In a new book about the challenges of undergraduate education, Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, writes, “The greater the university, the more intent it is on competitive success in the marketplace of faculty, students, and research money. And the less likely it is to talk seriously to students about their development into people of good character who will know that they owe something to society for the privileged education they have received.”i
While theological schools are not in the same situation as large research universities with respect to the competition Lewis describes, educational institutions always face the challenge of identifying and remaining true to their core mission. Helping seminaries and divinity schools do this is one of the goals of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada (ATS).
The ATS is often described as one of the broadest ecumenical tables in American and Canadian religious life. The more than 250 member-schools represent evangelical and mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox church traditions as well as ecumenical and nondenominational seminaries and university-related divinity schools. Currently, ATS schools are educating more than 80,000 men and women, fifty percent of whom are in Master of Divinity programs (the three-year program most denominations require for ordination). Currently, more than 3,600 full time faculty members teach in these schools. Faculty and administrators who participate in activities of the ATS find that the confessional differences among us are greatly overshadowed by the similarity of our core mission and the nature of challenges we face–providing high quality education and contributing to the enhancement of religious life.
The ATS began in the early part of the 20th century and functioned for many years primarily as an accrediting agency, developing standards for peer evaluation of theological education. While accrediting remains a key component of the mission of ATS, in recent years, leadership development has become a major part of the work.
One of the things the ATS has done most effectively in recent years is assist theological schools in thinking together about some very important “big issues.” Five such issues stand out as of great importance to theological schools and the churches we seek to serve.
Some years ago, seminaries and denominational leaders became concerned about the relatively small numbers of younger persons expressing interest in ministry and theological education. Funding from the Lilly Endowment and coordination with ATS and other organizations such as the Fund for Theological Education has enabled seminaries and denominations to develop programs for young adults, and the results have been impressive. In 1995, the average age of students at McCormick Seminary (for example) was 47; in 2005, half of our entering class was under 30. Many other schools report similar results. Our experience suggests that the current generation of young adults is significantly more interested in faith and service than similar age-cohorts some years ago.
Another area of concern for theological schools is what is known as “outcomes assessment.” Simply put, the question is: How does a seminary define adequate preparation for ministry and how do we know when we have provided it? Some objective measures might include passing rates on ordination examinations and reports from calling congregations and graduates themselves. But other things seem much more difficult to quantify, such as spiritual growth or personal maturity. In the M.Div. program, the goal is not simply to impart knowledge but to contribute to the formation of persons and their lives of faith. How do these “outcomes” get “measured” in any meaningful way that then assists the school in adapting its educational programs?
The question of adequate preparation for ministry leads immediately to another major issue, namely, the relationship of theological seminaries to the denominations or faith traditions they seek to serve. Two years ago, the ATS launched a major study of the theological schools and the churches, including emerging forms of church life as well as established denominations. Questions under discussion range from the nature of the church itself and its place in culture, to definitions of leadership and financial support of their preparation. President Laura Mendenhall of Columbia Theological Seminary is the chair of the ATS group studying this issue.
Another important challenge for theological schools and for churches is providing educational programs to people who do not reside near a seminary. The proliferation of online or “distance” education in other fields has raised this issue for theological education. While a few schools have developed online degree programs and a number of schools have experimented with individual course offerings, many faculty members struggle with this medium and the tension between providing access to education and a tradition of teaching that values face-to-face interaction.
The core mission of theological education is the preparation of women and men for ministry, the professional education of ministers, and the development of new insights, making creative contributions to understanding Christian faith for life today. Thus, there is always a tension between conservation and innovation. One task of the theological school is to ensure that a new generation of leadership is introduced to the vast resources of Scripture and the Christian tradition. The other task is to think creatively about what these resources mean in new and different situations in which Christians find themselves.
The Presbyterian theological seminaries are privileged to be leaders among the community of schools in the ATS. We also derive great benefit as we learn from colleagues from very different theological traditions and ecclesial communities.
Cynthia Campbell is president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and was president of the Association of Theological Schools 2004-2006.
i Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, New York, PublicAffairs, 2006, xii.