Students in Father Richard A. Peddicord's (above) classes at Aquinas Institute of Theology include both lay students and members of religious orders, some of whom are studying for the priesthood. (AQUINAS INSTITUTE OF THEOLOGY)

Thirty years ago, most people went to theological schools to prepare to be parish ministers, missionaries, or educators. Today they are likely to share their classrooms with people interested in a wide variety of specialized ministries in the parish; social ministries in a variety of settings outside the church; or their own spiritual journeys. Driven by the need to respond to students with such interests, as well as by financial exigencies, theological schools are offering an increasing number of two-year master of arts programs. Though pitfalls may await programs launched without thorough research and planning, carefully thought out master's degrees help theological schools fulfill their missions in a rapidly changing religious world, increase their financial stability, and enrich their training of parish clergy.

Education and social ministries

Glenn T. Miller, academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary and author of Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970, explains that specialized ministry programs followed on the great expansion of churches during the first decade of the 20th century. The growing number of large institutional churches, many with strong Christian education programs and a deep involvement in the missionary movement, led Protestant seminaries to begin offering training in Christian education and missions during the 1920s and '30s. Later in the century, as mainline Protestantism declined and evangelicalism grew and became a large-church movement, specialized ministry programs decreased in mainline seminaries but continued to flourish in evangelical schools.

Because they tend to have large staffs, evangelical churches especially need leaders trained in specialized ministries. The great attention to Christian education in such churches has provided a steady market for Christian educators. And evangelicalism's many parachurch ministries, like Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, call for the preparation of younger leaders who don't necessarily need a three-year M.Div. degree.

Meanwhile, during the past 20 or 30 years, mainline schools have increasingly attracted students who are interested in a host of social ministries. Consequently, M.A. or certificate programs in pastoral counseling, spiritual formation, and preparation for various kinds of social service work have sprouted. The number of students primarily interested in their own spiritual growth and understanding of theology and religion is also increasing, and has led to the formation of M.A. programs aimed at meeting their needs.

Branching out

Jeffrey Mahan is academic dean at Iliff School of Theology, where about 60 percent of students are enrolled in the M.Div. program. The others are pursuing master's degrees in specialized ministries or the two-year M.A. in theological studies, which Mahan regards as the seeker or entrepreneurial degree. (ILIFF SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY)

More than 60 percent of the students at Iliff School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Denver, are in the M.Div. program. Many of the rest are enrolled in its two-year M.A. programs. In addition to the traditional M.A. (which was designed for those planning to go on to Ph.D. study but also includes students with other goals), the school offers an M.A. in specialized ministries (M.A.S.M.), focused on justice and peace studies, pastoral care, or religious leadership, and an M.A. in theological studies (M.A.T.S.). M.A.S.M. graduates often find jobs in nonprofits rather than in congregations, while the M.A.T.S. is a flexible degree for those who want to do serious, sustained study of religion and theology for its own sake. The school thinks of it as the seeker or entrepreneurial degree, says academic dean Jeffrey Mahan.

The situation is even more complicated in Catholic theological schools, where the decline in religious vocations has made it necessary to train lay people to do things that priests, religious brothers, and religious sisters used to do, says Dominican Father Charles Bouchard, recently retired as president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. Aquinas's first special ministries program, an M.A. in theology, was offered in the early '70s. It was geared toward women religious, who were just beginning to leave teaching and health care to move into other areas of ministry. Since then, specialized ministries programs have proliferated at Catholic theological schools to meet the church's need for people trained in such things as liturgical music, youth ministry, and spiritual direction.

Father Charles Bouchard, former president of Aquinas Institute of Theology, compares the increasing specialization of theological education to similar developments in medicine, where a proliferation of master's degrees undergird subfields like physical therapy and X-ray technology. (AQUINAS INSTITUTE OF THEOLOGY )

Father Bouchard likens recent developments in theological education to what has been happening in medical education, a field once limited to registered nurses and medical doctors but now made up of many specialties, from physical therapy to X-ray technology. "Ministry, like health care, has gotten more complicated," he says. Among the new programs Aquinas has launched in recent years is an M.A. in health care mission, designed to give Catholic health care leaders a background in theology so that they can see their work "as a ministry, not just as a business," Father Bouchard says.

