The concerns facing theological schools are no secret: enrollment stagnation, financial stress, strained denominations, the rise of the “nones,” and more. But what if theological schools already had at their fingertips the capacity to innovate, expand their base of support, and provide access to theological education to a broader audience?
They do. It’s just that this kind of flexibility doesn’t happen to be within the context of degree programs. Yet a well-resourced continuing education program can help a seminary fulfill its mission by supporting ministry professionals, providing a forum for innovation, and reaching new people — all while piggybacking on the resources the school already has.
Unfortunately, continuing education is rarely on the radar of boards and administrators. Since they are not degree-granting programs, they are not tracked by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). A recent scan of ATS member schools revealed that just fewer than a third of them list continuing education programs on their websites. Of these, only a fraction employ a full-time director to oversee their offerings.
What is continuing education?
While programs can vary by school, “continuing education” generally refers to educational offerings outside of traditional academic degrees, designed to further the skills and knowledge of professionals. These programs typically include workshops, leadership training, lectures, and more, delivered through face-to-face, hybrid, or online formats.
Let’s look more closely at the benefits of these programs:
1. Ongoing support for graduates
A frequently cited statistic from the 2013 World Economic Forum predicted that 65 percent of the jobs that will be held by today’s college students do not yet exist. Theological school graduates are not immune from this trend. According to recent ATS data, just 60 percent of graduating students intend to pursue traditionally structured parish ministry after graduation. An increasing number of students expect to be bivocational. Add to this the fact that the largest group of recent graduates are under 30 and the picture gets even more complex. What will the church look like by the time these young alums reach retirement age?
Given the changing landscape of ministry practice, continuing education should be a part of every ministry professional’s portfolio, and theological schools are best equipped to serve this need. Among practical work fields, though, ministry stands alone. In other fields, including medicine, law, social work, and education, continuing education is a requirement for practitioners to retain their credentialing. But for most people in ministry, continuing education is optional.
Nevertheless, continuing education programs can provide practitioners with the skills they need to address emergent issues in ministry. They also provide opportunities to network, reflect, and renew participants’ sense of vocation. Some of the most popular offerings at my own institution, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, have addressed such topics as the opioid addiction crisis, leadership in transitional contexts, and trauma in communities. Degree program curricula simply do not have the space to offer classes on every topic that might arise in ministry, nor do faculty have crystal balls that enable them to see the future of the church. A continuing education program, however, is nimble enough to step in.
2. Laboratory for innovation
What if schools had the opportunity to test drive their innovations with less risk and a quicker startup time than is possible with academic degree programs? Continuing education can act as a laboratory for schools to experiment with new content and delivery systems while incurring minimal cost in time and effort, compared to launching new degrees.
Think there might be a market for a new concentration in youth ministry or chaplaincy? Want to start a low-residency degree? Use a continuing education offering to gauge interest among constituents and capacity among faculty. At my institution, a number of the faculty were undecided about embracing online technologies in the curriculum. But with the guidance of a coach, several of them agreed to teach online and hybrid courses in the continuing education program first. They learned firsthand the values and limitations of the platform and pedagogy, without worrying about the implications of teaching the classes for credit. Afterward, the decisions they made about the use of these technologies in the degree programs were based on experience, not speculation. Meanwhile, continuing education participants benefited from creative programs. It was a win–win.
Continuing education programs can also provide a means for the community to talk back to the theological school. By listening to participants and evaluating the popularity and effectiveness of programs, continuing education directors can learn what ministry professionals need (and perhaps did not get while in school). Regular conversations between faculty and program directors can play an important role in assessing how well the curriculum serves the work of ministry in changing times.
Continuing education programs enable the seminary to extend its reach into the wider community and develop relationships with prospective students, supporters, and donors. By offering relevant and reliable programs to area ministry professionals — seminary graduates or otherwise — the institution advances its reputation as a trustworthy partner in the work of ministry. The result? A broadened base of people who understand the importance of sound theological education and can support the mission of the school by sending future students, donating, or spreading the word. Our continuing education programs at Pittsburgh are attended by about 2,500 people a year, providing the school with that many touchpoints and opportunities to make new friends.
We also allow current employees, students, and board members — as well as the spouses of everyone in these groups — to attend continuing education programs tuition-free. The benefits are numerous — students who become dedicated alums, peripheral community members who become more familiar with the school, and spouses who share in a loved one’s educational experience — and they far outweigh any loss in program revenue. One recent graduate who juggled full-time coursework and full-time employment while attending used the programs as affordable dates with his wife. In addition to spending quality time, they developed a shared commitment to ministry. Since we implemented this policy, students who attended most frequently have become some of our most dedicated alums, staying connected through continued participation in programs, donating, and volunteering.
I had a conversation recently with a newly ordained local pastor and frequent participant in continuing education programs, which he called a “gift” to his growing expertise in ministry. “It enables pastors like me to keep our work fresh with new insights and rooted in the connections between pulpit, pew, and street.” This kind of dynamic ministry is what every theological school hopes to nurture in its graduates — and what a robust continuing education program can support.