Presented at the Presidential Leadership Intensive Week December 2002 by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
At the Biennial Meeting of the Association in June 2002, meeting participants shared Sunday lunch, and Executive Committee members led discussions about efforts that ATS should consider undertaking to help schools with their work. One of the comments that made it into the summaries of those discussions has been on my mind a great deal: "Is there value to the church in having educated clergy?" It is an engaging question. The more evocative question for me, and perhaps for you, is "What is the value of seminary-educated religious leaders?"
In 2000-01, ATS schools spent a total of $1.2 billion to educate almost 74,000 students enrolled in at least one course. This amount is almost double the $671 million that ATS schools spent in 1990-91. This total may seem like "small potatoes" in the multibillion dollar world in which we live, but to the presidents and development officers who have gathered potato after potato, it's a considerable sum. It's a sum sufficiently large to warrant a response to the question: What was it that ATS schools did that resulted in doubling their expenditures in a decade, when inflation for the same decade was about 30%? The $1.2 billion from students' tuition payments, earnings from endowments, and current charitable gifts was spent in one year on theological education in North America. How much better is theological education in 2001 than it was in 1991? What has the church received for its money? Has the broader culture heard a more winsome and compelling religious voice after all this expenditure? "What is the value of seminary-educated religious leaders?"
I. What is the value of seminary-educated religious leaders?
Education, in general, is facing questions like these. I don't think they are particularly good questions. When we begin to evaluate education by its cost, or the economic benefits it generates, we cease evaluating it on the criteria that are most central to educational effort. The fundamental question is, by contrast, a good question, and it will not go away: What is the value of a seminary-educated religious leadership? In one way or another, chief administrative officers of ATS schools will spend a great deal of their time with this question. It is the question. It is a personal question as you gear up for one more year of fund-raising. It is an institutional question as denominations decide how to allocate stable or declining funds in the context of increasing need. What is the value of seminary-educated religious leadership? It is a constituent and donor question, as well. Why should their gifts go to a seminary rather than to a Christian social ministry or college or university?
As membership in mainline Protestant denominations declines, alternative patterns for education and routes to ordination increase. As new paradigm churches exercise leadership among Evangelical Protestants, questions about the relevance of theological education drift through the hallways at mega-church conferences for congregational leaders. As Catholic dioceses grow more dependent on the work of lay professionals to staff parish programs and Catholic institutions, the question of the value of a seminary education still seems unresolved. In the Faith Communities Today study, researchers found that "congregations with leaders who have a seminary education are, as a group, far more likely to report that in their congregations, they perceive less clarity of purpose, more and different kinds of conflict, less person to person communication, less confidence in the future, and more threat from changes in worship." I think these data could have been analyzed differently and the results of these alternative analyses may have added clarity and nuance to the findings. But, as the report states, "These findings would suggest the need for a careful review of the educational process of leadership preparation." I think the recommendation is right on target.
Another question I saw in the notes from those Biennial Meeting luncheon discussions was: "How can ATS help to close a seminary?" I have some ideas about how ATS could help, but I have a more expansive answer to the opposite question. ATS has worked hard with some schools near closing to find effective patterns of institutional work that helped keep them open. But for what value have they remained in business? Is it to provide the kind of leadership that causes congregations to have "less clarity about their purpose, less confidence in the future, and more threat from changing patterns of worship?" I don't think so.
I grew up in churches that did not have seminary graduates, and ministry could have been better, if I remember rightly. Seminary may take away some of the easy answers, but when it works, it provides ballast and endurance to face tough questions. A seminary may over-invest in arguments about imponderables, but it can help students contemplate mystery and learn that the smartest of people still live by faith. Faculty gravitate toward theory, sometimes to the detriment of education for the skillful practice of the complex work of ministry. But if theological education is limited to the practical, it will never be able to educate students to the great impracticalities of our faith: that God chooses to love us at great cost, that God chooses to work with us when God could do our work better, and that God is compulsive about grace and forgiveness.
