Potential students, ministry mentors, Northwest Baptist Seminary administrators, and denominational officials gathered in June 2016 for the seminary's required two-day assessment for "Immerse" program applicants. 

Credit: Northwest Baptist Seminary

Many people use the word “crisis” to describe the reality of seminaries and theological schools in North America. Grim reports of institutional contraction and closing are everywhere.

The reasons that schools of theology are facing challenges are usually not reducible to the faults of individual institutions or their leadership. Surely leadership does matter — the recent study from Auburn Seminary, Governance That Works, provides evidence for this — yet underlying social forces may matter even more. After all, the captain and crew of a vessel have only limited options when a storm blows up at sea, and for many in theological education, recent years have felt much like a storm.

To others, however, the changing nature of faith and leadership formation looks like refreshing rain. The newest Auburn report does not dwell on the grief and loss that inevitably come with institutional crises. Instead, the report’s focus is on “bright spots” where, despite sailing in the same stormy seas, both old and new organizations are charting new courses in theological education. This new study asks the question, “How are vibrant institutions preparing faith leaders for the challenges of the 21st century?”

The full report is available online at www.auburnseminary.org/report/bright-spots and contains a multitude of case studies. The cases are neither representative nor exhaustive. Rather, they are exemplary, and with them, we hope to provoke fresh considerations for each reader’s own institution. To find these schools, programs, and initiatives, we used a “snowball” or chain-referral method of gathering our sample. We talked to knowledgeable people in seminaries and organizations that support theological education, canvassed colleagues for suggestions, spent numerous hours on web searches, and followed up with phone calls, visits, and interviews.

This article focuses particularly on three innovative programs that train leaders for the big challenges of the 21st century.

Fragilization of belief
In his magnum opus A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes about the dynamics of secularization, which leads to what he calls the “fragilization” of belief. He says that as people negotiate new pressures on their lives, the result is a multiplication of forms of belief. Their spiritual options grow exponentially, and simultaneously their connection to organized religion weakens. Over generations, ever more people negotiate ever more heterodox beliefs and looser connections to denominations and perhaps the religion of their childhood. But their spiritual search and desire for an ethical foundation for their lives remains.

We see one result of this fragilization of faith in the growing number of degrees and certificates offered by seminaries. Fewer students come to seminary with clear plans to serve as ordained clergy, while more students embrace a wide variety of vocational goals. We see that schools attracting “seeker students” (sometimes referred to as “spiritual but not religious”) have seen their average student age drop significantly, to the mid-20s, as young people explore meaning, purpose, and their calling in the world. Some have no plans to leave secular jobs for full-time ministry but are nonetheless keen to deepen their knowledge of the Bible and their skills for ministry in congregations, communities, and places of work.

Either dim or bright
In his new book, The History of Theological Education, Justo L. González writes that the fate of churches and their related seminaries can be divided according to formal patterns of required ministerial education. Denominations that traditionally required seminary education for ordination have declining membership, he says, and their seminaries are largely seeing declining enrollment as well. On the other hand, traditions that do not require seminary education are largely growing.

Beyond the walls of seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, a whole world of theological institutes and Bible schools serve immigrant communities and the rising Latino/Hispanic population. 

 Full report online
Want to read more about institutions that are challenging the status quo in theological education? The full report, Bright spots in theological education: Hopeful stories in a time of crisis and change, is available online at www.auburnseminary.org/report/bright-spots

González points out that thousands of ministers, Latino and not, are licensed or ordained for ministry without formal theological education. Some of these seek education through nondegree programs from undergraduate institutes or Bible schools. The Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH), one of the case studies in the full “Bright Spots” report, represents many Bible institutes that serve the U.S. Hispanic population.

The future of theological education, González says, can be seen as “either dim or bright.” It is dim if we only look at how traditional schools are now organized, but bright if we consider the diverse settings in which religious leaders are training across the continuum of theological education. City Seminary and the Gotham Fellowship, two case studies in this article, are other examples of institutions that are providing theological training in alternative forms.

A different pedagogy
In our research, we found that schools are shifting their educational model from content transfer to adaptive learning. The content transfer model assumes that educators know what students need to learn. This is giving way to the adaptive learning model, which assumes that students need to become agile learners in relation to real-world challenges.

Northwest Baptist Seminary’s “Immerse” program illustrates this shift in emphasis. This program, which is offered alongside the seminary’s more traditional course work, doesn’t assume that classroom learning is primary and that “contextual” learning (i.e., learning that takes place in the student’s normal places of work and ministry) is secondary. Rather, the program takes for granted that students are already leaders in ministry, and the academic course work is repositioned to serve the learning leader. Bible, theology, and the practical fields are integrated into learning goals that students master while in ministry.

The genesis of the “Immerse” program was a meeting that seminary president Kent Anderson had with an officer from his denomination, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in British Columbia and Yukon (also called Fellowship Pacific). Northwest Baptist is the primary vehicle for training pastors for Fellowship Pacific’s churches, and Anderson reports that the churches’ leaders were dissatisfied. Young graduates were not interested in serving small churches, they told him, and graduates remained unprepared for the challenges they would inevitably face in pastoring. “Something needed to be done, and we knew it,” Anderson told us.

"Immerse" students working with Brian Rapske, professor of New Testament at Northwest Baptist Seminary. 

Credit: Northwest Baptist Seminary

The seminary and Fellowship Pacific together began to map out a curriculum based not on credit hours but on outcomes — what a pastor actually needed to know. They moved forward with the idea that learning would take place in real-life settings in addition to classrooms. Early on there was faculty resistance; some professors were concerned that academic standards would be lowered. But over time, faculty members were reassured. Each “Immerse” student is assigned three mentors: an academic advisor, a pastor mentor, and a network mentor representing the denomination. All three must agree that a student has met or mastered an outcome before the student receives credit for that module.