As theological schools across the board expand degree programs aimed at educating the laity, they might do well to consider a pioneer in the field, British Columbia's Regent College. Begun by Christian businessmen in Vancouver in the 1960s, the school did not offer the M.Div. degree until a decade later. Rather, the new school defined its mission as training the laity. "Christians needed a more integrated, more interdisciplinary way of thinking," says Rod Wilson, Regent's president. "Rather than leaving theological and biblical issues to those in the pulpit, Regent's founders were convinced that all Christians, no matter their vocation, need to think biblically and theologically about that vocation."

At the heart of Regent's mission is a 60-credit master of Christian studies degree (M.C.S.). This, combined with a one-year diploma in Christian studies and an M.A. in theology, enrolls the majority of the 700 (350 full-time equivalent) students at Regent. "If we ever begin to attract more M.Div. than M.C.S. students, we'll feel that we're losing our mission," Wilson states. Since 1981, the school has felt no need to add additional degree programs to its curriculum. A summer program that annually brings another 1,000 or so students to campus offers a wide variety of one- or two-week courses. Regent is an evangelical school, and its current student body is made up of people from about 40 denominations, as well as from all parts of the world.


At Bangor Theological Seminary's commencement in 2007, academic dean Glenn Miller (in red) recognized graduating senior Jon Olson for "promise in parish ministry." Miller suggests that new master's programs should require some of the same courses as the M.Div., thus conserving academic resources.


 Essential board oversight

What role do boards play in overseeing the variety of M.A. programs? Though the responsibility for planning and developing them largely belongs to the faculty, boards are vital to the process, say both Bangor Seminary's Miller and Aquinas Institute's Bouchard. Both cite the financial pressures that may tempt schools to rush into these programs unprepared. Enrollment decline in M.Div. programs has caused financial problems for many seminaries, especially those in the mainline. As a result, their presidents and deans often "lead lives of quiet desperation," as Miller puts it. Expanding M.A. programs seems like a good way to help the bottom line, since increasing the number of full-time equivalent students by just 10 percent can make the difference between being solvent and insolvent for many schools — especially if they can launch new programs without significantly increasing their costs.

The most cost-effective way to run these programs is to integrate them into the school's core curriculum. Though each program has some unique requirements, all share many of the same courses. "You make sure that all of your specialized ministry people have to take Bible. And you make sure that they all take the same church history classes as the M.Div. students," Miller explains. "You try to double dip as much as possible."

But if any of these programs find themselves struggling, they become a drain on the school's finances. According to Father Bouchard, "There are a lot of cases where new degrees started without adequate market research end up taxing the faculty and diluting other programs." To ensure that this does not happen, the board must exercise careful financial oversight. Boards need to realize that initial demand doesn't ensure long-term demand, Miller explains.

They need to see all new programs in terms of a ten-year grid and ask themselves how the program can weather some lean years during that time. Most new programs start out well enrolled, since demand for them has been building. But that initial enthusiasm is likely to die down after a few years. To get through the lean times that usually follow, the school needs to have more extensive recruitment plans in place; and it needs to have thought out how to deploy its support faculty until enrollments pick up again.

Realistic development expectations also need to be part of the plan — for example, boards should expect the development staff to put energy into finding contributors who are especially interested in the program and will support it. Boards also need to think about how Association of Theological Schools accreditation requirements may impact the financial picture. The push to add faculty who have actually worked in the specialized ministries programs being offered could increase their costs.

Aquinas Institute of Theology, where 75 percent of the students are in two-year M.A. programs, has had success with offering many of its M.A. courses online for cohorts of students who also spend several weekends on campus. Father Bouchard has found that this works very well for two-year degrees, though not for the more intense M.Div. program. The start-up cost for online programs is taxing, both financially and in terms of faculty time and energy. But once the courses are established, they increase rather than drain a school's resources. Here, too, boards have an important role to play in ensuring that faculty workloads be kept to a reasonable level and that faculty get the training they need to become effective online teachers.

If the board is doing its work well, it will hold the president and academic dean accountable for creating careful plans, and it will check on how well those plans are being realized. According to Miller, "the biggest danger is that the board become a cheerleading group for every new program, and not a critical voice saying, 'Take a good look at this.'" That look must be long enough for the program to become well established, as well as to consider what to do if it runs aground.

Staying focused

The other task of the board is to hold the school to its mission. This may require boards to ask whether the changing church and religious world call the school to rethink or broaden its mission. Does preparing fully ordained clergy remain the school's primary focus, or is it called to respond to the changing face of a denomination or of a wider religious culture?

