|James L. Waits
In my early consideration of professions, I had no intention of becoming a theological educator. Yet for thirty years now I have been engaged with the curricula, the personnel, the funding, and in some respects with the envisioning of theological education in North America. For me, it has been an unexpected and profoundly satisfying ministry.
It has also been a stimulating time. The last three decades have confronted theological education with large issues: the civil rights movement and the social protests of the Vietnam War; new claims of race, gender, and class and new theologies of liberation; the emergence of global and contextual perspectives and their implications for institutional life and pedagogy; the insistent realities of a new technological revolution; issues of lifestyle and constituencies; changes in North American religious life and student populations. All have had vital impact on the ways we think about and conduct theological education in our time.
For the most part, theological institutions have responded to the challenges with a surprising measure of clarity and forthrightness. While religious traditions and other motives have dictated the responses of some faculty, administrators, and trustees, most others have grappled sincerely with their communal roles and vocations in the face of these issues. Some have welcomed the changes as opportunities for the renewal of theological institutions and practices. The effects can be seen in faculty teaching and research, in the nature of seminary community life, in the curriculum, indeed in the construction of theology itself. Few systems of professional education have been more influenced by the cultural and political events of the last thirty years than theological education.
Some argue that the change has been debilitating, that the classic formulations of theological education yielded better ministers, that the pressures of recent history have fostered only ambiguity and a diminished ministerial presence and authority.
What can we claim to have learned in these intervening years? And how have the forces of change affected theological education for the better?
• Theological communities today are more inclusive than ever before. Between 1987 and 1996 African American students in Association of Theological Schools members grew from 3,341 to 5,785, an increase of 73 percent; Hispanic students went from 1,399 to 2,066, up 48 percent; and Asian and Pacific Island students went from 1,693 to 4,565, up 170 percent. These increases, along with the great increase in the number of women in most schools, has influenced community life, faculty teaching, curricular development, and other institutional practices. To be sure, the numbers of minority faculty lag behind the rapid growth in student enrollment, and women represent only a small fraction of the principal administrative leaders and chief executives within theological education; but the effect of increased diversity in many institutions has already resulted in a broader commitment to inclusiveness and concrete steps toward institutional change.
• Global and societal contexts of theological reflection have imposed expectations of a new consciousness on all aspects of institutional life. Theological method, teaching, and professional formation can no longer be pursued solely from Western or North American perspectives. The diversity of the world’s peoples and the social import of theological traditions must be taken into account if theology and religious formation are to have credibility and voice. Issues of human rights, justice, and the pluralism of religious belief are all factors that have entered the consciousness of theological leaders, and influence the new context within which theological education is conducted. To take just one example, new patterns of immigration mean that other religions are no longer just a feature of life in distant places. They’re to be found right around the corner in all but the smallest U.S. and Canadian communities.
• During recent years theological educators have addressed with considerable sophistication the field’s longstanding divide between theory and practice. In part due to renewed emphasis on context, the work of the classical theological disciplines and the teaching of practice have become more integrated. In many settings explicit efforts have been made toward collaboration and joint research; and in theological education generally, a vigorous discussion regarding the redefinition and role of the theological disciplines has been held. Though the so-called practical disciplines still lack status in some faculties, the ongoing conversation about the nature and place of the disciplines of theological education has led to creative rethinking about how teaching and research in practical theology are to be addressed with credibility and effectiveness.
• Critical approaches to theological and scriptural traditions have enriched theological study and brought new relevance to the mission and practices of the churches. Theological education has benefited from a more textured understanding of the setting and background of church traditions and the more recent analytical methods in the study of scripture. Such approaches, while part of the longstanding development of critical methodology, have been particularly fruitful more recently in their contributions to an informed laity and congregational life, as well as to the professional and spiritual formation of theological students.
• Institutional and professional evaluation, a relatively new priority of higher education, has become a critical element in the strategic planning of theological schools. New insistence on assessment of the results of educational programs by both government and church agencies has pressed seminaries to design effective programs of evaluation encompassing students, faculty, and curricula. The institution of such programs has had the effect of regularizing assessments of quality and effectiveness in all elements of institutional life and the practice of its graduates. The creation of such systems and the newly prioritized results orientation of theological schools cannot help but improve the quality of these institutions and their contributions in the future.
Despite the progress, however, there is still much to “fix” about theological education. For all the dynamism of recent years, the enterprise is still beset by major challenges. Many are institutional in nature: most schools continue to face daunting problems of infrastructure, physical maintenance, and finance. But the greater challenges are those that will affect the capacity of theological education to address the needs of an increasingly diverse global community, one that manifests itself in every locality in North America. That world calls for a religious leadership of supple minds, compassionate commitments, and professional expertise that welcomes the opportunity to address its needs. If theological education is to be an articulate and faithful instrument in the equipping of such leadership, every school and institution must undertake a major appraisal of its capacity to do so.
