Just as the American church struggles, another institution gasps to find relevance and survival in these churning times. Christian colleges and seminaries face daunting challenges, some of them self-inflicted.
Questions now arise about how people will be equipped for ministry in the future.
Seminary enrollments across the country continue to decline. Costs continue to climb. Support from denominations and donors continues to erode.
That was certainly the case for Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. This, the largest seminary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, found itself running multi-million dollar deficits, leading to painful budget cuts, staff layoffs, spending down their endowments, and the resignation of its president.
Why are enrollments down in so many theological schools? Martinson attributes some of the descent to generational factors. He says Millennials’ disenchantment with today’s church has reduced the number of applications to Christian schools.
But that’s not the only issue. It seems much of higher education has simply lost its way, has muddled its mission. Anthony Ruger, with the Center for the Study of Theological Education, said: “Sooner or later you do have to ask, what is our mission? What are we trying to do and how can we best accomplish it? There are very deep questions about what our identity is, who we are, what we do.”
Mission confusion has earned many institutions–Christian and secular–a poor grade when it comes to preparing their students for the real world. At a Christian academic symposium a faculty member told me, “We’re not here to provide practical training. Only theory. People will figure out practical application on their own.” But surveys of practicing ministry people show a level of dissatisfaction with how their schools prepared them in certain disciplines, such as leadership and people issues.
Ministry people, in just this past week, confirmed this research to me. One said, “The training for ministry is severely lacking because it does not address critical areas like finances and group dynamics.” Another said, “My theology degree brought me very little knowledge or practical help in the biggest challenge of ministry–people.”
Another pastor said, “I am constantly joking about things that they didn’t teach me in seminary.” He said the academic omissions include team leadership, volunteer relations, community engagement, finances, time management, and dealing with difficult people.
You might wonder, are these institutions soliciting and receiving feedback from their in-the-field graduates? Martinson said some are, but it’s late in coming. He said his seminary heard 20 years ago that “we were creating graduates for a church that no longer existed.”
Some schools have responded positively to feedback, and initiated different educational methods, including hands-on learning experiences, mentorships, internships, and field experiences. Students and alumni have rated these highly for their long-term effectiveness.
GOOD PEOPLE SHACKLED INSIDE AN OLD MACHINE
Graduates often mention faculty members who genuinely touched their lives and encouraged them in ministry. It’s true, the Christian academic system is blessed with many fine people. But they’re stuck in an apparatus that, in many ways, is hopelessly designed for the preservation of itself.
Prospective students are screened not by how well they may succeed in real life, but by how well they conform to academic mechanisms such multiple-choice tests (ACTs and SATs). Faculty are often not selected or rewarded based on their demonstrated ability to help students actually learn, but on their own old-school academic pedigrees and their abilities to get their manuscripts published somewhere. And the peculiar ordinance of tenure protects and insulates the institution’s employees but does not serve its customers–the students. The system is set up to preserve the system.
As our Christian colleges and seminaries fade, what’s next? Martinson describes in the podcast several possibilities. One of them moves the training process from the old academic institutions to the field–congregations, where people will be apprenticed in the skills and knowledge they need for real ministry.
That sounds sort of like how a certain rabbi taught his 12 recruits many years ago.