Helen M. Blier speaks to a roomful of lifelong learners at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where she is director of continuing education.

It may be tempting to think of degree-granting programs as the bread and butter of what a seminary offers — the central focus, the key to paying the bills. Some seminaries, however, are thinking more broadly and creatively about the implications of lifelong learning, designing programs that reflect the charism or priorities of that particular institution and acknowledging that what pastors or church professionals learn while earning their degrees isn’t enough to prepare them fully for all they’ll encounter in ministry.

The percentage of seminaries currently offering robust continuing education programs is relatively small: only about a third of the members of the Association of Theological Schools list continuing education programs on their websites. The diversity of programming they offer, however, reflects new ways of thinking about what seminaries can do, from courses on how to preach in a divided political time to a program at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on cultivating Hispanic women church leaders. The offerings range from the contemporary (a course on “spiritual habits for the queer soul” at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois) to the ancient (a course on the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi at the Franciscan School of Theology in San Diego).

Often, the approach a seminary takes to lifelong learning is deeply contextual.

Outreach to rural bivocational church leaders

In Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, Shaw University Divinity School currently has about 100 students enrolled in its master of divinity program. But its reach extends much further, bolstered by a partnership through which Shaw offers Christian education leadership training to Baptists around the state, many of whom cannot afford to leave their jobs and families to attend seminary full time but who nevertheless serve in leadership roles in local congregations.

“We’re dealing with rural areas,” says Joe Stevenson, a professor at Shaw and former director of the continuing education program. “We’re dealing for the most part with your Sunday school teacher, your Sunday school superintendent, your bivocational pastor who can’t leave his or her job but will go to something in their area that provides Christian education.”

Leaders at Shaw say that the importance of such outreach can’t be overstated, especially for the school’s primarily African American student body. “There is such a need for continuing education for people of color,” Stevenson says. “We are only 10 generations out of slavery.” Through continuing education, the divinity school can play a role in supporting everything from youth ministry to Bible study in small churches all over the state.

Preparation for everyone

In designing continuing education programs, seminaries often consider both their strengths and potential new directions.

Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago, for example, describes itself as a “21st-century seminary beyond walls,” with no residential campus. “The board has been deeply convinced that we need to be providing theological education for everybody,” says Julie Lytle, director of distributed and lifelong learning initiatives and associate professor of educational leadership. She adds that “theological education needs to be affordable and accessible to all learners, regardless of where they are.”

So Bexley Seabury is currently in conversation with the Episcopal Church leaders about the ministry of deacons and the need to train deacons in areas such as pastoral ministry or community organizing. The seminary is looking forward to designing continuing education courses that meet the needs of local parishes.

Bexley Seabury offers professional development in practical subjects such as financial literacy for pastors, as well as in more theological and pastoral areas, like Anglican liturgy and exploring life and death in a parish community. The intent, Lytle says, is to provide lifelong learning across the ages and stages of professional ministry and also to provide theological training for people who aren’t interested in earning a seminary degree.

The seminary also offers a “Learning from London” travel seminar, in which participants see, first hand, approaches the Church of England has taken to mission and planting new churches.

Shaping a continuing education program does pose challenges for seminary leadership, Lytle says. A seminary’s mandate is typically to provide degree-granting programs — “those are our bread and butter,” she adds. “Lifelong learning is never a cash cow.”

But she also notes that continuing education is a way for faculty to use their expertise to “prepare all the baptized for their life in the world” and to expose more people to what seminaries have to offer.

A strong emphasis on continuing education

While in some settings continuing education is seen as secondary, “there are seminaries that see this kind of education, with its flexibility and its capacity to be nimble, as the cutting edge of theological education,” says Helen M. Blier, director of continuing education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Offering a vibrant continuing education program allows seminaries “to walk alongside their graduates into a world in which the definition of ministry and the definition of church are in massive transition right now,” Blier says. Lifelong learning also offers pastors the chance to develop skills they may need years into ministry — for example, developing entrepreneurial ministry projects, serving a cluster of small congregations, or responding to sexual abuse allegations.

Lifelong learning programs can envision ministry preparation as an ongoing partnership. The most recent strategic plan for Pittsburgh Seminary includes the idea that “we are going to continue to support our graduates through the changing landscape of their ministry,” Blier says.

In planning programming, Blier often works in partnership with people outside the seminary — like mental health professionals from the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute or scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, with whom she collaborated for a series on science and ethics.

Another focus for these lifelong learning courses is ecumenical and interfaith initiatives. The October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh brought to the foreground the need for interfaith relationship building, Blier says, because “that’s the world that our students are going to be working in.”

Where the spiritual meets the secular

“There is no way we can completely train students while they are in seminary for the world they are going to encounter,” says Dawn Alitz, director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It would take far too much time and money.” And by the time students finished with an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink education, their knowledge and skills — for example, those needed to effectively administer a nonprofit — might already be outdated.

In the past, continuing education often was driven by the research or teaching emphases of faculty, Alitz says. But today, the focus increasingly comes from listening to congregational leaders and the community about their current needs.

Continuing education can also play a role in bringing theological voices into conversation with an increasingly secular culture. “We think that God is acting in the world, beyond the border of the church building,” Alitz says. “We have something to speak into this, something to witness into this.”

Solutions to economic challenges

At some seminaries, continuing education serves parish leaders beyond ordained clergy, such as at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, where a majority of alumni work as lay ministers in parishes, says Barbara Sutton, director of formation and field education.

In response to a request from the nearby Diocese of St. Cloud, St. John’s has developed continuing education on leadership skills needed to serve complex parishes. Another issue: economic challenges faced by laypeople on the staffs of parish churches. “The Roman Catholic church is threatened now economically in some ways with the sexual abuse scandal, because people are not giving,” Sutton says. “So the first to go will be our lay ecclesial ministers.… They’re having to reimagine themselves, just as the pastors did.”

When a seminary provides a strong lifelong learning component, that sends a message to congregations “that we are interested in the mission of the church and the people who serve it,” Sutton says. To this purpose, congregational presentations are organized by the seminary’s development office, with an eye toward building deeper community connections and a broader fundraising base as well.

Benefits of continuing education

Lifelong learning can be “a very effective mechanism for fundraising” and community relations, says Blier of Pittsburgh Seminary. “Continuing education programs are great ways to fundraise and to advance mission.”

But continuing education is worth more than its use in fundraising and development. Some continuing education programs focus on practical skills for ministers and church leaders, while other programs appeal to people who don’t have a career in professional ministry, but who are spiritually hungry. Finally, continuing education can give seminaries room to explore society’s big issues — migration, racism, food insecurity, the opioid crisis — and respond faithfully to these issues without changing the degree-granting curriculum every year.

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