1 The issue of quality. For theological education to be a relevant presence in the new global community, it must attract candidates of the highest qualification and gifts. Yet the ministry competes with the other professions for the “brightest and best,” and data show a pronounced decline in the number of students of high academic achievement opting for the ministry and other forms of religious leadership. It is no secret that most theological schools today accept virtually all candidates who apply for admission, and that theology has not kept pace with the other professional schools in the competition for the best students. Academic achievement, of course, is not the final criterion of ministerial qualification; but intellectual capacity and personal traits of character, imagination, and calling go hand in hand in responding to the kind of world the ministry and the churches face today. Along with more explicit and ongoing evaluation of programs and curricula, theological schools need to take a fresh and critical look at the kinds and qualifications of students they are admitting and commending for the churches’ ministry.
2 Theological education needs to improve its teaching of practice. As a young theological dean, I experienced early the disjunction between the practices of the church and the efforts of the theological community to teach them. We have made enormous strides—both in teaching and research—in the traditional disciplines of Bible, church history, theology, and ethics. But with few exceptions, the fields of practice lack the underlying theoretical rationale and methodology that have long characterized their peer disciplines. Moreover, direct investigation of church and congregational life, to say nothing of the ongoing involvement of working practitioners in the actual teaching of practice, has been a rarity in the seminary classroom. Churches and congregations offer uniquely informative clinical settings in which ministry can be learned. Theological schools should take lessons from medicine and law in their use of the hospital and the courts as laboratories for teaching and original inquiry into the elements of good professional practice. During much of its history, practical theology has been in a virtual state of neglect; and it is time for theological schools to give focused attention to its importance and reconceptualization.
3 Theological education needs a new focus on theology.We continue to live today on the religious formulations of the past and the historic theological traditions of other generations. This society needs new and creative reflection on theology that responds to the contemporary situation. The texts and traditions of historic Christianity, of course, remain authoritative for us; but they need to be reinterpreted for our time. Theology is the central focus and priority of our teaching. And it must be theology characterized by a new relevance for the conditions of life confronted by a culture more secular and more global than ever before. Theological schools need to foster a climate for the writing of new theology that speaks with a confident and saving voice about the critical issues facing the world today.
Such theology must take into account the emergence of other religions as increasingly potent influences within North American culture. Substantial issues confront the schools in equipping their graduates to engage these communities of faith theologically and pastorally. A heightened consciousness of other religions will offer stimulus to the search for new and more relevant theologies, and theological education ought to take the lead in fostering such engagement.
4 We must give priority to the issues of diversity and inclusiveness. The increased numbers of racial and ethnic minority students and women students have brought new vitality and insight to the theological curriculum, and this impact ought to be felt throughout the community of theological education. Although the number of women faculty is increasing, theological education is woefully lacking in the supply of minority persons on faculties; and little progress has been made in the last three decades. Women and minorities are also needed in administrative roles; theological education remains predominantly a white male profession in a world that is increasingly diverse. Efforts now underway by the Association of Theological Schools to foster women’s leadership, the recently announced plans of the Fund for Theological Education for the support of racial ethnic minority doctoral candidates, and the new Hispanic Theological Initiative based in Atlanta will have a positive effect in addressing these needs. But the schools and the leadership of theological education must begin to address these matters aggressively if the institution of theological education is to be made more inclusive in its life and teaching.
5 No issues facing theological education today are more crucial than those arising from the impact of the rapidly developing world of technology. The implications for theological education are vast: how we teach, the nature of the curriculum, faculty research, libraries, and administrative practices—all will be influenced by the technological revolution that is so recent but potentially so powerful in its influence. Fundamental questions about professional formation and the place of distance education already preoccupy the leadership of many schools, and faculties will be called upon to sort out what is essential about a theological education. In the ATS, we are being asked to assess the potential of courses on the Internet and the implications for standards of quality. If these new technological resources are to be used appropriately, planning which takes into account the basic purposes and character of theological education must be employed. Obviously, it will follow other forms of higher education in embracing the new technologies, but it must do so with clarity regarding quality, purpose, and the unique nature of this endeavor.
For four years, from 1992 to 1996, the ATS engaged in a major reassessment of its standards of quality, asking: “What is the good theological school?” This process resulted in a comprehensive redevelopment of the standards of accreditation, and fresh ideas about the purposes and character of theological education for our day. That same question should continue to shape our best efforts on behalf of theological education and its long-term future. The “good” will manifest itself in numerous and distinctive ways, but a strong adherence to that criterion will assist us as we address the strategic decisions and challenges that lie before us.