The liminal space of today’s theological education

Brian Blount on the gravity-free, unsettling, approach to preparing church leaders.

Photo by Hiroyoshi Urushima on Unsplash

September 1978: Having graduated from college only four months earlier, I was on the threshold of transition. I was becoming something new, and I was convinced my matriculation into seminary would launch and then speed me along the way. I was in a liminal space.

The world of theological education, though? Not so much. Seminary professors, almost all of whom were White and male, continued to hold theological education captive on residential campuses. Seminary curriculum, almost all of it authored by scholars who were White and male, primarily focused on preparing professional pastors to serve thriving mainline churches. Seminary students, the majority of whom were White and male, entertained realistic notions of immediate church appointments or doctoral program admission. Three years into a master of divinity degree, I developed the slightest tremor of theological educational angst about finding my own particular place in God’s pastoral profession. God (I was certain) had called me into the ministry as a preteen. Now, slipping out of my dorm room each day, books under my arm, I went on my way to class, preparing to be transfigured. College had sharpened my mind. Seminary spiritually whetted that academic perceptivity until it had (in)formed my faith with biblical, historical, theological and practical understanding.

A long while later, I realized the academic faith formation I had received as an African American in seminary belonged to somebody (European American) else’s past — even if it was presented as the universal human past. That formation positioned me to perform for their past, even as my present academically informed faith world tumbled fitfully into my African American community’s imperiled future. Having been theologically prepared in a White, Presbyterian seminary, I landed a bit awkwardly in a Black, Presbyterian church. I needed new, different, more diverse scholarly voices to ground my teaching and preaching. I needed a curricular formation as steeped in the practicalities of church governance and social engagement as it was in historical biblical criticism and Reformed theology. I needed practical preparation in matters related to demands for equity, inclusion and empowerment, demands made by communities historically denied those social, political and, indeed, human rights.

Though mainline in pedigree, the church that called me was inner-city in location and was contextually invested in a community under social and economic duress. I thought at least the biblical exegesis and theological engagement I was taught in seminary would work. After all, biblical texts were biblical texts. Theological inquiry was theological inquiry. No matter whom you teach or sermonize, if you use the right interpretative approach, the interpretative conclusion and impact would be the same. I was teaching as I had been taught.

It didn’t take many Bible study forays and after-worship questions about my sermon content and perspective before I began feeling like I was conveying the theological worldview of White Christians to Black Christians, who were asking radically different theological questions from an often radically different faith perspective. Having mastered divinity, I was – for a time – disoriented at church.

What seminary taught – what I had learned (and if grades were any indication, I had learned it very well) – wasn’t working. Why? When I entered seminary, theological education was too successful, too full of itself and therefore too complacent to embrace the possibility – perhaps the inevitability – of the liminal. The church was flourishing. Church attendance was strong. Seminary applicant pools were robust. Seminary graduates landed in good places. Seminary curricula was educating its students. Theological education, as theological education had always been done, therefore seemed the appropriate strategic objective. Do not fix what is not broken.

But in the 44 years between my seminary entry and now, my pending retirement from theological education, a full-on rupture has occurred. Church schisms — many of them initiated by dramatic shifts in how church folk believe God wants them to respond to the changing racial, gender, sexual, political and ecological realities in the body politic. Church disenfranchisement — a loss of communal status and therefore social station, much of it ignited by folks fleeing church even as the number of “nones” (those claiming allegiance to no religious institution) skyrockets. Church confusion — disorientation about how spiritual nurturing can or should engage in social and political activism. The church in late 2022 is breaking away from its past and moving (some might say stumbling) into its future. The church is moving (or being pushed) from what it was and is to what it will be. It is in a liminal space.

That liminality is infectious. Tied closely to the ministry of the church, given its originating and perpetuating mandate to equip leaders for the church, theological education is contagiously disoriented. Change in the world is often as frightening as it is fast. To lead in the midst of this change, or even merely to keep up, the church must also change. And if theological education is to maintain its role of equipping church-oriented leaders who can help the church lead or adapt in the world, then theological education must likewise suffer change — frighteningly and fast. To flourish in this rapidly transforming environment, sacred and secular, theological education must precipitate and embrace its own metamorphosis.

Unlike in 1978, I now sense the purveyors of theological education recognize we are in a liminal space. Choosing to stand fast, in and with the present, is an option. But it is a deadly one. Figuring out how to lead students into the future during this period of adjustment is the more life-sustaining choice, indeed the more life-giving choice. So in this liminal moment that God has gifted us with, we must change.

We must change . . .

What we teach. A core curriculum that prepares students to exegete biblical texts, think theologically and operate practically will remain a bedrock of the educational experience in theological schools. That curriculum is crafted from scholarship, historical and contemporary. More and more, however, the contemporary scholarship that informs theological education must include the diverse voices of diverse peoples and communities from around the globe, particularly those voices whose ideas and writings have traditionally been excluded from the conversations taking place in theological institutions.

