A seminary dean sees the development of study centers as a way to draw evangelical theological schools and churches closer together. But his proposal may also suggest strategies to allay the fear in other church quarters that seminaries spend too much time on book learning, too little time on practical training. How does your school engage the changing needs of the church?

Evangelicals are taking a close look these days at theological education and how it shapes the church. The recent energetic activity of local churches in reaching their communities and multiplying their ministries has outstripped the ability of seminaries to meet the churches’ missional needs. Seminaries are eager to meet the challenge, but they lack the flexibility and mobility for adequate response. The result? A widening chasm of discontent that divides institutions of theological education from the churches.

Their perception that the seminary is out of touch and inadequately responsive to the churches’ need has led many thoughtful and capable church leaders to take direct action. They have launched church-based training programs and schools, and multiplied parachurch organizations that equip leaders for vocational and practical roles in the church. At first glance, this response may cause a small celebration among those who feel that the church should focus training simply on functional needs and move fast. The flaw in such thinking, though, is that those so trained soon yearn for a “deeper well”—broader knowledge into which their activity can fit and out of which their ministry will be propelled with heightened motivation. The discipline of the mind, pursuit of truth, and hunger for education calls them to reconsider the once-abandoned academy.

But what will close the chasm? Were we living in a time when the local church carried out both theological education and mission, such polarization would be far less possible. But ours is a time of specialized duties and compartmentalized action. The Kingdom principle of integrative thinking and labor may point to the appropriate response, one that will guide us to regaining balance and wholeness in our current culture.

Rethinking the role of theological education with this in mind will force us to maintain high accountability to the guilds and high commitment to the church and its mission.

Picture the seminary as a great engine of activity. To maintain the quality condition of the engine, it is checked regularly and held accountable to predetermined standards, which exist to ensure the quality of the engine’s operation. The standards, lodged with the accrediting bodies, are a major point of accountability for the seminary in fulfilling its educational call. But no seminary should assume that maintaining accreditation standards is its only responsibility. A smooth-running engine that drives nothing forward is useless.

Now picture a great set of wheels—the church. God mandates the motion of these wheels to “go into the world” as “salt and light.” This transformational calling results in innovation, incarnational relevance, and responsiveness in leaders of healthy local churches. When seminaries offered little clear direction or help, owing to their inordinate focus upon accreditation and operation, churches attempted to address their need by assuming that motion and activity alone were the commodities needed to fulfill mission. Parachurch and local church training programs became vocational in nature, emphasizing skills and immediate results. The flaw becomes evident when the immediacy of results reveals the shallowness of the preparation. Fast-moving wheels by themselves are of little use to anyone. They simply roll to a faltering stop for lack of power.

Admittedly, the analogy is not perfect. For one, it is only God through the Holy Spirit who provides the energy that drives any Kingdom enterprise. But allow the principle of the example to heighten our awareness of the dynamic relationship between the two entities that we so easily compartmentalize, but that in reality are vitally connected in the larger work of the church. While the example is obviously a generalization, it serves well to clarify (1) the need for connection, (2) the resultant dysfunction where the entities are not engaged, and (3) the role of each as an integral part of a healthy understanding of the church in its broadest and truest sense.

So what connects the engine and the wheels?

It might be a hard shaft that provides a direct drive from one to the other. Efficiency would be high and responsiveness would be immediate. The moment the engine started, the wheels would move. Further, the wheels would move at exactly the speed of the engine, no matter what the nature of the terrain. But there would be no “play” to permit engine and wheels to adjust their paces gently toward each other as they respond to external forces and guidance. The seminary and the churches have separate points of accountability: The seminary is tied to accreditation, the churches to the mission. To pursue the analogy, an unbuffered, direct drive could lead in extreme circumstances to an adversarial relationship. (Caution: It is best to concede that only in the rarest of cases are those committed to the mission of the church wholly unconcerned about academic rigor or the interests of the guilds entirely blind to the mission of the churches.)

In automobiles the easer and softener of direct drive connections is the clutch. Two plates come together with varying degrees of pressure. At times, the clutch plates are fully engaged and the drive is direct. At other times, with less pressure, the plates may slip against each other with one spinning faster than the other. If one plate represented the activity of the seminary, the other the activity of the churches, we can see how energy might be transmitted from one to the other in a manner that allows each to keep faith with a primary point of accountability while also remaining dynamically connected.

In the university milieu, centers can offer an appropriate and effective clutch system between the academy and the churches. Such centers should exist in a symbiotic relationship with the academic platform on which they are built. They should connect the academy with the churches, allowing some slippage in order for each to maintain integrity with their point of accountability.

Centers of this kind are:

  • Defined by a particular need within the church.
  • Not an academic program or degree.
  • Linked closely to the academy for validation.
  • Relatively easy to dismantle as needs within the church change.
  • Primarily designed to provide a resource to the church and inform the academy in regards to the practical needs of the church.
  • Channels for recruitment into academic programs directly related to the center.
  • A means by which the seminary may directly influence the nature of the church in timely, relevant ways.

Take for example the rising need within the church for youth to consider ministry as a vocation more seriously, and for youth pastors to be strengthened. The seminary is well equipped to develop an ad hoc center to meet this need. This action would displace the typical response of adding a new degree program that might become irrelevant when needs shifted once again. Moreover, a center could draw in broad and deep reflection at a seminary level and avoid the temptation of creating a vocational training program.

Such a center could include:

  • Networking among youth pastors.
  • Theological reflection events for youth.
  • Certificate programs.
  • Coaching for leaders.
  • Mentoring.
  • Research among youth in the church.
  • Publication of findings.
  • Providing resources for events.
  • Clustering peer groups.

None of these activities supplants the academic programs nor do they require accreditation for academic excellence. Their design and purpose are derived from needs within the church. Yet everything done serves to influence, inform, and strengthen the ability of faculty and academic administrators to keep the academic programs engaged with the contextual needs of the church.

Funds for the initial development of such a center might come from a grant, loan, or investment by the surrounding university, but new income streams generated by the center should meet ongoing costs. Even a modest allocation from the seminary operating budget can begin a process that will grow over time into an effective center. Once the center is operational, new streams of income can be developed to ensure solvency and growth. Certificate programs, the sale of resources and services, research findings, coaching relationships, and other services can generate fees that will provide for ongoing operational costs. New students who first appear at the center, then enroll in the academic programs of the seminary further underscore the operational wisdom of the strategy.

While not everything done in the academic programs will translate into resources through the center, those programs will have influence and provide depth. Further, participants in the center may well become so engaged that they move on to pursue advanced academic degrees. Conversely, the activities of the center may not conform to the academic standards of the seminary. Nonetheless they will provide a valuable laboratory and source of information to keep the academics well-focused on the praxis dimension of the seminary’s call.

Study centers also figure in Melinda Heppe's article “The University Connection,” which gives real-world examples of universities and theological schools entering into relationship around centers.

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