Several years ago as I was interviewing a Roman Catholic bishop, I asked him how often he suggested to young men that they offer themselves for the priesthood. There was a perceptible pause before the bishop replied. Then he said: “I’m not sure I ever have.” In recent years a similar diffidence has been characteristic of many experienced clergy as they worked with young people in their congregations.
Moreover, a half-century ago the college campuses of the United States and Canada were spiced with a wide variety of denominational and interdenominational chaplaincies that were funded in large part by expense lines in church budgets—congregational, regional, and national. The chaplains were usually alert to and supportive of possible future pastors. A broad array of church-related liberal arts (or in the case of Roman Catholics, theological) colleges funneled a yearly cohort of graduates right on to seminary.
The average theological school gave little thought to where its students were coming from. It didn’t need to. They just turned up.
But for most schools, and indeed for most churches, those days are gone, probably forever. The chaplaincies have largely vanished. The feeder colleges’ religious ties have withered or the schools have gone out of business. And as I noted at the outset, a disturbing number of senior clergy hesitate to commend to others the vocation to which they have dedicated their lives.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in the in the midst of an era of enormous change in the way the people of the Body of Christ live out their common life. Both seminaries and churches need to be giving searching thought to where today’s theological students and tomorrow’s clergy are going to come from and who they are going to be. The question is, Are schools and churches rising to the challenge?
This issue of In Trust suggests that some exploration is going on in some places. But from where I sit, from what I have learned in the decade and more that I have examined North American theological education, I can say with considerable confidence that much, much more needs to be done. And governing boards are one key place where such exploration needs to be undertaken, followed by careful reflection on what is found.
Here are some of the questions a board might ask:
Where do our students come from and why did they choose this school rather than some other?
What kind of ministry do our students hope to exercise? Do those hopes change as their seminary education advances?
What percentage of those who apply does our school accept? (The higher the percentage of acceptances, the more poorly qualified are its students and the less freedom the school has to shape the character of its student body or to serve the educational needs of its most gifted students.)
Is the average age of our incoming students increasing, diminishing, or holding steady? (Younger graduates are likely to spend more years in active ministry. At least in the early years of their ministry they may be more effective pastors of young people, the population group of adult North Americans most distant from the churches.)
Who among our students are likely to be the most gifted evangelists, the most creative church planters, the most articulate exponents of the claims of the gospel to an increasingly indifferent and self-indulgent society? How can we tailor programs to strengthen the abilities of those students even more.
Study after study of North American and European society shows a continuing decline in the percentage of the population that is actively involved in church participation but a steady increase in numbers of people pursuing “spirituality.” Much of that spirituality, however, is rooted in self-absorption and is unrelated to serious thinking or social concern.
Is your school equipping students to meet this challenge?