Threat and promise, problem and possibility: The changing landscape in theological education

Envisioning new and creative possibilities for seminaries with Columbia Theological Seminary’s new president, Victor Aloyo.

Vernon S. Broyles Jr. Leadership Center at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Photo by Gregg Brekke.

At the heart of the Christian gospel lies a simple but powerful message: God loves the world. This message is not the abstract claim of some disinterested divine benevolence but the manifest love of a God who is intimately bound up in the messiness of our daily lives and yearns for us to experience the joy for which we were created. As the gospel proclaims, this divine love for the world is shown to us in the person of God’s son Jesus Christ, whom God sent as an agent of reconciliation to an estranged world.

As we look forward to a new decade of service to Christ, the church, and the world, the theological academy – in recognition of the multitude of challenges in our midst – is called to take bold and innovative steps in defining our mission and vision as we review and renew our educational models. The pandemic of the novel coronavirus has consumed much of the world in the last two years with its incredible ability to infect seemingly everyone in its path — young or old, rich or poor. However, its most devastating feature is its ability to kill many people, especially those who are poor, elderly, sick or persons of color.

Even before COVID-19, social change and migratory movements for a few decades have deeply and extensively modified social structures, including the church, its theological academy and all higher education institutions all over the United States. The world is becoming inescapably interactive, connecting a plurality of people, ideologies, backgrounds and orientations. Ethnic violence, religious conflicts, struggles for sovereignty and urban unrest have local and global implications outside the walls of higher education. Within those walls, many scholars have ongoing concerns about long-standing inequities along the lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation regarding access to and representation in higher education, particularly the theological academy.

Researchers and educators agree that, in light of an increasingly pluralistic society, all students must be equipped with the cultural competency skills they need to navigate and thrive in the culturally diverse environments of the 21st century.

Increasing the need is the demographic revolution taking place both nationally and globally with regard to curricula, classroom activities and purposeful pedagogies that address the need for discussing social justice within graduate-level courses on diversity in higher education. In discussing the challenges of leadership development in mainline Protestantism, Kenneth Carter Jr., in a 2014 article published in Faith and Leadership, posited:

In short, we in the mainline have not paid attention to multiple disruptive forces affecting clergy leadership development. A more diverse population – including women and people from a variety of ethnic and immigrant traditions – are answering God’s call into ministry. Congregations and entire denominations are undergoing profound change. In an increasingly post-Christian America, churches have new and different expectations for clergy, including the possession of entrepreneurial skills.

In a 2022 article written for Colloquy Online, published by the Association of Theological Schools, Pat Fosarelli proposed several critical questions about nurturing students for new realities and challenges the church is facing and about how we prepare servant leaders. Fosarelli asked:

How do we equip [students] to take good care of themselves precisely so they can thrive and have something to give to others? Without making ministry students into psychologists, how do we teach them about people with multiple stresses/traumas who seem fragile or hostile (and sometimes both simultaneously)? Without making ministry students into academic theologians and philosophers, how do we teach them how to grapple with issues of theodicy — not based on past events (e.g., the 18th century Lisbon earthquake), but on the pandemics of viruses, racism, or xenophobia in our century?

Celtic cross on the Oldenburg Quadrangle at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Photo by Gregg Brekke.

We live in a troubling time in which our societal fabric seems to be unraveling and the institutions we have typically counted on to provide stability – government, schools, churches – are increasingly regarded as dysfunctional and ineffectual. The church needs servants of the common good to rise-up, collaborate, and provide courageous leadership that brings change and renewal. God deeply desires for all people to embrace love, peace, justice, health, reconciliation and joy, not only through verbal communication but also through the bold, fierce and intentional interaction with neighbors in confronting oppressive power structures that perpetuate poverty, hatred, discrimination, inequitable distribution of resources, economic stagnation and under-resourced educational support.

In his address at the Association for Theological Schools’ business meeting in June, held online before the in-person biennial, ATS Executive Director Frank Yamada, Ph.D., addressed the situation directly to a live audience and online: The pandemic exacerbated what we’ve already known: Theological schools are facing significant stresses in multiple ways.

The enrollment increase resulting from the pandemic – fall 2020 saw a boost – quickly diminished. By the following year, there was a return to the persistent pattern of the last decade, which has seen a long, slow decline. That is much the same as in previous economic crises, which saw short-term bumps in enrollment, only to watch them recede again. Schools are still grappling with flagging enrollment, issues of deferred maintenance on campus, the appropriate size of the campus, new technologies and changing pedagogies, along with issues of governance and even mission, as in, should the mission change to meet the times?

He said many schools have struggled for years to move to online programs, and some have moved cautiously due to concerns over technology and pedagogy and issues of quality and spiritual formation. Several faculties were reluctant to move to an arena that they perceived would diminish quality, particularly in formation. Many schools lacked what they thought they would need regarding technology or technological infrastructure. Schools found ways to quickly move to online education, even if it wasn’t the quality they wanted initially. Chapels, classes, discussion groups, prayer sessions and formation visits were all conducted online through smartphones, laptop cameras, other technology and various apps.

So, if there’s a lesson learned, digital learning is doable. The speed and cost of moving online are certainly within reach. While the quality of video production matters, many schools found that the concerns about whether they had the right equipment weren’t as significant as they thought — at least to get online. The questions that remain for many schools are about principled practices, what quality looks like, how to conduct meaningful formation work at a distance, Yamada asked. And in what ways can communities of belonging be fashioned in both in-person and online formats?

