Theological education is beset by such dramatic change that leaders are divided on how to respond. Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, often says that we don't know how theological schools will evolve in the 21st century, but we do know they will be different and diverse. While new schools will surely open, others — even historic ones — may be destined to close.
In such an environment, how do seminary leaders prepare for the future? For planner types like me, the immediate response is to develop a strategy based on the best information available. I'm always ready to schedule a planning retreat with a smart leadership team. Just give me a few minutes to gather an ample supply of markers, masking tape, and easels, and we'll start to identify objectives, map out solutions, set goals, and attach timelines.
But wait a minute.
In theology we often speak of opening ourselves to the Spirit to discern God's will. Perhaps this is a time to slow down, revisit basic questions, invite stakeholders into the conversation, and assume a listening stance. I'm reminded of Ronald A. Heifetz's advice in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers: "One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand." As a friend reminds me, "Leaders do not always have the answers, but leaders do need to have the right questions." Good advice.
Following their counsel, I offer seven questions for leaders of theological institutions to ask themselves as they guide their institutions into the future. These questions require input and commitment from all stakeholders, but they offer a challenge to leaders, too: To facilitate wisely as the community explores and discerns answers that may shape the future of their schools.
1. In the future, will our mission change as our particular environment changes?
Who are we? What are we called to do and be? Grappling with these questions about the mission drives leaders to look not just inward, but outward as well, to an institution's environment, always teeming with threats and opportunities. A school's vision for the future should be an embodiment of its mission within that context.
Leaders should ask: How is our school responding to the opportunities and threats around us, and how are they affecting us as we carry out our mission?
2. In the future, whom will we serve?
The educational mission of a school is to provide learning opportunities. But for whom? Originally, seminaries were founded to equip people for full-time, professional ministry. In the 20th century, theological schools welcomed persons interested in academic careers, counseling, and other forms of ministry and service, and even lay people who enrolled simply to explore and deepen their faith. Meanwhile, many denominations that required graduate education as a prerequisite for ordination started shrinking. Schools responded to these trends by diversifying their programs, starting niche degree programs in addition to the traditional three-year divinity track.
The future is uncertain. Who will pay the high cost of traditional theological education? And what kinds of educational programs will be needed? The student of the 21st century may or may not be going to school full time, living on campus, planning for ordination. The student of the 21st century may not even be earning a degree.
In one thing we can feel confident: Students will have various demands and requirements, some based on their own perceived spiritual, social, or educational needs, and some set by authorities like denominations and religious communities.
Leaders should ask: Can we deliver educational programs at several levels to students from multi-faith communities? What will our economic model be if tuition income from degree candidates dwindles?
3. In the future, how will we measure what benefits our students receive?
Accrediting agencies have long applied pressure to schools to explain and defend their "educational outcomes," but today, students and church bodies are also interested in the quality of a school's product. In the future, seminaries will face increased requirements to justify themselves, their programs, and the tuition they charge — not just to the formal bodies to which they've always been accountable, but also to the people who pay tuition, give support, and assign graduates to parishes and other ministry settings.
Leaders should ask: How are we demonstrating the quality of our educational outcomes to all the various groups that are assessing us?
4. In the future, who will teach?
The proliferation of programs and the difficulty of balancing budgets intensify the need for flexibility and lower costs. Many schools have discontinued tenure; others employ more part-time than full-time instructors.
Leaders should ask: In the future, how much will we continue to emphasize faculty scholarship, and how much will we emphasize teaching, mentoring, and other ways that teachers prepare students for ministry? In the future, will we expect faculty to travel to satellite sites or to teach online? What will be the normal teaching load? Will all teachers be expected to be generalists, or to have practical experience in the field? Will doctorates and other terminal degrees be required? Will faculty be expected to be members of our sponsoring church body, or to sign a statement of faith?
5. In the future, what kind of facilities and educational resources will we need?
Some seminaries are already reallocating space to reflect a changing world. For example, libraries have traditionally prioritized large collections of books and periodicals stored on-site. But now that students and faculty have online access to many resources, some institutions are reconfiguring space to prioritize communal spaces where students can learn together, using technology to create presentations or videos.
Leaders should ask: What kind of library space, collections, equipment, and instruction will our students and faculty need in the future? How can we reconfigure our existing space, at reasonable cost, to meet the needs of a changing and more tech-savvy student body and faculty?
6. In the future, who will support us?
As denominations trim their financial support for theological schools, some theological schools are relying primarily on fundraising and others primarily on tuition dollars to make ends meet. Most schools are doing both — charging higher tuition and raising more and more money from devoted supporters.
The result, according to Lovett H. Weems Jr.: "We have made debtors out of students and beggars out of presidents." Many students leave campus carrying high debt into low-paying jobs, while much administrative energy is devoted to identifying and cultivating new gifts and grants.
Leaders should ask: How will we pay our bills in the future? Do we need to reduce programs, downsize faculty, or eliminate scholarships? What is our core educational mission, and how can we fulfill this mission and maintain a sustainable economic model?
7. In the future, what will our governance structures look like and who will govern us?
The essence of governance is leadership that enables an institution to fulfill its mission while maintaining its economic sustainability. The authority and structure of this leadership is influenced by the tradition of the school, its church connections, and (in some cases) its location in another institution such as a university.
The dramatic changes that are happening in theological education require creative, courageous, committed persons — boards, presidents, faculty, and constituency — who are willing to ask the tough questions and struggle to find the right answers that will determine the mission, role, shape, and sustainability of their schools in the 21st century.
Leaders should ask: Do we have the right people on board to enable us to fulfill our mission with economic sustainability?
Discussing these questions with all stakeholders — including board, senior administrators, faculty, students, and donors — is not easy, and the answers will probably not be definitive. But asking them continually, methodically, and with an open mind is critical for the leadership of any school that wants to thrive in the 21st century.