Presentations at the Chief Academic Officers Society 2003 Conference: Conversation, Consultation, Cultivation and Care by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
I suppose I should begin with some explanation about the title since I went to all the trouble to think it up. I had been content to think of this presentation as "closing reflections," but Karen Kuder, who provides administrative support for CAOS, e-mailed me to ask if I had a title. So, under pressure in the middle of writing an article about Bethany Seminary, I e-mailed Karen a title. The main problem with sacred callings and sacred cows is telling them apart. You might think that it would be easy, but it isn't. Take, for example, the following line which one or two of you may have heard: "This is a matter on which the faculty should by all means have a voice." Now, there is a lot of wisdom in the faculty voice, and ATS has often advocated a strengthened faculty voice, but a statement like that one can use a sacred calling as cover for a sacred cow. Faculty should have voice in the governance of a theological school because they have wisdom to bring to the process-sacred calling. But the rhetoric of "call" can be confused with a position that is simply political, or self-serving sacred cows.
Helping faculty and students distinguish between sacred callings and sacred cows may not be in your job descriptions, but it is an important part of your work as an academic leader. My hunch is that the ability to distinguish calling from the cows is never more crucial than when a school is facing the necessity or opportunity of change. Change evokes appeals to sacred cows camouflaged as sacred callings, and sacred cows in theological education are seldom passive bovines that make their way to the milking barn twice a day. They are more like the bulls running down the streets of that village in Spain, with deans in the role of the young adults running in front of them. So, with that encouraging metaphor for your vocation in life, I would like to survey the horizon and identify what I think are the issues creating the necessities and opportunities for change over the next few decades in theological education.
These are observations that have been descending on me across several years of work at ATS-they are not this year's hot topics. So, at the risk of saying that some ordinary issues require new attention or that some material that is not new is still of value, I want to talk about changes in the church, in the students, and in the schools. As we begin, I must warn you that each of these areas has its sacred cows, and by the time we finish, we will have accumulated a herd of them, and some of them have horns. In most of my talks, I worry about people being bored-this time, I'm more worried about your getting gored. We'll hope for the best.
I. The church
How are things going at the congregations with which you are familiar? Let me make a few observations from the Methodist congregation my family and I attend in Pittsburgh.
1. Human Hurt and Need. Each Sunday, people are invited to write down prayer concerns that they have on small green cards and place the cards in baskets at the chancel or in other parts of the sanctuary. A group of people in the congregation commit to include the concerns on the green cards in intercessory prayer. This is an every Sunday announcement at our congregation, but its magnitude didn't hit me until the first Sunday of Lent. The cards from the previous year are placed on the communion table the first Sunday of Lent, and this past year, there were over 12,000 of these cards. It struck me, looking at the pile of cards, that the human condition continues to be one of burden and not a little sadness.
Death hurts surviving loved ones. Jobs are lost. Children make terrible choices and their parents feel the consequences. Marriages tear apart. Health fails. The green cards keep piling up, week after week. As the new century begins, young zealots cease passenger plans and fly them into buildings and spread death wholesale.
How do theological schools educate students for a world that doesn't get better and sometimes gets worse? How do we educate students for congregations where there are more poor than rich, more prejudiced than tolerant, more burdened than blessed? How do we teach students to do hospital visits when medicine can keep bodies alive longer than people? How do students learn to preach so people in an overstimulated world can hear?
2. The Trans-Denominational and Non-Religious Character of Church Members. At the traditional Methodist church I attend, you can regularly observe some religious behavior that doesn't appear to be very Methodist. A few people pause before going into the pew and genuflect. Our sanctuary has no host present, no sanctuary lamp as if there were a host present, but occasionally, people genuflect as they enter. At the communion rail, some people cross themselves. In the order of worship each Sunday, the page number in the pew Bible is published for the scripture, even though the bulletin gives the book, chapter, and verse for text. I doubt if any of these practices were evident in this congregation thirty years ago. What can we infer from them?
Genuflecting and crossing one's self are normative practices of piety for many Christians, but in this new century there is so much mixing of religious histories that no practice is normative and many practices are present, far removed from communities and contexts on which they were formed. Many of the people in North American congregations have only a limited awareness of the biblical story, and a limited knowledge of the depth and breadth of the Christian story. They couldn't find a biblical text on the basis of its scriptural location; they need a page number.
How do theological schools educate students to speak to and from a religious story that increasingly few people know? How do theological schools educate people to serve in contexts that have become fuzzy about the story that called them into being and that should frame the way in which they see the world and its need?
