In the Summer 2014 issue of In Trust, I wrote that the three-year master of Divinity (M.Div.) program, the normal degree program for ministry preparation in the United States and Canada, is not working. I suggested that we consider replacing it with two separate degree programs:
For most future clergy: An enhanced residential doctor of ministry (D.Min.) degree, which would include both academic coursework and contextual learning.
For younger students with an academic focus, as well as midcareer professionals and retired people: A new master of arts in theological studies (M.A.T.S.), to be earned either online or on campus.
The idea behind both degrees is to retain academic rigor and classical learning in Scripture, history, theology, and philosophy. But at the same time, the new D.Min. would immerse students in the real world where ministry takes place, while the M.A.T.S. would offer flexibility for a journey of discovery.
Whether fresh from college or not, students should have the opportunity to discuss and work through issues vital to their faith. Seminaries should cultivate a spirit of critical inquiry, helping students grapple with varying viewpoints.
What seminaries might do
Increase the number of guest innovators on campus and provide a forum for presenting new ideas. With careful design, encounters between guests and students can challenge current views and illustrate the complexity of real-world issues.
Initiate a series of Oxford Union–style debates and discussion on timely topics, from “a Christian response to poverty” to “how to change the world.”
Develop a roundtable, inspired by Charlie Rose’s program on PBS, where guests from around the world can be questioned by faculty and students on their accomplishments and outlooks.
The bottom line for all these is to help students and faculty to be more connected members of an interconnected world, thus shedding light on parochial interpretations, strengthening convictions, and finding common ground with unfamiliar people and their ideas.
I believe that all institutions of higher education, including seminaries, need constantly to work on this. While faculty members are already stretched, they should lead the way, exercising what Daniel O. Aleshire has called their “priestly role” on campus. In his book Earthen Vessels, Aleshire writes that faculty members fulfill their prophetic and priestly capacities by carefully assessing the changing situations in North American and global Christianity. When faculty nurture contacts domestically and abroad, they forge new partnerships, learn new ideas, and grow in their awareness of diverse religious voices. And with their expertise in teaching and learning, faculty can communicate the best new ideas to their students. Thus seminaries can grow ever stronger as communities of faithful inquiry in an anchorless world.
Ousting the elephant
How does a spirit of humble inquiry work locally for the health of seminary communities? Back in 1981, we found that an unseen elephant at Pittsburgh Seminary was causing us to blame others for our failings. Word was out that our funds were drying up, and everyone was thinking that the seminary might close.
But first, I thought we should clean ourselves up — to show the neighbors that we were not yet dead. With our limited budget, we could afford to buy paint, brushes, and mops. The faculty agreed to cancel classes for a day, and nearly 200 volunteers showed up. At a morning chapel service, we learned a new student-composed work song, and then we started to clean and paint, both inside and outside. In the evening, nearby churches prepared dinner.
To our surprise, a Pittsburgh newspaper published a story the following day saying that the faculty and students at Pittsburgh Seminary had demonstrated that they hadn’t lost their Protestant work ethic. Potential donors woke up to the seminary’s needs, listening as if for the first time to our larger concerns. At last, the elephant was on its way out. — Carnegie Samuel Calian