Navigating between the times

Illustrations by Ricardo Tomás

The struggles of theological schools are not news to readers of In Trust. They scarcely need elaboration. But they do need analysis. For it is only if we understand the nature of the crisis in theological education today that we will be able to discern faithful ways forward.

The challenges facing schools today are not due to simple secularization, in the sense of a decline in religious belief and practice. Two clusters of data make this clear. The first cluster reveals the persistence of beliefs and practices that might reasonably be called “religious.” The majority of “nones” – those who identify with no religious tradition in particular – believe in God. A significant number say that they pray regularly. Beyond these conventional markers, even more kinds of spiritual and religious practices are flourishing, from meditation to astrology to tarot readings to spiritualized versions of the Enneagram. We might evaluate these different expressions very differently. They can be healing, vapid, feral, and more. But in an era when QAnon is driving politics and crystals are big business, it is hard to believe the old story that science has crowded out belief.

The second cluster of data suggests that voluntary associations of every kind are struggling right now. It’s not just congregations, denominations, and seminaries. It’s the Elks, Kiwanis, and Masons. It’s labor unions and political parties. It’s Rotary and the Junior League. As these examples suggest, the present unraveling afflicts more than religious organizations. It threatens voluntary associations of every kind.

The unraveling poses particular problems for theological schools, which developed to find their purpose in the education of leaders of congregations and other voluntary associations. An older model, present in the 17th and 18th centuries, wove the study of theology through the entire curriculum. Everyone studied theology. That was part of what it meant to be learned. But when critics of Harvard’s drift toward Unitarianism wanted to found an alternative, they did not just found a different college with different doctrine. Instead, in 1807, they founded a new kind of institution: Andover Theological Seminary, a school specifically designed for the education of clergy. They yoked the study of theology to ministry preparation; ministry meant leadership of a voluntary association.

This model spread rapidly across denominations and regions. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, it evolved to become the post-baccalaureate professional school that the Association of Theological Schools accredits today. The model became so dominant that it is hard to imagine that theological education has ever been anything else. But it has been, and it can be again.

It needs to be. The prevailing model arose as part of a whole constellation of institutions that defined an age of voluntary associations. That whole ecology is struggling right now, and the seminaries that train the leaders of the other parts of this ecology are suffering as well.

The unraveling of voluntary associations is sometimes attributed to individualism, as if it were an ideology we might choose. A better analysis stresses what the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, calls individualization, a bundle of material, social, economic, and political processes that disciplines us into being individuals. The shift from defined benefit pension plans to personal retirement accounts is one example. It includes a shift in funding for theological education that sees a smaller role for the voluntary societies of the church and a larger role for individual students. Like it or not, the forces of individualization are bearing down.

If material forces are driving individualization, then we might expect people with the least power to resist them to be the most individualized. That is exactly what the data shows: Lack of affiliation is more common among poorer people. It’s not just that these marginalized people aren’t going to church. They also are less likely to get married or to connect with other voluntary associations. They are more likely to die what Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair.” Despite caricatures that run through sermons and pop sociology, the “nones” are not primarily wealthy, white urbanites skipping church. They are also young Black men denied access to steady employment, white women raising children by themselves in a shredded rural America, otherwise-documented immigrants for whom affiliation would be risky, queer youth who have fled families for their safety, and overworked and overwhelmed people who can’t imagine what it would be like to have time to go to church and worry that they would be looked down on if they did. Even in a time of unraveling, lack of affiliation is tangled with other marginalities in tight knots of mutual reinforcement.

Navigating between the times

Individualization and other neo-liberal forces are also unraveling ministry as a profession (as they are unraveling all professions). The economic logic of theological education as professional education does not hold true as it once did. An M.Div. is no longer a ticket to a middle-class life with reasonable job security, a measure of autonomy, the gift of getting paid a living wage to do what you love, and the prospect of some kind of support in retirement. If that ideal was never actual for all, it is real for fewer and fewer people now. Going into debt to achieve it is an increasingly bad bet.