3. Widening the Street: the Church and its Social Location. The front of the sanctuary of our congregation sits about fifty feet from the street, perhaps closer. Across the street, there is an apartment complex about seventy-five to eighty feet from the road. Both are at an increasingly busy section of town, near the access points to two major shopping malls. The town decided that the road should be widened, and initially proposed taking all of the land necessary from the church side. It would have meant that the front of the sanctuary would have been about twenty-five feet from a very busy road. Eventually, the plan was altered, but the congregation had to mobilize and fight the township to get this resolution.
The culture is gradually withdrawing the privilege, if not respect, it once gave the church. Instead of being perceived as a community asset, it is more likely seen as a tax liability. The most recent update of the Glenmary research on religious participation in the US shows that the percentage of population that claims any religious affiliation declined from fifty-five percent in the 1990 census to fifty percent in the 2000 census. As religion loses its majority participant status, it loses its social prestige. If this is the story in the US, it is also one in Canada. I think the government's handling of the residential school issue is a symbol of the increasing secularization of Canadian society and the church's loss of cultural privilege.
Mainline Protestant theological education was founded and has grown to maturity as a resource for a church that enjoyed cultural respect and privilege. How do these schools teach students to do their work knowledgeably and well in a culture that is less likely to respect them for the work they, or the organizations they lead, do? How do theological schools teach students to speak winsomely and well to people who have lost the cultural reasons that used to exist to respect the speaker and his or her words?
4. Inclusive Church Emphasis: the Church and Race and Ethnicity. Like most congregations, mine is predominately one race, white. We are concerned about our whiteness, but Pittsburgh, like most American cities, is a city of mono-racial communities/neighborhoods, with only a few exceptions. We give attention to racial inclusion, and occasionally have an inclusive church focus in worship and education. In one of those emphasis weekends, the African-American preacher told about a little girl's question to a grandparent: "Which sex," she asked, "is the opposite one?" The preacher then looked at us and asked the congregation, "which race is opposite?" We have always had an answer for that question-not the right one-but an answer. White was normative, and everything was opposite. By 2050, there will be only a slim majority of whites in the United States, perhaps not a majority. This will be the century when white dominance will come to an end in the United States. The pace of this change is slower in Canada, but the direction is the same-by mid-century, Canada will have a lower percentage of its population that are European-descent than it does at the start of the century. The character of national life will change as the racial mixture of citizens changes. The church will also change, or at least will need to change, if it hopes to be a viable part of community life.
The students in seminary now will be the pastors and church staff members who will see congregations through the first of the many changes they will encounter as the racial composition of the population continues its irreversible shift. How do seminaries educate students to be personally transcultural and truly at ease in a multi-cultural world? How do seminaries educate them to be the pastors churches will need to make the transitions they will need to make? How do seminaries educate students of color-most of whom have already learned to be bi-cultural-to serve the range of congregations to which they will be called? Congregations have not been very successful at negotiating the cragged lines of changing racial and cultural communities.
5. Being Christian in a Multi-faith World. My pastor saw that I was giving a talk last year that was including some observations about multi-faith issues. He e-mailed me to ask what I was going to say about Christianity and other religions. He recalled a few things he had said about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in sermons after the events of September 11. The sermons had generous perspectives about other world religions, but asserted that there is a uniqueness of God's revelation in Christ, and that this revelation is trustworthy. He asked what I thought about what he had said. Was it too narrow in a multi-faith world? (This is not the language in his e-mail, but it is in the spirit of what he was saying in these sermons.) As I reflected on his question, I thought about how much things have changed. I don't think many pastors could have imagined such a question fifty years ago. My pastor is a thoughtful, centrist, mainline Protestant. His question was pastoral as well as theological. What does a thoughtful Christian say about other religions that is faithful, honest, and in every possible way, inclusive? How do we proclaim the Christian gospel in a multi-faith world?
North America is increasingly religiously plural. A "mixed" marriage may mean Protestant-Buddhist, not just Protestant-Catholic. As complex as the issues were with the Catholics and Protestants, they will be greater with the Buddhists. We are becoming a society in which the religious "other" is nearby and not far away, and that will influence congregations and their pastoral leaders.
How do theological schools educate a new generation of leaders who are Christian, who can lead Christian congregations, who can advance the Christian community in the context of religious pluralism, and who can do all of this without the cultural and religious imperialism that characterized North American Christianity's encounter with other religions in an earlier era?
As I am talking, some of you with a little imagination may have noticed a sacred cow, or two, among the sacred callings that the changes in the church and the culture are making.