Notwithstanding, there are ethical challenges in responding to how digital learning and theological education seek to reconcile quality learning pathways. This paradigm shift is occurring within a broader context: From the enrollment decline in Western seminaries, the rise of digital training alternatives, and the disruptive challenges of Industrial Revolution 4.0 to the shifts in global geopolitics. Having discovered the benefits of online learning, many have continued to employ these training models even when pandemic restrictions have eased.

According to a report by the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity, the natural “long-term disruptors of theological seminaries are neither pandemics nor other seminaries. Rather, they are the alternative training modes delivered through digital platforms, such as FaithlifeTV and SeminaryNow, which can offer training anytime, anywhere, at a fraction of the cost. Due to their investments in fixed assets and faculty, it will be difficult for traditional seminaries to match the

disruptive prices of these new platforms. These digital platforms are only one facet of the broader impact that digital disruptions are making on theological education. Issues regarding financial instability and insecurity within vocations such as parish ministry, chaplaincy, the academy, and other service forms are convincing prospective students to enter more economically solvent pathways of learning to acquire the tools needed for their vocational development.

The report continues, saying, “The advent of Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4) is heralding a rapid merging of the ‘physical, digital, and biological worlds’ that will fundamentally change how we work and live.

To help future generations flourish in this new environment, institutes of higher learning must transform themselves into nimble institutes of lifelong learning that can assist students in picking up new competencies to retool themselves regularly. The challenge for seminaries is similar and two-fold. First, how do we prepare servant-leaders to engage the new ways of living and the ethical challenges that IR4 inadvertently poses?” Secondly, how might emerging educational technologies inform how we educate servant-leaders in a world where significant personal interactions are becoming more apparent?

Critical to the recognition of the changing landscape of theological education is the acknowledgement that the country continues to wrestle painfully with the impact of long-standing exclusionary efforts including school and housing segregation, mass incarceration, and inequities in policing, wages, and health care. And far too often, we hear about, or witness, destructive acts of hatred and bias, whether aimed at a nightclub in Orlando, a young man in a hoodie or a colleague in a head scarf.

In addition, previous financial shocks have hit higher education institutions and, more adversely, theological schools and seminaries, on either the revenue or the expenditure sides of the ledger. However, the coronavirus and its variants have hit both simultaneously. In the last three years, hiring freezes, furloughs, salary freezes and layoffs have become the survival norm. This current reality has created a phenomenon where the priority on financial flexibility will need to be operational for a period. With a decline in overall applications from the fear of indebtedness in an unstable economy, prioritizing financial liquidity may lead seminaries to reconsider ambitious plans to grow their way out of budgetary challenges.

In August 2022, I entered a new chapter in theological education as president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. After serving for 33 years as an educator-administrator-pastor in the theological academy and congregational settings, I have realized that seminaries like Columbia are positioned to serve a vital purpose of education by preparing people for innovative, creative, and substantive leadership in the light of the myriad of challenges being experienced by the church. Particularly during these endemic times when viruses, wars, political unrest, and religious divisiveness are impacting the integrity of institutions created to serve as transformative platforms, such as the family, communities of faith and educational systems, I am convinced now is the time for substantive evaluation of existing systems in theological higher education and sustainable innovation in curricular development. Through the resilience of students, the impact of faculty, the keen acumen of administrators and staff, and the dedication of alums, and partners, the theological academy is primed to meet these challenges by raising intellectual capacity and imagination while nurturing passion, compassion and empathy at all levels of the teaching-learning-serving paradigm.

Seminaries such as Columbia are genuine communities of scholars and practitioners that evoke theological imagination to explore relevant personal and professional skills that inform prophetic and priestly praxis. There will always be a need for interpersonal communication platform development in the formation of servant-leaders. The challenge is found in an institution’s capabilities to explore creative opportunities of integrity where learners can interact with faculty and fellow students to prepare for the new realities of the day. We will need to examine different learning rhythms, community service, and other experiencial opportunities with bold confidence that something new is being created.

We must reimagine what community will look like after these numerous disruptions have challenged the very core of our theological foundations. We must design a process wherein we can define and refine our questions before enumerating solutions that skim the surface of our lament and grief. Questions include: What creative solutions will our faculty members devise to challenge their classes? What students will come up with new ways of finding and maintaining friends and caring for one another? What disciplines need to be integrated into our curriculum development processes to acknowledge the long-term effects of the pandemic, such as mental health, spiritual direction and ministry entrepreneurship?

We must reimagine what community will look like after these numerous disruptions have challenged the very core of our theological foundations.

As these new and progressive realities are experienced within the North American context, it is important to make a distinction between threat and promise, and problem and possibility with real-life stories of marginalization, trauma, disruptions, joys and celebrations in a complex globalized society. Analyzing a set of interactive, experiential pedagogical principles to help learners understand the meaning of social difference and oppression both in social systems and in their personal lives is paramount in integrating a relevant curriculum that encompasses social justice in ministry formation.

Within the theological academy, challenging days are coming! Notwithstanding, as the new president of Columbia Theological Seminary, we have the resolve and capacity to explore and execute a strategic blueprint of hope based on abundance and grace instead of fear and scarcity. Like many institutions of higher theological learning, Columbia Seminary has weathered many storms with excellence and resilience in its close to two centuries of being an educational ministry of the Presbyterian Church serving the whole People of God.

Yet, I am enthused about promise and possibility to serve with faculty, students, alums, trustees, and staff as we enter the multifaceted challenges of an endemic era riddled with threats and problems. I am committed to effectively communicating the Seminary’s mission and vision and being integral to the healing, change, and innovation process. Critical to our planning and implementation are core elements that were probably never considered. Pedagogical exploration that incorporates matters of transformation such as lament, personal care, interdisciplinary methods, digital and culturally relevant pedagogies, to name a few, will be how we “perceive” this new thing God is creating!