The Biennial Meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada was held June 23-25, 2010, in Montreal. In his opening plenary address, executive director Daniel O. Aleshire addressed the ways in which theological education has changed in recent years and outlined possible responses.
He ended his remarks by laying out a "broad array of educational resources" that theological schools will need as they face the future. Below is the conclusion of his remarks, slightly edited for length. The complete address can be located here.
Higher education conventions
First, theological schools will need to broaden their use of higher education conventions. North American higher education has a variety of educational practices, from community colleges to research universities, but ATS schools have tended to model their work more after research universities than the others. This model includes conventions of full-time faculty with research expectations, tenure, a nine-month academic year, and periodic time away from instructional responsibilities for reading and research.
These are all good educational practices, but as a set, they are very expensive. Some sectors in higher education have never had these practices, and other significant sectors are shifting their practices. Some theological schools may need to pay more attention to these other higher education conventions for financial and missional reasons. While it would be tragic if no ATS schools functioned like research universities, it might also be tragic if others do not develop very different educational practices.
Other theological education providers
Second, theological schools will need to pay closer attention to the educational integrity of other theological education providers. The uniformity of the postbaccalaureate model has led to the perception that theological education doesn't begin until the student enrolls in a graduate professional degree program. That has also led to a tendency to devalue education in other educational settings.
In the future, ATS schools will need to reassess this perspective. While schools have learned to value clinical pastoral education, many 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. Social work education is similar to professional ministry education in its overall educational goals, but it differs in that carefully supervised field work is the organizing educational principle.
While most students do not enter a theological school with any baccalaureate education in relevant fields, some do, but their background does not count for much. The current standards do not permit articulation of any undergraduate work into an ATS approved degree, except by examination.(I know that many schools have creatively skirted this accrediting limitation, but I'll save commentary on that practice for another time.)
Would it be advisable to develop articulation procedures whereby appropriate learning at the undergraduate level could be counted in a graduate degree, as is the case with graduate, professional social work or engineering degrees? Many Latino/Latina students have attended Bible institutes or other church‐based programs and learned a great deal about the Hispanic church and ministry in Spanish-speaking communities. Is there a better way for ATS schools to honor this experience and the learning that it has generated?
The answer to these questions is bound to the ability of ATS-accredited schools to understand the broader ecology of theological education providers and determine how they participate in that ecology, instead of over against it.
Third, theological schools need to embrace the full range of educational opportunities that technology makes possible. Information technology is changing higher education and scholarly work. While online resources for theological education are less abundant than they are for medical or legal education, these resources are increasing. Google Books, for example, has digitized most of the holdings of the Andover Harvard Library, one of the premier theological libraries in the country. After the legal issues are resolved, texts that used to be available only at great effort will be downloadable to your Kindle. The American Theological Library Association has digitized the entire series of a core set of theology journals.
As the literature that theological study requires becomes more available digitally and pedagogical capacity of online courses increases, technology can help theological schools meet many of the needs that the current residential model of education leaves wanting. All educational strategies function in service to educational goals, and technology might advance the effectiveness of theological study, not retard it.
The future has arrived and brought a multitude of changes in cultural norms, educational models, international tensions, business practices, and religious presence. Theological schools need to change to meet the needs of changed and changing religion, and there are a few things worth remembering along the way.
The first is that Christianity in North America is changed but not diminished. Loving neighbor as self is still noble moral guidance. Doing "good" remains crucial to the common good. The Christian message has not lost its power to heal human brokenness or guide the human family in life-giving ways. The Christian message has not been rendered powerless; its promise has not been eviscerated.
The second is that theological schools are needed as much in this changed world as they have ever been. As denominational structures weaken, as the organizational center of North American Christianity shifts, theological schools will be called both to educate students for service in a newly ordered religious landscape and to help the church remember its past and envision its future.
Religion has an increasing number of organizations, but organizations have a tendency to come and go. It needs institutions that can dig in for the long term and provide the setting where, in Hugh Heclo's words, "the shadows from both past and future lengthen into the present." A historical moment when the sun appears to be rising in the east before it has set in the west can be dizzying, but a place where the shadows from the past and future lengthen into the present can be energizing. Religious leaders will need all the education they can get, and religion will need institutional homes where its vision can be sustained and renewed over time.
The third is that there will be adequate resources to accomplish what needs to be done. It has been a brutal two years for most schools economically, and many are not out of the woods yet. I know that some of you were putting a price tag on everything that I have said this afternoon and wondering how any of it could be done. The economic model that many schools have used in the past will not carry them into the future, and we are not sure what the new model will be. What I am sure of is that providence and hard work and frugal budgets and deep commitments and creative strategies will provide the resources to do what most needs to be done.
Reprinted with permission.