II. The Students in Theological Schools
This year, more than 76,000 students are enrolled in the 244 schools that are members of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Who are these students and what perceptions do they have about their experiences in theological education? How is the student body changing? I would like to sketch out some things about students that are derived from what the students have said themselves, in surveys and other instruments.
Age of Students
In the 1980s, considerable anecdotal evidence was accruing that seminary students were getting older. What was remembered to have been a student body of recent college graduates was changing as more and more "older" students were arriving on campus. To explore this perception, ATS began asking member schools, every other year, to report the number of students enrolled in all programs by age. The data for the past decade, 1991-2001, are instructive. While they do not permit comparisons with data from earlier decades, they do provide perspective about the most recent one. The age cohorts that grew the most during this decade were students between forty and forty-nine, who constituted 20.4% of the total enrollment in 1991 and 24.8% of the total enrollment in 2001, and students between the ages of fifty to sixty-four, who constituted 8.4% of the total enrollment in 1991 and 14.7% of the total enrollment in 2001. By contrast, students aged thirty to thirty-nine declined from 32.3% of the total enrollment in 1991 to 25.6% of the total enrollment in 2001. The cohort of students aged twenty to twenty-nine constituted a relatively constant 26 to 28% of the total enrollment across the decade. These data suggest that a relatively stable cohort of recent college graduates and early career students has continued across the decade, and that the growth of students over forty has come from the decline of students in their thirties. The "older" students are becoming even "older."
Age does make a difference. Younger students are more likely to have undergraduate backgrounds that prepare them for theological study; they are more likely to report having received academic honors, but they are less likely to say that they will pursue vocations in congregational or parish ministry. Older students are more racially and ethnically diverse, include a higher percentage of women, and are more inclined to intend careers in congregational or parish ministry.
Women and Theological Education
In fall of 2002, there were a total of 27,315 women enrolled in ATS schools. This constituted 35.7% of a total enrollment in all degree programs of 76,510. The enrollment of women in MDiv program is instructive. In fall 2002, there were a total of 31,994 students in the Master of Divinity program, the program of study most typically leading toward ordination, of whom 10,070 or 32% were women.
Women have become an increasing presence in the student bodies of ATS schools since the 1970s, as most mainline Protestant denominations were making it possible for women to be ordained, or prior warrants for ordination became more widely exercised by women. In 1977, there were 3,019 women enrolled in the MDiv program. In 2002, twenty-five years later, there were 10,070, a gain of 235%. In 1977, there were 23,236 men enrolled in the MDiv, and in 2002, there were 21,924 men enrolled in the MDiv program, a loss of 6%. This means that all of the numeric gain in enrollment in the MDiv program across the past twenty-five years has been a function of the increasing enrollment of women. While women are not enrolled in theological school to the extent that they are present in law schools (just over 50% in 2000) or medical schools (just under 50%), they are dramatically more present now than they were twenty-five years ago.
Women graduates from ATS schools differ from men graduates in several ways. Women who graduated with MDiv degrees in spring 2002 were more likely than men to report that their self- confidence and respect for other religious traditions had grown stronger as a result of their seminary studies. A greater percentage of women graduates reported that their theological positions had become more liberal during theological study than is true for men graduates. (35% of women said their position had become more liberal, as compared to 22% of men.) Perhaps more significant than change in theological position, women students appear to differ from men in the expressions of ministry they intend to pursue. While 51.3% of men indicate that they intend to pursue parish ministry after graduation, 42% of women indicate that they expect to serve in parish settings. Women are more likely than men to pursue hospital or other institutional chaplaincies (almost 7% of women versus 2.7% of men) or to be undecided about career choice at graduation (almost 12% of women said they were undecided versus 7.1% of men). Women are less likely than men to anticipate ministry in church planting or evangelism (6% for men versus 2.7% for women) or youth ministry (6.5% of men versus 2.2% of women).
The increasing presence of women in theological schools is changing the face of religious leadership, particularly among mainline Protestants. The total growth in MDiv enrollment, across the past twenty-five years, is the result of the increasing number of women in this degree program. The data suggest that gender accounts for some variations in how students are affected by theological studies and the ministry careers they intend to pursue after graduation.
While the enrollment of women continues to increase, gender remains a contested issue in North American religion. Religious communities differ markedly in their understandings of the role of women as ordained religious leaders. The Roman Catholic Church, by far the largest religious body in North America, does not permit the ordination of women to ministerial priesthood, and the largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, generally discourages the ordination of women, although its polity does not prohibit it. Several other Protestant denominations have theological tenets that limit the leadership roles of women, particularly ordination. While many other denominations endorse the ordination of women, career ministry is problematic for women in ways that it does not appear to be for men. Gender and religious leadership will continue to be a major issue in American religion.