Understanding the power that material forces in individualization makes affects how we understand the unraveling of voluntary associations. It should lead us to greater compassion for students who come to us without clear institutional affiliations and the scripts they provide. And it should also change our prescriptions. If individualism is a kind of moral failing, then we might perhaps try to get people to change their ways. But if individualization is a process that happens to us, like it or not, then we can’t get out of it even if we get people to change their minds. We’re not going to scold people back into the church, let alone the seminary. So what can we do in this time between the times?


The unraveling of voluntary associations is sometimes attributed to individualism, as if it were an ideology we might choose.


Individualization is destructive. It unravels the whole social imaginary in which voluntary associations make sense, and it leaves people stranded outside meaningful communities. But it is not only destructive. It also offers affordances for some faithful ways forward. That claim is sociological: It depends on being able to name some possibilities that individualization opens up. And it is theological: It does not call evil good, but it grows out of a faith in the wily, persistent Providence of God that does not let the powers of sin and death have the last word. It takes seriously Jesus’ claim not to leave his disciples bereft.

Affordances for theological education today begin to become visible when we relax our focus to look beyond professional education. A growing number of church leaders do not have full professional status, even in denominations that once made professional status and credentials a hallmark. Methodist Local Pastors, Presbyterian Commissioned Lay Pastors, and Catholic Lay Ecclesial Ministers all help lead congregations without the professional (or professional-ish) status of traditional clergy in their denominations. And this class of ministry is rapidly expanding, with a growing percentage of congregations in many denominations led by people who are not accorded full professional status. But even as this group of congregational leaders is expanding, the vast majority of resources for theological education is dedicated to the formation of professional clergy. Theological schools need to shift this allocation to give more time, money, and attention to affordable and excellent formation of pastoral leaders who do not have a denomination’s highest professional status. Hispanic Bible institutes offer a time-tested model of this kind of education; there is much that traditionally credentialed theological schools can learn from them.

A second affordance arises in the kind of professional education that fits these times, like the education of chaplains. The chaplain is a religious leader who is not embedded in a voluntary society. You don’t need to be a member of some congregation to see a chaplain. And the chaplain usually does not have responsibility for leading the entire organization, as a pastor does. Chaplaincy is ministry that can happen when religious practice and the institutional form of the voluntary association are tweezed apart. Chaplaincy usually requires extensive education, even if chaplains function more like the highly skilled employees who are replacing autonomous professionals. There is work for theological schools to do in forming religious leaders beyond the network of voluntary associations.

A third affordance arises in the need that individualization creates in people for some kind of authentic identity. The drive to authenticity can be pulled into a kind of narcissism. And identities are readily retailed by all kinds of entities. Seeing those possibilities should give us critical wariness about the whole idea of authenticity. But it should also make us more aware of the need that individualized individuals of today feel for some kind of meaning and connection. It’s driving many students in theological education now. They “hack” a curriculum designed to form them for professional leadership or academic scholarship to make meaning for their lives. And an even larger number of people outside the theological academy are eager for this kind of study. We see signs of that in the interest in TED Talks, spiritual podcasts, self-help, and retreats at monasteries. We see it in the Alpha Course, an intensive form of lay education that started in charismatic Anglican circles and expanded across the globe. And, we are seeing signs of it in Candler’s new Foundry project, which has reached more than 200,000 people in just four years.

What would it mean for theological schools to consciously and intentionally offer opportunities for people engaged in this kind of self-making? It would certainly be available to and relevant for more people. Projects of authenticity are not just for clergy; they are for everyone. It might mean new programs. It would definitely mean a new funding model – it makes no sense to go into debt for this kind of study. And it would involve a shift in emphasis on the usefulness of theological study for professional leadership to the meaningfulness of theological study for authentic life before God.

In naming these affordances, I do not suggest that individualization is a good thing. Nor do I mean to suggest them as opportunities for institutional advancement. They are deeply ambivalent; they grow out of needs that should be challenged and transfigured, not just satisfied through customer service. Instead, I mean to name them as some of the deepest needs of our time, and to call schools to turn their resources to engaging them.

In the end, theological education will not continue because we grasp these affordances in just the right way. Theological education will continue because God longs to be known, because God is love, and knowing and being known are part of what it means to love. The best theological education in every age has found ways to share in that great work of love. That is the call to us now.


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