Yesterday I posted a link on my Facebook news feed to a blog post titled Seminaries Reluctantly Selling their Souls. The post, written by my friend Brett Younger, got a lot of interesting responses. I should note that Brett teaches preaching and worship at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is a seminary professor, but before that he was a pastor for quite a number of years. He was for about nine months in the 1990s my pastor (then he took off from Manhattan, KS to Waco, TX).
Brett is concerned, as am I, about the impact of current trends on seminary education and the ministry itself. Seminaries are struggling to stay alive, and many are either turning to on-line programs or cutting back on hours and expectations. Few hours means fewer classes (and the hours cut will likely be in areas such as church history and languages). Online programs mean that students don't get to engage in the same way with faculty and fellow students as they would in a residential program. There are hybrid programs, which bring students on to campus, usually for two week stops.
There are a number of reasons why these things are occurring. One of the biggest reasons is that there are fewer persons taking what was once the traditional track. You finish college, and then head to seminary (perhaps taking a year out in between to do youth ministry). A growing number of seminarians are second career. Many are bi-vocational. So, these are often the only options. It is true that the classes and the delivery system is getting better. But let's be honest there will be important trade-offs.
Brett speaks of the relationships with professors, people who became mentors. I will affirm what Brett says here. Although I went to one of the largest seminaries in the world (Fuller Theological Seminary) and often took classes of 50-100 students, I did manage to make important relationships. The most important being my doctoral mentor. It wasn't just the classes that were key. Perhaps the most important event, that sealed the mentor relationship, was a weekend retreat sponsored by the seminary's spiritual life office. Jim happened to be the primary speaker. My bunk ended up next to his. I was already taking classes with him, but this cemented an important relationship.
Brett ends what is a most provocative essay with these words:
When people argue for online education they often say, “It’s almost like being in the same room,” but almost is not as good. Some students and young professors will never know how good a seminary education can be.
Students can learn online. Friendships can form on line. God can be heard through computer speakers, but it is hard to imagine the Lord’s Supper as a Skype meeting.
Is almost good enough? We will see. I hear a lot of complaining about seminary education, and whether it prepares one for ministry. The truth is, much of the practical stuff of ministry needs to be learned on the job, over time (that's the purpose of continuing education), but I found seminary to be an important time of discovery of self, of God, and of community. My theology and history and Bible classes offered me the opportunity to dive deep into the faith. It was there that the foundation for everything else was laid. Indeed, while some have tried, it is difficult to share the Lord's Supper over Skype.
I encourage you to go over to Brett's post and read the whole thing:
Since Brett's blog doesn't provide for comments -- you can come back here and continue the conversation. Let me know what you think. Is there a future for seminary education?