Towards a New Model of Theological Education

Bill Evans head shot

A recent story on the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly explored the diminishing prospects for Protestant clergy. Focusing particularly on two seminaries—one conservative (Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis) and one more liberal (Yale Divinity School)—the point is made that some graduates of these schools are having difficulty finding work in the area of Christian ministry for which they are trained. Moreover, those who do land jobs in ministry often find that the pay is barely enough to live on, let alone begin to pay back student loans. Of course, this predicament is the result of both the remarkable expansion in seminary capacity over the last four decades and the more recent decline of Christianity in America.

A number of years ago I posted an article on another site entitled “Whither the Seminary Model.” In it I observed that the prevailing seminary model of theological education, which, incidentally, is barely two centuries old (in other words, there are other ways of training the ministry!), has serious problems that are increasingly and painfully evident. For example, it has led to a serious category confusion involving a false “professionalization” of the clergy. Now, however, it is abundantly clear that Christian ministers simply are not “professionals” like medical doctors or lawyers. In addition, there is a crisis of cost.   With the current model’s requirement that students complete three to four years (or more) of theological education on top of an often-expensive undergraduate degree, the level of indebtedness that many seminary students incur has become prohibitive.

Questions can also be asked about educational quality. More students now come to seminary woefully under-prepared, and tuition-driven seminaries often accommodate themselves to this reality by lowering the bar. For example, today it is rare for a student to arrive at seminary with the undergraduate background in literature, history, philosophy, and classical languages that was once assumed. Related to this, there is the problem of redundancy, as seminary students who come from challenging undergraduate programs in Bible and Religion or Theological Studies often find themselves rehashing much of the same material, and often on a lower level.

All that being said, the seminary model still works well for some students, and I don’t expect it to be replaced wholesale. Other options will come alongside. But this in turn raises the question of what those other options may look like.   Having been pondering this set of questions for some time, I’d like to propose one such model.

The key idea here is an integration of undergraduate liberal-arts education and graduate theological education, such that what we might term “M.Div. competency” is accomplished more efficiently than under the current system. Also, in the current environment it really is necessary that the student emerge from the process with some sort of masters-level academic credential.  To this end I am envisioning a liberal-arts undergraduate degree with a 36-hour major in Bible and Religion (or Theological Studies, if you prefer that nomenclature) followed by a one-year 30-hour course of study building on the undergraduate experience and leading to some sort of master’s degree (let’s call it, for the sake of discussion, a “Master of Arts in Christian Studies”). In addition to this, practical ministry internship requirements could be added, depending on denominational requirements. The total amount of time for completion would be five to six years rather than the current eight or more.

I am envisioning a program that would be selective and rigorous, as the success of such an endeavor would be determined in large measure by the quality of graduates it produced. Undergraduate students would need to apply for admission to the integrated program early in their college experience, and three semesters of both Greek and Hebrew would be required during the college course of study. This outline of requirements obviously reflects my own background in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, but it could certainly be tweaked to accommodate other contexts and theological traditions.

College:

Two courses (6 hours) in Systematic Theology

Two courses (6 hours) in Church History

Three courses (9 hours) in Bible

World Religions (3 hours)

Apologetics (3 hours)

Religion and Contemporary Culture (3 hours)

Pastoral Care and Counseling 1 (3 hours)

Contemporary Theology (3 hours)

NB: This does not include OT and NT Survey courses that would be included in the general-education or elective portion of the student’s curriculum, or courses in Greek and Hebrew that would fulfill language and elective requirements.

Seminary Year:

Preaching 1 (3 hours)

Preaching 2 (3 hours)

Bible elective (3 hours)

Church History elective (3 hours)

Ministry internship (3 hours)—Summer between fourth and fifth year

Worship/Liturgics (3 hours)

Youth Ministry (3 hours)

Denominational Polity and Practice (3 hours)

Pastoral Care and Counseling 2 (3 hours)

Elective (3 hours)

While such a program would not provide quite the comprehensive coverage of the old classical theological curriculum, it compares favorably in terms of substance with the elective-driven M.Div. programs at many schools today.

Are there challenges to implementing such a model? Of course there are, and let me mention two of them. First, denominations are wedded to the current seminary model, which is, in reality, a transcript-based system. Quite a few denominations specifically require the M.Div. degree as a condition of ordination, with rather minimal ecclesiastical examinations undertaken during and after the completion of the seminary program. The success of the integrated model proposed here would depend on the willingness of churches to move from a transcript-based system of ministerial certification to a competency-based system in which more extensive examinations are administered by the ecclesial body.

A second challenge has to do with the fact that the rules of the Association of Theological Schools (the major accrediting agency for theological seminaries) currently do not easily accommodate such an integrated program. For example, severe limits are placed on advanced standing in master’s-level programs, and so-called “professional” master’s degrees accredited by ATS require a minimum of two years of study.

But despite such challenges, changes are doubtless coming. The current system is increasingly impractical and financially prohibitive for many students, and questions about product quality demand that we explore other options. Sooner or later the accrediting realities will have to accommodate the market, just as, for example, ATS has accommodated itself to seminary on-line education.

In the meantime, some schools are exploring alternative possibilities. I am aware of one institution with undergraduate and seminary components that is currently advertising a five-year B.A.-M.Div. program! While it accomplishes this with year-round study and credit-by-examination (which, for various reasons, I am less than enthusiastic about), such developments nevertheless provide an indication of where things are likely to go in the future.

The next decade should be interesting indeed!

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