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Thinking Out Loud

SWOTting the Future: Theological Education "For the Time Being"

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 02, 2015

“The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,”i writes the poet W.H. Auden toward the end of his, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Auden’s phrase has been on my mind a great deal as I read three particularly timely documents:

The “Schmidt Report,” as the first of these has been dubbed, raises crucial questions about the leadership of boards for the future of higher education. It illuminates the fact that serving on the governing board of a university, college or seminary is far from a merely honorary position. The legal, fiduciary and custodial roles of trustees has become more crucial with every passing year.

The “Auburn Report” makes for sober, but ultimately hopeful reading. Its co-authors make it clear that strategic planning based on a careful, critical analysis of the best research available has become essential for theological schools.

Today, however, I would like to reflect primarily on the third of these documents: the grant proposal submitted by ATS to the Lilly Endowment.1

The authors of the ATS proposal seem almost to be writing a churchly riff on Auden’s poetic phrase when they say: “we seem to be in the messy moment between the decline, but not dissolution, of the old and the emerging, but not yet mature, structures of the new” (ATS proposal, p. 7). This comment relates directly to the contemporary situation among Christian denominations especially in North America. Denominations seem to be caught “in the time being” between the large corporate institutional structures that dominated the religious landscape for much of the past century and whatever these forms will be (largely inchoate for now), which are just emerging. The comment could apply to forms of ministries, congregations and theological schools as well.

Dan Aleshire and his colleagues at ATS, in their grant proposal, sketch some of the monumental shifts in churches and theological schools since 1936 when the Conference of Theological Schools (an earlier name for ATS) decided to begin accrediting seminaries. Leaders in theological education across the country then realized that “theological education needed to become more advanced to serve the needs of churches because they had grown to new levels of capacity and patterns of ministry in the modern era. Pastors and other religious leaders were (then) being educated in ways that did not fit the changed reality of churches and changing patterns of ministry” (ATS, p. 1).

The Conference of Theological Schools in the 1930s adopted accreditation standards for theological education that reflected a rapidly changing environment, especially, but not only, related to the increasing professionalization of ministry and the greater complexity of church leadership. These standards were revised periodically throughout the twentieth century culminating in the redeveloped standards adopted by ATS in 1996.

As ATS looks forward, it is raising questions which would not have been out of place in 1936, though the answers to these questions will certainly differ at crucial points:

Is theological education providing the patterns of education that fit the needs and realities of congregations? Are schools educating leaders in the ways most needed to serve the changed and changing realities of religious leadership? How are religious leaders best educated for their work? What education do religious leaders need?

What educational models and methods are theological schools currently using to prepare leaders for the variety of areas of service? What is the relationship between sustainable economic models and effective educational practice? What educational models and practices enable theological schools both to fulfill their missions and to sustain economic vitality? What resources do the schools need to implement new models?

Which models are most effective for which educational goals and ends? What are the common elements of good educational models and practices, both curricular and extra-curricular?

What role should ATS assume to provide appropriate organizational support for schools to implement models that serve their constituencies more effectively, to become more nimble, and to realign their work better to reflect the changed and changing realities of communities of faith and the social location of religion in North American society?
(ATS proposal, pp. 2-3, italics added.)

The questions raised in the ATS proposal touch upon virtually every aspect of theological education from pedagogy to governance, from recruitment to placement, from fund development to financial stability to intergenerational stewardship of resources in schools. These questions remind us that seminaries and other theological schools are servants not of their own interests and ends, but of the needs of the churches and the communities which send us our students and to which we send our graduates.

These questions also remind us that even as seminaries are servants of needs beyond the walls of the schools, our responsibilities extend beyond our present moment. We are responsible to use the resources left us by previous generations in ways that benefit generations yet unborn.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats … and Hope
Recently I heard a respected educator say that seminaries must face the fact that in the future the dominant form of ministry will be bi-vocational, that seminaries must adjust their programs and their expectations both to accommodate and to prepare people for “tent-making ministries.” Her advice was sound - as far as it went. Demographic and economic factors are conspiring in many places to require those who serve as pastors to be able to support themselves at least partially through vocations other than ministry.

But bi-vocational ministry is only one face of the emerging reality. In addition to tent-making ministries, and in addition to traditional pastoral ministry and multi-staff ministry -  both of which do, in fact, survive and in many places thrive - there are many other opportunities for new church development, pastoral counseling, social work, legal advocacy, community organization and various forms of nonprofit leadership. Some of the emerging ministries are sanctioned and supported by traditional denominational judicatories, but many more are not. Many of these require considerable entrepreneurial creativity.

Anyone who has ever performed a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of an organization knows that virtually every perceived threat represents an opportunity, and a sizeable proportion of leadership lies in finding the creative potential of threats. I read these three reports and attempted to “learn, mark and inwardly digest” them (as the Book of Common Prayer encourages). In doing so, I was struck repeatedly by the reason why Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Covenant for the Future campaign is receiving such a positive response throughout the church. The campaign has confronted the threat of student indebtedness as an opportunity to liberate graduates from debt. It has confronted the increasing polarization of our society along religious, political, sociological and racial-ethnic fault lines with curricular and extracurricular programs that teach our graduates to become bridge-builders in their communities.

I believe that we are surrounded by many other threats just waiting to be turned into opportunities.

Thus, I am mindful, in the midst of this “messy moment,” this “between the times,” this “for the time being,” as trying as it is, that W.H. Auden did not allow the existential angst of the moment to have the last word in his poem, significantly written for Christmas when we celebrate God’s ultimate risky venture of incarnation. The chorus closes “For the Time Being” with the following beautiful and hopeful lines (please excuse Auden’s lack of gender sensitivity):

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the Word of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.ii

1The proposal, incidentally, was approved by the Board of the Lilly Endowment Inc.; ATS will receive about $6 million to conduct an in-depth four year study of educational models and practices of theological education.

iW.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (London: Faber and Faber, 1941-42), 123.
iiIbid., 124.


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