Like most of you, I have devoted most of my career to theological education. Like you, I know the temptations that seminaries find hard to resist, the sillinesses that knowledgeable people can invent, and the futility of educating students who will not learn. Like most of you, I also have seen how the wisdom of faith can cultivate faith as it is learned, and how, by its learning, students can grow into thoughtful and skillful ministers. It is the responsibility of people who know theological education best, maybe even who love it the most, to adopt the fundamental question as our own: "What is the value of seminary-educated religious leaders?" Your job, perhaps your most important job at this time, is to have a faithful answer to the question. Weak defenses won't do, nor will rhetorical eloquence. Your job, and mine as well, is to make theological schools a convincing and self-evident answer to the question. Our job is to tug and pull, woo and coddle, direct and lead schools to do their jobs convincingly well.
Historically in many denominations, theological education has been a blessed child. Perhaps with missionary efforts and benevolence, seminaries took privilege over other churchly endeavors. In a few denominations, that is still the case. But for many schools, the privilege has disappeared. Unprivileged enterprises-whether a divinity school in a university or seminary in a denomination-are the focus of hard questions, and the best institutional response to a hard question is to adopt it as our own. And with this question, the response will involve crafting our institutional work in a way that adds value, meets needs, and makes a difference. I think that the fundamental agenda for theological education over the next decade or two may very well be responding to this question about the value of theological education. While we have a great deal of work to do to increase institutional capacity and our skills as educators, pressure will continue to build for a compelling answer to the foundational question, and the only satisfying answer will require theological schools to demonstrate that they matter by the value they add to religious leadership. Theological schools cannot hold back the forces that are increasing the number of alternatively credentialed clergy, but they can educate their students in a way that ordinary people can recognize the difference a seminary education makes and, out of that recognition, wish that it were possible for every religious leader to have one.
I think this fundamental question is valid. If seminary education doesn't make any difference, there is no reason to invest all the money it takes to provide it, unless you can be content to think of it as a jobs program for over-trained workers. I also think that the overall task for answering the question is at the heart of presidential work. It is a big question, and its answer will take decades, not years. It will require strengthening the institutional capacities of schools-so they have the resources that the answer requires, and it will require leadership to guide schools through some significant rethinking and reformulating of their task. I want to comment briefly about strengthening capacity and rethinking the work of theological schools.
II. Strengthening capacity
The agenda of this first ATS intensive workshop for presidents and chief administrative officers will focus on presidential skills that theological schools need for effective operation and to strengthen institutional capacity. We will explore issues related to financial management, fund-raising, student recruitment, and governance. These are critically important areas of work. In seminaries we are inclined to think of practical theology as those arts and skills necessary for congregational leadership: preaching, administration, education, and pastoral care. However, the practical theology of theological education leadership is finance, fund-raising and resource development, governance, student recruitment and services, personnel management, facilities management, teaching, learning, and research. Calling "facilities management" a practical theological concern is a bit of a stretch, I know. There is no theological way to plumb a building or replace a roof, unless you think these things happen miraculously (which from a few accrediting visits ATS has made, seems to be an assumption at some schools). But, then, there is no specifically theological way to preach-it is a form of public address that uses speech and communication skills, just as do other forms of persuasive public address.
What makes a practical task theological is the end to which it is directed and the means by which it is achieved. As a form of practical theology, building management engages issues like environmental concerns, occupant safety and well-being, and constructing new facilities in ways that contribute to the mission of the school. If you think that the theological work at a seminary takes place in the library, or the classroom, or private studies, but not in the development office, or budget deliberations, or personnel decisions, then I think you misunderstand the nature of practical theology. So, this week will focus on very practical information that is understood in a theological context and undertaken for a theological goal. The answer to the big question about the value of theological education will never be implemented without money, facilities, people, and thoughtful processes for ordering the school's decision-making. These are not the answer to the question, but the answer will not emerge without them. This week, I hope that you find new information, gain perspective on a few nagging problems, and find some space to place practical wisdom in the service of theological goals.
III. Rethinking theological education
The presidential skills that will enhance the capacity of theological schools are not the only necessary skills. You need the imagination and the necessary skills to lead schools toward the future that will answer the question about their value. My comments are related to only one issue, and it is primarily speculative. I believe that seminaries need to reconfigure themselves as front-line, not rear-guard, organizations.
