Treading carefully on a rippled and rifted sidewalk, I passed toothless pumpkins that grinned in the pre-dawn light. Once poured to provide a level and safe passage, the sidewalk now lies cracked and rolling from the pressure of unseen roots that have grown up from below. In the silence that comes to the city only on the day after Halloween, I breathed in the stillness of this neighborhood. Just moments earlier, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” played on my commute to this out-of-the-way part of Portland, Oregon. Listening to chorus, “Woah, we’re half way there / Woah, livin’ on a prayer,” I thought to myself, “How true that is for many Christian communities in the Pacific Northwest!” And also for theological education.
I paused before walking up the seven steps – passing more pumpkins and a sign extending welcome to all – to a grey brick house on the corner. At the top, I offered an anxious knock that came from one who was part pilgrim and part researcher. I entered to a fire on the hearth and an equally warm welcome.
I had come for morning prayer, but I had also come to listen and learn from the witness of this particular community.
Those gathered included a young couple with their newborn baby, a visiting Catholic nun, a denominational leader in a mainline tradition, a scholar with a Ph.D. from an east coast university and several others who had been part of this community for 30 years. As I’d later come to learn, the life of this community reflected the riveted sidewalks just outside their door. Over time, as the neighborhood changed and grew, they were stretched to discern how to respond to the shifting composition of their neighbors. And yet, even through times of apparent fracture and disagreement in the community, they still carried those in their midst – like me – toward greater communion with the Triune God.
After singing, a time of prayer and passing the peace, I accompanied two members of this community to a nearby coffee shop. Over coffee, they shared about the challenges facing pastors and Christian communities in their context: “Our systems that we have relied on to undergird ministry for so long no longer support or sustain the ministry necessary for the new age.”
Renewing theological education
Indeed, the “systems” that support and sustain theological education require renewal. In her book “Traveling Mercies,” Anne Lamott describes the frailty that was her life and faith in a way that reflects the experience of many who inhabit the system of theological education: “The cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of me living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil.” Drunk in life and captivated by the fear of death, Lamott expresses the collective experience of many that serve or support theological education. Like the corrugated sidewalk I traveled in pre-dawn light, the landscape on which many theological educational institutions were laid has shifted. In other cases, unseen, subterranean forces are working their way up from beneath. The result is that cracks are webbing through the landscape of theological education with spider-like agility.
Yet, the resources that are needed to sustain theological education for a “new age” persist and continue to emerge. Like poppies in the spring, the Word and work of God is popping up and inspiring new forms of theological education, but it often appears in unexpected places. Sometimes the movement of the Spirit emerges in the “cracks” that once threatened or fractured our life. At other times, it appears in unseen (and sometimes unseemly) places. And precisely in such a moment – when certainty has dissolved and the Spirit of God is breaking out in new places – educators, theologians, pastors and students may consider the form of theological education that is required for a new age.
Adapting theological education
As one who has been formed by and is committed to theological education, I want to suggest three axes that may nurture a form of theological education that is able to adapt to the challenges – and opportunities – of theological education for a new age. Much like the three axes that sustain the motion of gyroscope, each axis rotates independently and their coordinated movement has a synergistic impact on the others. When combined and enlivened by the work of the Spirit, such gyroscopic practices may support and sustain those who gather around the ecclesial practice that is required to reimagine theological education.
Releasing creativity amid transition
As theological education enters a new age, existing institutions and communities inevitably face a period of transition. Organizational transitions, as William Bridges notes in “Managing Transitions,” introduce periods of loss, grief and uncertainty. The accumulation of unnamed and prolonged transitions can exact an immense psychological toll on those who serve or occupy organizations in transition. In such cases, fatigue, distrust and despair can silently erode the collective energy that is required to navigate periods of transitions.
Transitions can also provide opportunities for creativity and innovation. When the rules that once governed an organization’s common life no longer apply, individuals can be released to creative activity in ways that build the form of collective, ecclesial activity that theological education for a new age requires. The outcomes will be as varied as the communities that support theological education. In the case of Fuller Theological Seminary, releasing creativity amid transition led Fuller’s president and board of trustees to sell its existing campus and relocate. As president Mark Labberton explained, this decision required “humility and imagination” from every member of Fuller’s community as it sought to respond to God’s leading. By leaning into the creativity that some form of transition required, Labberton and others were released to imagine a way forward that enables Fuller to prepare for what’s next in theological education. As other individuals and communities discern the form of faithful response to their context and calling, turning to creativity amid transition may release and sustain the imagination that is required for theological education in a new era.
Building partnerships across existing boundaries and borders
Partnerships that cross boundaries and borders may also sustain theological education for a new era. Such partnerships not only reflect the broader ecclesial communion that supports and sustains Christian formation, but they may also enrich the ecology of communities, congregations and educational institutions that contribute to theological education. Theological education for the new age requires building, cultivating and sustaining forms of partnership, collaboration and mutuality that reflect the Triune nature of God — and equipping those they serve to do the same. Rather than creating a strategic advantage in a shrinking marketplace for theological education, partnerships that cross boundaries and borders requires a commitment to the broader ecology that sustains theological education and faith formation. Indeed, those involved may have to express a kenotic release of the forms of privilege, power and prestige that have accrued according to the previous matrices that have governed theological education. When combined with a commitment to release creativity amid transition and the ongoing work of the Spirit, such partnerships may impact the various individuals and organizations that are involved.