The enrollment of racial/ethnic students over time
Across the past twenty-five years, the enrollment of racial/ethnic theological students in ATS schools has been increasing. In fall 1977, ATS schools reported a total of 1,759 African-American students in all degree programs, representing 3.9% of the total enrollment of 45,222 students. 1977 was the first year that ATS requested information about other racial/ethnic groups, and in that year, schools reported that there were 601 Hispanic students, or 1.3% of the total enrollment, and 494 Asian/Pacific Islander students, for 1% of total enrollment. Together, racial/ethnic students constituted 6.2% of the total 1977 student enrollment. In 2002, racial/ethnic enrollment was 15,961 of a total enrollment of 76,510, constituting 20.9% of the total enrollment. Thus, while the total enrollment in ATS schools has increased 69% over the past twenty-five years, the racial/ethnic enrollment has grown by 469%. This is a huge change, and means that racial/ethnic students constitute a significant portion of the total increase in enrollment for this period of time. The gain reflects a variety of institutional efforts, in addition to social and religious forces.
The change in the student bodies, however, does not yet match the change occurring in North America population, particularly in the United States. In fall 2002, African-descent students constituted 11% of the enrollment in ATS schools, but they constitute 13% of the U.S. population. Hispanic/Latino students constituted 3% of the enrollment in ATS schools, but 13% of the U.S. population. While the number of students from these two racial/ethnic groups is increasing and the percentage of ATS enrollment that is racial/ethnic students continues to grow, the presence of these two groups in ATS schools continues to be less than their presence in the general population. While Canada has a lower percentage of racial/ethnic citizens, its percentage is growing at a steady rate, and the same lag of racial/ethnic students to the population is evident. In contrast to these two racial/ethnic communities, the percentage of Asian-descent students in theological schools is actually greater than their percentage in the general population.
Some things are changing. The student body in ATS schools is quite different than it was twenty-five or forty-five years ago. Every change in the student body means changes in the way good teachers teach, and the way that good schools work with students. Students who know less of the Christian story need to be taught how to love it, even as they are learning how to deconstruct it. Students who have limited background in the kind of intellectual work that we do in theological education need different patterns of education than those who have had all the right background. Older students often learn differently than younger students, and women differently than men, and racial/ethnic than white students. The changes in teaching, as best I can tell, have not caught up with the changes in the learners. More cows are joining the herd.
In fact, every one of these changes can be resisted on the basis of one of the cows, and keeps us from realizing that God may be doing something very interesting with God's church. Our calling is to prepare the students in our schools for the ministry they need to undertake. We can moo and moan about who we wish were in school, or use our considerable abilities to educate the students who are present. Cows and callings.
III. The 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?"
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, 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 more 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.
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 can 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. I think there is profound value in seminary-educated religious leaders, but my opinion won't carry the day.
I think the most pressing institutional issue facing ATS schools as they begin this new century is to adopt the fundamental question as their own: "What is the value of seminary-educated religious leaders?" 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 and enrichment program for overly curious students.
To answer this question, schools will need the imagination and the necessary skills to invent a future that is the answer. It is one of those questions that will not be satisfied by rhetoric. It will require seminaries to reconfigure themselves as front line, not rear-guard, organizations. (Look out, this is going to be a paragraph full of cows.)
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. In my opinion, there are two elements to being on the front line: 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 the one that is emerging.
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 hope that many of you will continue in your jobs for a fairly long period of time. If you do, you will not be able to avoid the profound effects of these changes at your schools. If we assume that the next fifteen years in North American theological education is going to be business as usual, I don't think there will be much normal business left to do.
What this means is that, in addition to exercising all the skill this conference has, hopefully, helped you to improve, there is this other kind of leadership that will be necessary: helping faculty and students distinguish a sacred calling from a sacred cow. Like everything else you do, it will not be easy work.
I told the presidents in a January conference about a gravestone inscription that a historian acquaintance of mine found on a 29th century headstone. The person buried beneath it must have been devout, as the headstone read "he did everything for Christ's sake." Unfortunately, the stone cutter inserted a comma between "everything," and "for," which made it read more like "He did everything, for Christ's sake."
ATS schools will not be able to do everything. Our calling is to do what most needs to be done at this time, with this church, with these students, in this culture, for Christ's sake.