're seeing some seismic shifts in how education is delivered," she notes, echoing Daniel Aleshire's conclusions. "We've got to go that way because today's student body demands it of us."

Whereas some theological schools —  as described in Earthen Vessels — have responded to the shortage of pastors by embracing alternative paths to ministry, Louisville Seminary has moved with caution. "I've never encountered skeptics of theological education," says Ridings. "The Presbyterian church puts a high value on an educated clergy. Whereas we're seeing more activity toward commissioned lay pastors, there's some pushback from the church ? a reluctance that we might be giving up something that we have treasured for so long. I don't know how that will play out."

Boutique programs that require more, rather than less, time in the classroom are proving successful. Dual degree opportunities require students to fulfill coursework for the master of divinity degree at the seminary as they simultaneously complete requirements for degrees in law, business, social work, or some other discipline at either the University of Louisville, a secular school, or Bellarmine University, a Catholic institution. This trend of nudging students off campus for more diverse and ecumenical experiences is likely to expand as school administrators consider ways to build international travel opportunities into the curriculum. The Middle East is a favored destination.

"We're opening up to a wider world, which is the sort of thing that Dan [Aleshire] is talking about," says Ridings. "We have to do some things differently than what we've done for a hundred years."

--Holly Miller

The seminary's role in 'ongoing formation'

Once upon a time, most newly ordained Catholic priests were assigned to large parishes where they served as assistant pastors under experienced priests. After a few years, they were typically transferred to another parish, where they served as an assistant yet again. And then, perhaps after a stint as a teacher or administrator in a Catholic school, they might finally have been assigned to be the pastor of a parish. By that time, those "new" priests might have had 10 or 15 years under their belts, with experience in administration, teaching, and preaching, supervised by a series of experienced mentor-priests.

That's no longer the case, says Father Mark Latcovich, citing research by sociologist Dean R. Hoge. These days, many new priests are becoming pastors of parishes only five years after ordination — or even less. And these new pastors are finding that without the mentoring that was built into the old system of pastoral rotation, they are responsible for their own "ongoing formation" — the continuing education and spiritual reflection that keep a vocation from growing stagnant.

Latcovich, who is vice president-vice rector of St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio, says that seminaries can in some cases serve as resources for ongoing formation.

What does ongoing formation look like? "The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests," issued by the Catholic bishops in the United States, discusses the four pillars of human, intellectual, pastoral, and spiritual formation. Seminaries may have a role in helping clergy continue to grow in several of these areas, says Latcovich. For example, a continuing education seminar for new pastors can cover strategic planning. Spiritual renewal can be nurtured at an annual retreat. Intellectual life can be stimulated through a class on preaching or theology.

Latcovich finds that the pastors and other leaders in his doctor of ministry seminars are highly engaged as they discuss their experience in the parish. "They have a critical eye," he says. The students sometimes tell him, "This is a great theory, but it hasn't worked for me, and here's why." The learning goes two ways as professor and students engage one another in what surely must be the best kind of ongoing formation.

 —Jay Blossom

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