Edgardo Colón-Emeric has built partnerships across traditional boundaries and borders. In collaboration with Duke Divinity School and the United Methodist Church, he is working to build platforms that support pastors in Latin America who desire theological education but lack access to the training their vocation requires. These partnerships enable Colón-Emeric, Duke Divinity School faculty, doctoral students and other instructors to travel to Latin America, where they provide courses to pastors serving in rural communities throughout Central America and Peru. Students pay a small fee (about $15) to enroll each semester, and classes are offered as intensive seminars at a centrally located village. Even as Colón-Emeric, other faculty and doctoral students serve as instructors, the local pastors’ experiences and knowledge of their communities contributes to this mutual teaching and learning model. Thirty-nine students in Guatemala received a certificate in Methodist pastoral ministry in 2018.
Such a boundary-crossing partnership enriches the ministry of the Latin American pastors, the education and formation of doctoral students and the collective life that governs Duke Divinity School. Theological education for the new age requires similar forms of partnership that release the Spirit’s movement through boundary and border crossing approaches to theological education.
Nurturing and renewing the ecclesial ecology
Theological education for a new age also requires nurturing and renewing the ecclesial ecology that supports and sustains the life of faith. This ecology includes the various identifiable forms of organized, ecclesial life such as congregations, theological schools, Christian colleges and universities, philanthropic centers and nonprofits — but it also includes the various experiments and expressions of creative deviance that take place in the boundary spaces between existing and emerging orders. When taken together, renewed attention to this ecclesial ecology, which includes traditional, nontraditional and paratraditional practices of theological education, may nourish and sustain theological education for a new age. Even as existing organizational structures that once ordered Protestant life in America undergo drastic transitions, a practice of theological education is emerging at the intersection of the various communities that sustain the life of faith. Just as the vitality of any ecological system depends upon the health of each of its members and the strength of the connection between them, theological education for a new age may be sustained by attending to the various members of this ecology and strengthening the forms of partnership that an ecological approach to theological education requires.
Whitworth University’s Office of Church Engagement (OCE) has undertaken such a task. Formed in 2013 with support from the Lilly Endowment Inc., the OCE attends to the ecology that supports and sustains ecclesial life in the Pacific Northwest by building and strengthening partnerships with local congregations, pastors and nonprofit organizations. The OCE deepens and expands Whitworth’s historic commitment to communities of faith by formalizing partnerships and creating infrastructure that supports current Christian leaders and equips future leaders for faithfulness in a post-Christendom context. Jerry Sittser, who is a senior fellow in the OCE, observes: “We carry this idea of Christendom in our cultural memory, as if it were almost cellular. It is so deeply rooted in us that we hardly think about it. We simply assume it. It is like a wedding band that never comes off, like a license carried in wallet or purse, like basic knowledge of arithmetic.” For Sittser and his colleagues at the OCE, however, the cultural memory of Christendom may prevent individuals and communities from seeing the changes that surround us, and adapting to them. Sittser shares, “Our cultural memory of the past might actually be keeping us from seeing the changes happening before our very eyes and from adapting creatively to them.” The dense network of partnerships and collaboration at the OCE represents one attempt to reimagine the practice of theological education by “adapting creatively” and nurturing an ecclesial ecology in a post-Christendom context.
Congregations can join a ministry network to partner with Whitworth and receive access to resources that may support the form of ministry their context requires. In turn, the OCE commits to strengthen these partnerships through platforms, tools and resources that build and strengthen the ecology that sustains local congregations. Over 100 congregations have partnered with the OCE. The OCE has also developed platforms to connect future ministry leaders (such as undergraduate and graduate students) to local nonprofits and congregations. Through internships with partner congregations and local nonprofits, future ministry leaders gain contextual ministry experience within the ecclesial ecology and local partners receive support that expands their ministry capacity. In partnership with their master’s degree in theology program, Whitworth’s OCE also works to nurture and renew the ecclesial ecology in the Pacific Northwest and train ministry leaders to serve in a post-Christendom context.
The formation of these partnerships nurtures and renews the ecclesial ecology for a new age of theological education. Just as the OCE expresses a vision for and commitment to strengthen the ecclesial ecology in which it is embedded, theological education for a new age requires equipping ministry leaders to see and nurture the ecology that sustains their ministry and the communities they serve.
A call to revitalization
The challenges confronting ministers, communities of faith and Christian leaders throughout the ecclesial ecology require the revitalization of theological education for a new age. The practices of this community in the Pacific Northwest and of these three educational institutions represent sites where the Spirit may put into motion new forms of theological education. When combined, enlivened by the Spirit and sustained by the vision of those entrusted to serve communities of faith, reimagining theological education around these three axes may invigorate and animate the form of collective, ecclesial practice that is required for theological education in a new age.
Dustin D. Benac is a doctor of theology candidate at Duke Divinity School. His research and writing explores the intersection of theology and organizational theory as it pertains to religious organizations and institutional leadership. You can find him on Twitter at @dustindbenac. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.