I hesitate to use any language that has military connotations. I have experienced wars in the world and wars in the church, and neither has been very endearing. But the image is useful. How far from the front line of congregational life and social need should theological education be located? In an era of privilege, seminaries could be far from the front. They could do their work as retreat-like intellectual centers of reflection, prayer, study, and conversation-several steps removed from the hustle and bustle of a busy world and growing congregations. However, as the world is more wounded and congregations more stressed, this distance is increasingly problematic. There are two elements to being on the front line, in my speculative opinion: the first is about the focus of some of our intellectual labor, and the second is about a fundamental focus in our educational efforts.
Intellectual labor. Seminaries will fashion an answer to the question of their value as they work to keep their intellectual labor close to the wounds and the stress. There are so many ways that this statement could be heard wrong that I hesitate to say it at all. I do not mean that scholarly research should focus only on current problems. There are a few issues from Calcedon and Trent, Azusa Street and Aldersgate, that still need attention. There are a host of technical and critical issues to explore, and this exploration should be occurring in theological schools. I fear, however, that many current issues in the church have not received the same intellectual effort as other, more distant issues have received. Mainline Protestant churches have experienced a huge membership decline in the last forty years, and I do not think that one can point to a compelling body of research from seminary faculty that proposes effective responses. There has been some very good social diagnosis, but not a great deal of creative thinking about new congregational or structural approaches to the church's work.
It seems to me that more research on new paradigm congregations has been undertaken by university sociologists of religion than by faculty in Evangelical Protestant seminaries. There has been theological critique and affirmation, but not a great deal of research about these ecclesial movements, how transferable they are to other settings, and what they mean for the several Evangelical denominations that have experienced only modest growth.
I think that pastoral work has become dramatically more complex than it was three decades ago, in almost all congregations, and I am not sure that theological faculty are doing the intellectual work required by this more complex and stressed congregational reality.
I do not think that "front line" means moving theological education to teaching congregations, but it does mean conducting theological education with a much closer relationship to congregational, parish, and community life. Most fundamentally, I think it means doing serious and substantive intellectual work for communities of faith, and fashioning intelligent educational practices that prepare people for the world that is-and is emerging.
One of the most encouraging examples of this that I have seen from my ATS perspective is the seminary response to the clergy sexual abuse trauma that unfolded in the Roman Catholic Church. Leaders in Catholic seminaries were writing and speaking to this trauma as a moral and ecclesial issue. And their responses also explained the reinventing of priestly formation over the past decade that has educated a priesthood more aware about human sexuality and more wholly formed as human beings. This is front-line theological scholarship that combines churchly need, theological reflection, and educational response.
Leadership Education. Another aspect of front-line seminaries requires reassessing the educational goal and mission of theological education with regard to leadership. At its best, theological education is leadership education. Our mission is to educate persons, most of whom, if we award them a degree, will go to a congregation or organization and, in one form or another, exercise leadership. This is not generally the case with medical education, legal education, or graduate liberal arts education-the academic cousins we like to claim as family. One of the most unique characteristics of theological education is that our graduates go immediately into positions of leadership. For most other occupations, leadership is something that emerges over time as people engage in professional practice.
We have not given enough attention to the demands on people whose first job entails a significant degree of leadership, even though the organizations they lead may be small. We know that failures in early ministry careers are not typically related to defective knowledge of Scripture or church history-but are most typically a function of relational problems or inadequate abilities as leaders. Leadership is good work; it is not only work that has to be done, it is work worth doing. If it is done well, it helps a community to accomplish purposes and goals that only a company of persons can accomplish. I think we need an inclusive perspective about what ministerial leadership is, and the educational imagination and skill to educate effectively toward that perspective.
There is more to being front-line organizations. There is more rethinking that needs to be done. The answer the question requires is more complex and subtle than what I can suggest here. Perhaps the response begins with our claiming the question and beginning to imagine what the rest of the response can be.
I have great confidence that ATS schools have what it will take to be a convincing answer to the question. I don't think that the question will go away, nor will a public relations answer suffice. The presidential task, at a time like this, is to imagine what these schools need to be in twenty years and to learn the practical theological skills that will take them in that direction.