Earlier this week, a chaplain at a Presbyterian-related college shared with me that while he sends a few students to seminary every year, in over a decade he has sent only one to a PC(USA) seminary.
During a conversation at Big Tent in Louisville, a church leader commented, “When the churches are ahead of the seminaries in terms of innovation, then you know that the church is in real trouble.”
A college student attending a PC(USA)-related school opined that her school has a “Presbyterian problem,” referring to the conflict that has arisen due to Presbyterian membership requirements for leadership positions at the institution.
How is it that our seminaries — the leading institutions of Presbyterianism — could suffer such critiques?
Simple answer: some of the innovations and improvements emerging in undergraduate education have not trickled up to these graduate theological schools.
I see this most vividly in how little the community service, service learning and civic engagement energies and best practices have spilled over to seminary life. The relative invisibility of such a vision on seminary campuses generates at best a ho-hum interest among a generation that is defined by its commitment to care.
Over the past three years my work has taken me to seminaries and divinity schools across the country, including most affiliated with the PC(USA). I have seen how the seminaries are addressing their challenges head-on. Yet, as one working in the national service movement in the undergraduate world and foundation work, the prescription seems clear: for seminaries to become compelling, relevant and prominent, we must tap into this energy and create space for students to engage, innovate and experiment.
A few specific ideas:
What does it mean to be Presbyterian? It’s not enough to say we are “Reformed.” Prospective students want to know how we are doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. The opening page of the Book of Order offers clues in its description of the Great Ends of the church. For we are to be Christ’s faithful evangelists, going into the world demonstrating love and participating in God’s activity through healing, ministering, engaging, giving and sharing. Let it be known that we affirm that we are committed to being a faith community of diversity that includes persons of all ages races and conditions (F-1.0404).
Where we fish
Where do we find students? Montreat. Festival of Preachers. Triennium. All good places. But many of this generation’s visionary leaders are gathering around service and justice efforts.
During a recent seminary visit, I met with three of the school’s top students and discovered that none of them had considered theological education until after they graduated from college. Let’s recruit at the Bonner Student Congress, Teach for America, City Year, VISTA and Peace Corps events as well as with Young Adult Volunteers and the other Volunteers Exploring Vocation partners.
Admissions: Build up the base
In undergraduate education, a great deal of creativity, energy and resources go into recruitment. Besides the president, the director of development and some athletic coaches, the next highest paid employee is the vice president for enrollment. Why? Because that department not only generates revenue, it also shapes the community that it populates. We need to prioritize our admissions efforts accordingly.
Create a Bonner Scholar-like scholarship program
The national Bonner Scholars Program attracts and supports students with an interest in service to attend college while fostering their interest in service and social justice. The program has been transforming the campus community life in its promotion of a culture of engagement. Something similar, though distinct to theological education, should be created. This past year, we took the first step by launching the Community Engagement Fellows Program at Princeton, Columbia and Johnson C. Smith Seminaries.
Community life through community service
Several seminaries have created community engagement teams, where students are designated as issue-based team leaders. These students gather as a group to plan and lift up engagement throughout campus as well as lead efforts for other students’ involvement.
For example, the community action network at Princeton is tackling specific issues like hunger and at-risk youth, while also leading a campus-wide response to Hurricane Sandy relief.
At Austin Seminary, Jack Barden led the effort to expand the seminary community to include young adults serving through programs like YAV and AmeriCorps. By renovating an unoccupied residence hall and bringing in a core group of additional young adults, it has welcomed a whole new population and strengthened the campus culture of service and engagement.
Connecting the dots
If students heard that there was an organization working on issues like child advocacy, environmental outreach, fair food, human trafficking, disaster relief or hunger, many would say: Sign me up! Others might say: “I wish the church were involved in this kind of service and justice work.” Well, we are. Yet most seminarians know little about these activities. Among the many that come to mind are the Compassion, Peace and Justice work of the PC(USA). It would not require great effort for leaders from campuses to compare notes with leaders of denominational agencies to formulate ways to integrate the seminary experience and the individual discernment process with consent encounters, strategic engagement and creative programming.
The curriculum: Reformed and always reforming
Keep the M.Div., but keep retooling it. Create and/or enhance one- or two-year theological degrees for those not pursuing ordination. Offer joint degrees, i.e., dual programs with non-profit management, public policy, public health, nursing, business and law, to name a few.
Make field education count
While at Princeton Seminary, Jim McClusky did placement work at Trenton Prison and went on to create Centurion Ministries. Phillip West moved into the East Lake Villages in Atlanta as part of his seminary experience. He served as a youth mentor and an unofficial chaplain. For a generation seeking to be relevant in the world, field education offers unlimited possibilities.
How We Launch
Where will our seminary graduates go next? Colleges invest tremendous resources into Career Services offices and the Lilly Endowment has provided large contributions to make help undergraduates engage in vocation discernment, rather than simply doing career shopping. Can seminaries do the same? Can the denomination rethink the ordination exam schedules or relax some of the restrictions for circulating Personal Information Forms so that graduating students can be assured of the best possible chance of securing employment before they leave seminary and avoid the dreaded gap that forces to many adults and their families to leave school with no place to go?
What can the prophet world learn from the for-profit and nonprofit worlds? The latter two are investing heavily, strategically and creatively in young leaders who have innovative and alternative ideas for responding to challenges and making an impact. Seminaries should work with funders to create a postgraduate fellowship to support seminary graduates to develop new expressions of ministry. If you still are not inspired, go to echoinggreen.org. In our own Presbyterian ranks, Rev. J.C. Austin of Auburn Seminary is developing programs to tap the entrepreneurial energies of our seminarians.
Step it up, Mr. and Ms. President!
In my years at the Bonner Foundation, I worked directly with more than 200 college and university presidents. Still, I did not meet a more inspiring group of executives than the PC(USA) seminary presidents. Consider Paul Roberts (Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary) prophetically challenging the church to be a telling presence in the city; Katharine Henderson (Auburn Seminary) fostering interfaith understanding; Steve Hayner (Columbia Seminary) inspiring young adults to serve the church. These leaders and their colleagues have a powerful story to tell. It will preach.
WAYNE MEISEL is ordained as an evangelist by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. He is the director of faith and service at the Cousins Foundation and the founding president of the Bonner Foundation and is credited as being one of the primary architects of AmeriCorps. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.