Regent College president Rod Wilson notes that his school's founders were convinced that lay people needed to think biblically and theologically. The school considers the master of Christian studies, not the M.Div., as its primary degree. (REGENT COLLEGE)

"There's a great risk right now of becoming too pragmatic and utilitarian," says Rod Wilson of Regent College. Certainly schools must be financially viable, and everyone struggles with finances and economics. But to keep schools theologically grounded, boards must ask, "What does the church of Jesus Christ need in this century, in the next 50 years?" And they must resist automatically answering, "Pastors." Instead, Wilson insists, Christians need to think about how to train everyone in the church, and to do so in a way that integrates secular with sacred vocations, and religion with other disciplines. To achieve this, schools need faculty and board members for whom integrative and interdisciplinary ways of thinking are important.

It's important for board and faculty to work together in thinking about new programs. Jacob Kinnard, head of Iliff's academic M.A. program and the faculty representative to the board, explains that all of the school's new degree programs have come out of an ongoing conversation with the board.

The board has urged the school "to be relevant, to be focused, to take questions of market seriously, and to struggle with how we live out our mission in new contexts," he says. Sometimes the board has been more ready to move than the faculty. At other times, the faculty has pushed to begin something new and the board has asked the hard questions. Mahan and Kinnard see this back and forth as essential to the process.

New opportunities for laity

The consensus among these leaders in theological education is that two-year degrees enrich the M.Div. At Aquinas, the maturity and experience of those in the specialized programs, who are mostly women, is a good influence on the young seminarians. Father Bouchard sees a challenge for faculty in finding a middle ground where they can meet the needs of both seminarians, who have strong backgrounds in philosophy and theology, and laypeople, who mostly do not, but he thinks the overall experience is positive. Mahan and Kinnard say that they have heard no complaints and many expressions of appreciation for the interaction between the degree programs at Iliff. "Students find it exciting to be with people who bring different sets of questions and interests into the classroom," Kinnard says.

Wilson gives the example of a psychiatrist from Australia who is spending a year in Regent's Christian studies diploma program. "He's interacting with M.Div. students in classes, small groups, and outside of class, as are people from all walks of life." For many people — from housewives to artists, truck drivers to marine biologists — graduate study at Regent is a time of discernment near the beginning of their working lives. They may emerge ready to practice their professions in a deeper, more integrated way; they may decide to change course and prepare for careers in the parish or in nonprofits.

To prepare a greater variety of people to do God's work in diverse settings is likely to be an important part of the future of theological education. Well-planned and theologically grounded, the proliferating diploma and M.A. programs serve to reaffirm the importance of preparing all the people of God, not just a few, for service in the church. That's looking to the future.\

In higher education, decisions are made using "shared governance." What is that?

The tradition of shared governance rests on the twin assumptions that (1) persons other than board members and the president can make good decisions, and (2) faculty should hold a substantive role in institutional decision-making.

The General Institutional Standards of the Association of Theological Schools states: "The governance of a theological school involves more than the legal relationships and bylaws that define patterns of responsibility and accountability. It is the structure by which participants in the governance process exercise faithful leadership on behalf of the purpose of the theological school." Or, in the words of In Trust Governance Mentor David Tiede, shared governance is the "stewardship of powers" to accomplish a seminary's educational mission in service of the church's calling.

Effective shared governance requires that the workload be distributed, the decision making be cooperative, and the unique gifts brought by the board, administration, and faculty be recognized and encouraged. It is a results-oriented approach to organizational leadership characterized by shared authority among governance stakeholders, most often delineated in institutional bylaws and in faculty and other personnel handbooks as follows:

Legislative decisions in which the board has primary responsibility, shared with the president and his or her administrative team, and into which faculty have input.

Institutional decisions in which the president and his or her administrative team have primary responsibility, as delegated by the board, with faculty (and sometimes staff) input.

Educational decisions in which faculty members have primary responsibility, with administrative and board oversight.

For shared governance to run smoothly, each group — board, administration, and faculty — must respect the prerogatives of the others, while at the same time holding each other accountable for the overall well-being of the school. At the most basic, the goal of shared governance is to invite a host of stakeholders into the sacred calling of stewarding the school.

-- Rebekah Burch Basinger


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