Informal communication among theological schools about expansion of special programs should be replaced by the Committee on Theological Education’s (COTE) formal approval of such programs, he says. Too often, it seemed to us, a seminary simply heard of something new another school had developed and set about imitating it. But in our meeting with COTE in 1999, the consultants emphasized their hopes that all schools could work together “to build a national system of theological education.”
At the end of the meeting, Douglas Oldenburg, then president of Columbia Seminary, stood up and said he had something important to say: he came hoping to collect ideas for Columbia, but that he was going home filled with ideas and enthusiasm for things all schools could do together, and for ways they could complement and support each other in their joint service to the church.
We left the meeting, I think, with a sense of mutual support and common purpose. That attitude, it seems to me, is growing. COTE is working! But to require “formal approval” in these days when the style of working generally seems to be “grass roots” or “from the ground up” — and when resistance to too much bureaucracy is increasingly evident — all this would raise the questions as to whether it would be better to continue building on the spirit and style that have been developing than to exercise more formal collaboration.
Among other ideas that increasingly seem to me to be important for us to work on are these five: (1) mission vs. marketing; (2) the role of technology; (3) functional sprawl; (4) the emphasis on spirituality and spiritual formation; and (5) the focus on the congregation in planning. There are other areas that are important also, but these five especially call for interpretation.
What are our schools really for? Have we been diligent enough in being clear about our unique purpose? And specifically about that purpose in relation to the purpose of the church? As we listen to our excited conversations about our new programs, the focus seems often to be more on marketing techniques than on purpose. Most of us remember H. Richard Niebuhr’s statement about the purpose of the church and its ministry: the increase among people of love of God and neighbor. I have been in groups when new ideas have been checked out by that concept, and the results in attitude and integrity of the ideas have been highly rewarding.
A second area we are calling “functional sprawl.” Looking at any school’s publicity will make it clear what is meant. Is the seminary trying to “take over” the church? Is the school simply adding activities, whether they “belong” or not, in order to impress the public? Maybe this is part of our general expansionist attitude these days. One article I read recently talked about “consumerism as a demonic force.”
A third concern has to do with our use of technology and the increasingly powerful control it is developing in the way we do things. Often technological components of our educational processes arise out of competition without adequate evaluation. Not too long ago, I served as speaker at a Doctor of Ministry conference where we previewed a sample of a seminary’s distance learning project. It was absolutely the poorest educational device I have ever seen. I have seen imaginative and effective use of technological devices, but the kind of thinking necessary to achieve that kind of result is sophisticated and demanding. In the future, let us get some highly competent people to work on this important area.
A fourth admonition would be to suggest to ourselves that we look at curriculum development. How should we do that in these days so that it is not a matter of just adding the latest fad? Look at the boom in publicity about spirituality and spiritual formation. That amount of interest proves, without question, that there is a great need to be met. But is simply adding courses and programs and degrees the way to do it? Is this a place where we could plan together, and coordinate different approaches, or maybe deliberately experiment and share results of our planning and working together? We could take other illustrations, but the important flag to raise is about how we build curriculum.
And fifth is the emphasis on the congregation. There seems to be such universal agreement about the basic importance of the congregation in planning theological education that it is probably pointless even to mention a need to look at different ways of carrying out that task. How can theological schools work with other agencies of the church? What are we missing, not just programmatically, but historically and in terms of polity, in relying on work projects and congregations doing international mission? What does it mean to be a connectional church? How can we link our congregations to the broader areas of responsibility?
Among all the other challenges we face, let us keep before us our “connection” with the purpose of the church, including, now, the ecumenical church. And let us be grateful for the great privileges that are ours, we who work in the seminaries’ task of theological education.
Posted Sept. 23, 2002
Sara Little is professor emerita of Christian education, Union-PSCE.
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