This past week I was talking to a pastor who feels strongly that a loosely affiliated “network” is a better way to organize like-minded churches than a denominational structure. Of the many reasons for this viewpoint, the one that resonated most with me is his belief that a network of churches allows for more flexibility in how we respond to rapid changes in the larger culture. Without weighing into the potential debate between networks and denominations, I am in agreement that the combined changes in the North American Church and theological higher education invites a rethinking of how our faith institutions are structured and organized.
Shifting dynamics in the local church have a great impact on the work of a seminary. For example:
- Local churches used to carry the bulk of responsibility for identifying and encouraging students to pursue seminary education. Today, most seminaries have their own admissions staff which is tasked with finding these students and connecting them to a seminary.
- Once these students are identified, students would physically relocate to their chosen seminary, where they would complete residential courses. Today, many students desire distance education that allows them to remain in their local context without uprooting their family and leaving their circle of friends.
- The local church maintained a level of responsibility for these students, to the point of assuming financial responsibility for the cost of the student’s education (I was the beneficiary of this approach – my Master of Divinity was fully funded by the local denominational region).
- Whether through a church or sponsoring denomination, upon graduation there was an effort made to connect the graduate to a quality ministry opportunity that could either serve as a foundation for future opportunities or be their home for decades to come.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware that this model of educating seminary students is long vanished. These changes unfolded over decades are not fully the fault of the local church nor the fault of the seminary. At some point it just seemed that the two entities neglected to remember that the Church and the seminary are complementary, not competitors.
Now, instead of working in step with one another, we often work in opposition. A prospective pastor is inundated with training materials, whether available online, through larger churches, networks, or workshops and conferences.
Seminaries, to their own detriment, have allowed increases in tuition and overall costs to rise to the point that students look to the federal government (via student loans) for support instead of their local church. Development officers are tasked with finding financial donors to provide funds to prop up this system of theological higher education. This system is broken.
The church and seminary need to reclaim the shared mission of intentional discipleship opportunities that often require formal agreements and structure.
Returning to the title of this post–Creativity Precedes Innovation: From Chaos to Creativity–these changes in the relationship between the church and seminary coupled with the external market forces are creating a chaotic environment in seminaries. Rapid changes in demographics, tuition costs, and business models are stressing the systems in many seminary organizations.
It’s out of this chaos that creativity emerges. In my next post I’ll be exploring some specific ways in which Winebrenner Theological Seminary is responding to this chaos and rethinking how we “do” seminary.
Dr. Brent Sleasman
Image by RhondaK Native accessed via Adobe Spark.