Most graduate theological schools in North America share the same primary mission: to prepare their students for the ministry of the church, usually as “ordained” persons, that is, persons authorized according to the rites of their denominational tradition as official servant-leaders. The usual credential conferred by the theological school affirming that the student has satisfactorily completed the prescribed course of study is the Master of Divinity degree.
In recent years many schools have revised their curricula, some more than once, in an ongoing effort to ensure that the education they offer equips their graduates for the ministerial job as it exists in today’s church. The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada has tuned and retuned (most recently in 1996) its standards to ensure that the schools develop and retain the capacity to do what they say they do.
But still an unease persists, put into memorable words elsewhere in this issue by Catholic seminary trustee Mary Ellen Gunther: “Priests are meeting different congregations than the ones they expected.”
This issue of In Trust explores from a number of different viewpoints how and where the minister learns to do his or her job, examining particularly ministry within the local congregation. The reader will learn that Jack Finney, who presided over the impressive rebirth and revival of an apparently dying Lutheran congregation, believes that he acquired almost none of his skills during his preordination education. More recent seminary graduates, who benefited from the curricular reforms of the past decade or two, speak less harshly of their M.Div. education but still mention guidance and requirements they wish they had been subject to.
Finally, perhaps, one must conclude—as we suggest on the cover of this issue—that a candidate cannot be fully prepared for ministry in a three-year M.Div. program. He or she can only be prepared to set out with confidence on a lifetime of learning how to minister. The questions must come before the answers have significance, and the questions arise only as the minister engages in real ministry in a real congregation.
If these surmises are sound, they pose for governing boards of theological schools some weighty questions about mission. If the school’s mission is to prepare students for the ministry of the church, can it be satisfied with the design and implementation of an M.Div. program, no matter how high the quality of that program?
The box titled “Milestones in Jack Finney’s Journey” (at the end of "Anatomy of a Turnaround") in this issue is, to my mind, strikingly suggestive. Finney, of course, has his particular educational tastes, shared by some, distrusted by others. But year after year he has sought out continuing education opportunities to sharpen and shape his ministerial gifts.
How many theological schools have developed and are continuing to develop postgraduate short courses built upon their M.Div. curriculum to enable their graduates and others to go on learning the way Finney has? What about your school? All too often seminary continuing education, if it happens at all, is regarded as a sort of second-class activity, a source of additional income, rather than part and parcel of the school’s overall teaching program.
It may be time to stretch our imaginations beyond the assumption it is enough for a graduate theological school to be a degree program or group of degree programs. Maybe theological schools need as well to shape themselves more like libraries and research centers, responding flexibly to new teaching and learning needs as they arise.