The program is particularly effective for students who are already working on staff in a congregation. The logistics are mapped on a spreadsheet, and software monitors each student’s progress through the ministry leadership outcomes. Administrators can tell at a glance if a team is underperforming or if a student is not engaged.

Independently from Northwest Baptist Seminary, other schools have begun focusing on adaptive learning rather than knowledge transfer. For example, in California, Fuller Theological Seminary has rebuilt its curriculum by instituting four integrative vocational formation courses. Traditional courses in Bible, history, and theology have been recast to focus less on mastering knowledge and more on employing classic disciplines for the sake of leadership in the world. In Kansas, Central Baptist Seminary has changed the M.Div. curriculum to focus on learner-centered education, an integrated curriculum, mastery of essential ministry competencies, and job-ready graduates.

A different kind of institution
Fewer students may be preparing for traditional clergy positions, but some institutions are finding that more students are seeking a foundation for faithful leadership in all kinds of other roles, including in nonprofit organizations and in business. Seminaries that broaden their horizons beyond traditional theological degrees and traditional students can find an expanding market of students eager for engagement on biblical, theological, and ethical topics.

Two cases illustrate the shift in emphasis from training career clergy to training leaders who take their faith into the marketplace. Although neither is an accredited degree-offering seminary, both City Seminary of New York, a 15-year-old school based in Harlem, and the Gotham Fellowship, an eight-year-old training program begun by Redeemer Presbyterian Church, also in New York, provide leadership training with theological and spiritual foundations.

Getting out into neighborhoods, meeting people, and praying together are important parts of spiritual formation and practice at City Seminary of New York. 

Credit: City Seminary of New York

When City Seminary’s founder, Mark Gornik, moved to Harlem, he discovered a city filled with immigrant churches, many of them led by part-time pastors without formal theological education. He began to envision a new school to serve these leaders, and eventually a two-fold plan emerged. The seminary would begin with a partnership with an existing accredited school, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Next, as a new learning community grew with its own programs and eventually a master’s degree, it would become independent of Westminster. “Our calling is to walk alongside ministry leaders and bi-vocational pastors, particularly those whose routes into ministry have not included access to traditional programs of theological education,” Gornik told us. “We enable people already in ministry to remain in context so that, at strategic points in their week, ministries, and journeys, they can join us in a different sort of learning community.”

Classes are based on a cohort model. The school’s dean, Maria Liu Wong, explained that rather than focusing on a two- or three-year curriculum, City Seminary is a “lifelong community of learning and practice with multiple entry points and modes of engagement.” Students’ cultures, church backgrounds, and work settings are part of the learning process, and there’s a continuum of learning opportunities:

  • Occasional seminars, exhibitions, and workshops open to the public.
  • Regular field trips to various neighborhoods.
  • A semester-long certificate program.
  • A planned master’s degree.
  • Groups for alumni and students to learn the practice of ministry from one another.

Across town, the Gotham Fellowship grew out of the deep commitment of a large Presbyterian congregation, Redeemer Church, to invest in New York’s spiritual renewal. The fellowship is a nine-month cohort-based program geared for young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35, and it encompasses theological training, spiritual and personal development, and community formation.

Expectations for participants include:

  • Daily devotions with guided scriptural and devotional readings.
  • Weekly two-hour discussions on assigned readings (which include classic theological texts by Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and more).
  • Monthly Saturday gatherings for in-depth training and neighborhood visits.
  • Three weekend retreats focusing on personal reflection and spiritual formation.
  • Three projects to translate theology into real-life practice. For example, one student organized a group of lawyers to bring legal advice to the homeless by setting up tables at a soup kitchen.

The goal of the program is not to train students for congregational ministry, but to help people integrate their faith with their professional lives. That’s why fellows must be employed full-time and must have been in their current field of work for at least two years. Past and current fellows have been employed in the fields of law, finance, education, fashion, medicine, the arts, and government. There is always a waiting list to enroll in one of the 45-person cohorts.

Programs like City Seminary and the Gotham Fellowship demonstrate that there is a need — indeed, a market — for theological education among those uninterested in traditional seminary degrees. And some well-established theological schools, including Fuller Seminary in California, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, are experimenting with similar programs.

Revitalization, not decline
It would be a grave mistake to believe that the need for theological education has diminished. While enrollment in the gold-standard M.Div. degree programs may be declining, the need for faith leaders, trained and equipped to face contemporary challenges, continues to grow.

Fragilization of faith may have resulted in the decline of many denominations and seminaries, but it also heralds the possibility for growth — especially for those who pay attention to the changing cultural and social landscape and are willing to give up some sacred cows. It is no small task to change traditional curricula or degrees, which is why other “Bright Spot” example institutions like United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas have set up new programs in off-site locations. Separate physical space has allowed these schools to experiment and innovate without committing the whole institution.

There are clearly many more sites of innovation, experiments worth noting, bold leaders worth learning from, and stories deserving attention. Sharing these stories — successes and failures — fosters a revitalized network of institutions training leaders of faith and moral courage.

​Auburn reports now available through ATLA

All research reports from Auburn Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education are now available through ATLA Religion Database from the American Theological Library Association. Many ATLA member institutions offer access to ATLA catalogs and databases to their alumni as well as to students and faculty. 

​Mentioned in this article

A secular age, by Charles Taylor (Harvard, 2007, 896 pp., $50). 

Governance that works: Effective leadership for theological schools, by Barbara Wheeler and Helen Ouellette (Auburn Theological Seminary, 2015, 40 pp.). Available at www.auburnseminary.org/governance-that-works-effective-leadership-for-theological-schools.

The history of theological education, by Justo L. González (Abingdon, 2015, 176 pp., $40). 


Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More