In 2000, The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada adopted as one of several targeted areas of work to give “renewed attention to the fundamental patterns of relationship between theological schools and their respective religious communities.” The need for this area of work was first identified in regional meetings with senior officers of ATS schools in 1999 and was subsequently included in the Association’s work plan for 2000-2006. This “renewed attention” represents a critically important area of work for theological schools. These schools depend on a viable relationship with ecclesial communities for several reasons. Likewise, churches need theological schools to advance their missions as communities of faith.
Ecclesial communities provide a variety of institutional resources that theological schools require. Congregations and denominations are important in the process of identifying potential candidates for ministry whom the seminaries then recruit for admission. The schools are dependent on the church for placement of graduates. Almost 60% of all students in ATS schools are in the Master of Divinity (MDiv) and professional master’s degree programs, and congregations and church-related agencies are the principal employers of graduates of these programs.
Increasingly, the revenue needed for theological education comes from individual donors. These donors are seldom graduates of the schools; they are most typically persons in the church who care about faith and the quality of leaders for the church. Theological schools need constituent communities of faith from which they can identify the individual donors required to fund theological education.
Theological schools also need meaningful connections to ecclesial communities to discern an important part of their scholarly agenda. While scholarly work is pursued with reference to academic guilds and the work of other scholars, theological scholarship needs living traditions—with their hopes, struggles, and controversies—as context for scholarly inquiry. Theological schools simply do not have a viable future apart from communities of faith.
This project has three goals that, together, will provide a perspective about church-theological school relationships and prescriptions for strengthening them.
- to cultivate a broad-based conversation about the institutional relationships between theological schools and church bodies.
- to define the current patterns of relationship between seminaries and their respective communities of faith.
- to develop proposals for strengthening and renewing institutional relationships that benefit both the church and theological schools.
To explore these fundamental issues and to inform these specific goals, the project is undertaking several activities from 2004 to 2007.
- The first activity was to focus on this issue as the major programmatic emphasis of the Association’s 2004 Biennial Meeting.
- The second involves a study that identifies patterns of church-seminary relationships and documents the ways in which these relationships have changed across the past several decades.
- Throughout the duration of the project, ATS is convening a group of theological educators, pastors, and denominational leaders to engage in a sustained discussion that is addressing issues about the church-seminary relationship, identifying patterns of work that seminaries can engage to strengthen various patterns of relationship, and determining ways to advocate those patterns of work to member schools.
The project will conduct a study of the patterns of institutional relationships that theological schools maintain with their respective ecclesial communities. ATS will survey presidents of member schools to identify characteristics of their schools’ current relationships with denominations and congregations and will ask them to reflect on the ways those relationships have changed over the past forty years, as well as their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses in the current relationships. While this research would be limited in focus, it would provide a very useful resource for assessing the changing patterns of relationship and for identifying ways in which church-seminary connections can be strengthened.
The principal assumption of this project is that viable relationships between seminaries and church bodies are absolutely necessary for the institutional vitality and educational integrity of theological schools. While the relationships are good in many areas, they appear to be strained in others. Schools are institutions designed to change slowly while congregational realities can change rapidly. The differences between these two institutional realities, and the differing perceptions that emerge from each about the other, require a context in which thoughtful engagement can occur among theological educators, denominational executives and officers, and congregational leaders.
Toward the conclusion of the project, ATS will host a consultation on the seminary-church relationship. The consultation will gather approximately 100 people to review the findings of the project’s research and recommendations developed by the project’s Task Force in its more sustained attention to these issues. The consultation will result in recommendations to ATS schools about ways to enhance the relationship between them and church bodies. This consultation will include participants from a broader array of denominations and schools than those that participated in the prior structured discussion. This project’s consultation would be structured in such a way that participants develop the proposals and recommendations for a broad community of theological schools.