A question every theological school governing board and every administrator should ask themselves periodically is: Is the educational program we are offering shaped so that it effectively meets the needs of the students who are matriculating here and prepares them for the ministry of the church in which they will serve?
In many institutions, schools most decidedly not excepted, inertia is the great planner and policymaker. If we did it “that way” last year, we’ll do in that way this year—and next year too. Even with items so mundane and so shaped (seemingly) by onrushing events as meeting agendas, practically every presiding officer uses the previous meeting’s agenda as the template for organizing the business of the forthcoming meeting. (Board chairs, take note!)
We operate this way to our peril.
As this issue of In Trust makes clear at several points, the seminarians of today are, for the most part, quite different from their counterparts of a quarter-century ago. They are older and thus have more extensive life experience. Reared on a diet of television, they are more visually oriented. Having in many cases first been given the opportunity to put their fingers to the keyboard as children, they are generally accepting of and adept with computers and other tools of high technology. Given all these characteristics, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear they learn in different ways from their forebears.
Moreover, the churches whose ministers they are preparing to become are themselves in rapid flux. As Robert Wuthnow suggests in “To Dwell or To Seek,” our times have seen a dramatic shift in the way people understand and pursue their relationship with God. The seekers he describes are to be found in churches of every type, where their input is reweaving the familiar tapestries of church life.
In her book Reason for the Hope: The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates, Sister Katarina Schuth writes: “Implicit in the discussion about curriculum is the desire to educate future ministers in such a way that the needs of the people they minister to are fully addressed. A notable lack of knowledge about contemporary culture and society makes it difficult for students to apply theological insights to their ministry. If the overall content of the curriculum is reviewed along the lines suggested above, space will be found for the study of social structures and influences. Without knowledge about the context in which people live, ministerial effectiveness cannot be expected. With it, not only will people’s needs be met, but regenerated enthusiasm for service in the church can be anticipated as a likely and healthy byproduct.”
To be sure we can be too quick to adopt the trendy and new. To be sure some things really are forever. But for institutions (like, say, theological schools) and those responsible for them, the greater danger is that they become frozen in no longer useful patterns because it’s easier that way and it’s “the way we’ve always done it.”
There’s even reason to doubt that always really is always. Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, once told me that “always” usually means “within living memory,” and living memory goes back no further than our grandmother’s childhood. That’s the stuff of always: stories we learned at our grandmother’s knee about how things were when she was young.
So ask yourselves the question I posed at the outset of this ramble. Is it time for a change?