A theological education revolution

Lee Hinson Hasty reflects on the work being done to adapt theological education and the holiness of fostering change.

Photo by Jodie Morgan on Unsplash

Time around my Grandma Mae’s table were holy moments for me as a child. Aunts, uncles, cousins and my family gathered there to savor made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits, homemade blackberry jam, iron-skillet fried okra, peanut butter fudge and so much more. Grandma Mae’s gatherings defined for me Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, sabbath, kairos and heaven. Since she died, I have always missed the events that her presence and meals created.

For generations, seminaries have curated and continue to host holy times that shape church leaders’ understanding of God. Like my grandmother’s home, it is not so much the campus where they take place as it is the revelations in time and those that revealed them.

My understanding of the holiness of time is guided by Abraham J. Heschel’s reflections on sabbath. Heschel, a Polish immigrant in the 1940s, taught at Hebrew Union College and then became professor of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He writes in his book The Sabbath about the architecture of time in contrast to space. “Life goes wrong when the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. … The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Heschel suggests, “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography.”

One of the most significant historical events in theological education in a generation is a newly minted set of much more flexible educational standards shepherded in 2020 to an overwhelming approval (198 to 1) by three Presbyterians: Frank Yamada, Leanne Van Dyk and Brian Blount. This was not just a “tweaking” of the standards set by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), as Sarah Drummond, the chair of the Task Force to Redevelop the Standards, said, but an elevation “to a higher level of abstraction.” The standards are less about practices and more about principles.

This principles-based approach ensures quality, clarity and flexibility of theological education. How can we describe what is emerging in theological education? For me, it is like a mentored relationship by my theology professor who continues to stay in conversation with me. It is akin to ethereal moments in worship, deep spiritual retreat, clergy cohort insights followed by belly-bending laughter, and even being introduced to an essay written over a decade before I was born by a Jewish theologian that opens my eyes. As the new ATS educational standards say, what matters is attention “to how well students learning and formation is achieved, however and whenever students are engaged.” ATS is focused on graduate theological education as a defining theological educational holy feast and event hosted by amazing professors in what I believe is God’s daily bread for our lives of faith.

Heschel notes that the Hebrew word for holy, qudosh, “is used for the first time in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. … ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.”

My Grandma Mae not only made the jam that sweetened our biscuits, but she also fought off the bees and dodged the snakes to pick their main ingredient: ripe wild blackberries. As in previous generations, we will need to courageously find our way in to the imaginative and expansive iterations of theological education about to bear fruit in new holy times. As the population of students, faculty, presidents, donors and boards change, the need for blessing and supporting the next generation of theological leaders will be critical to the holy future God is cooking up for the church and world. May we not take the future for granted for, as my grandma used to say, we will reap what we plant or depend on those that do.