Changing what we teach has implications about who teaches. Theological education must more rigorously equip students from historically underrepresented communities at the master’s levels — forming them to be sufficiently competitive to move into the doctoral level, and then sufficiently supporting them at the doctoral and early professorial levels so they can research and write from their own context or other nondominant contexts. Their research and writing will then inform the syllabi and classrooms of the future. To be effective in this changing church and world, students must be prepared by scholarly mentors and by curricular materials that represent all the diverse voices and contexts they are likely to encounter.

This emphasis on the church and the world is important. Students who come to theological education no longer focus on preparing themselves for church ministry. The M.Div. degree, while holding its own, is no longer predominant. Data indicates the fastest growing degrees in theological education are the two-year professional master’s degrees, which prepare students for work in nonprofits, NGOs, chaplaincies, social work, community activism and the like. If our curricula are to be relevant, we must adjust and anticipate. In what social, religious, political, economic and ecological areas in the church and the world can a theological education can have transformational impact? How can we develop curricula to equip students to speak and act in and for those areas?

To start, we can put more emphasis on prophetic witness and public theology. Curricula that address the place of theological thinking in the matter of social, political, economic and ecological life are vital if theological education is to remain relevant in this liminal time for the generations of people who have been born and raised in this liminal space. For them, theology is irrelevant if it lacks civic awareness and communal engagement. Even if their primary vocational focus is pastoral church ministry, today’s theological graduates are only relevant for today if they are equipped to speak in, about, to and for the world.

Where we teach. Although residential education remains a strong and viable option, it must become just that: an option, not the way of doing theological education, but one way among many alternatives. Gone are the days when all students either desire to or can relocate themselves and perhaps their families to obtain a theological education. Yet they too experience a call to be equipped with theological resources to support whatever vocation they intend to pursue.

As more and more students fit this nonmovable profile, theological schools must develop ways to meet them not on campus but literally where they are. Reaching them where they are requires that we make radical use of technological advances in communications and then apply those advances to theological education. Hybrid courses can combine online teaching with face-to-face intensive classroom conversations. Distance courses can take place exclusively online. Night and weekend courses can offer classes for students who need to maintain a regular work regimen. Digitized library resources can be accessible from anywhere, at any time. These methods, new as they are, are not ends in themselves. They offer a promising start. Theological education must exploit technological innovation if it wishes to remain relevant. The more radical the accessibility, the more revolutionary the results: a theological education that not only is available beyond the campus, but is opened up to the world.

Whom we teach. We broaden theological education beyond the campus by extending its reach to include students who are not interested in seeking a degree but wish only to expand their own knowledge. By offering certificate programming, extended audit invitations or classes designed with non-degree-seeking students in mind, we can broaden not just the reach but the impact of theological education by educating a broader swath of believers and, indeed, non-believers who seek theological content as a resource for living.

We also broaden theological education by recruiting more international students and intensifying efforts to put our domestic students in learning situations beyond the confines of North America. The church of Asia, Africa and South America is growing. Theological institutions, and the faculty and students who inhabit them, can learn and teach cross-culturally in mutually beneficial ways.

How we teach. Theological education must investigate the pedagogical practices of other disciplines. Innovative methods of teaching and learning that facilitate engaged student-faculty and student-student interaction, in and outside the physical and virtual classrooms, are emerging across the educational spectrum. Theological education must do intensive investigation and experimentation.

Our approach. Liminal space offers an untethered, gravity-free opportunity. When everyone is already unsettled, that is a good time to let go of the ties that bind us to both past and present ways of doing things so we can stride boldly into a future pregnant with unforeseen, transformational possibilities.

No one person or theological institution can walk this path alone. The moment is simply too big. The hope for theological education now may well require theological institutions to consider collectively what we have fiercely insisted upon doing individually: planning strategically in and for the future. What if even just the Presbyterian seminaries met in summit to commission faculty and staff to study collectively, rather than stumbling individually into the future of theological education? Surely our collective ear will be all the more capable of hearing God’s still, small voice drawing us forward. Surely the collective capability of such immense scholarly and administrative talents, unleashed into unrestrained brainstorming, will open new and exciting vistas for us to pursue ways of doing theological education that are relevant for this historical moment.

While we theological educators were in the library writing our papers and books, in the classroom teaching our curricula, in the sanctuaries preaching the results of our research and in our offices laboring to equip our students and support one other, the world changed. Radically. To keep up, and to keep leading in the midst of it, we must change. Like a swimmer in heavy surf, we must simultaneously embrace and attack our liminal moment, lest we be overwhelmed by it.