My class began seminary virtually in the fall of 2020. It was a time of deep-seated concern for the spiritual paths to which we all felt called. We met our professors through our computer screens and were isolated from the world and one another. Collectively, we disintegrated into our deconstruction of faith, brokenhearted by the polarization of the country and our own lack of control amidst it all.
In a faith structured on reformation, it felt as if there was a reformation of theological education necessary, but not yet breached. What would reforming theological thought look like post-pandemic? As theological students are increasingly graduating with rising rates of student debt, how can we continue to build a successful pipeline of future faith leaders?
In 2020, the ministry pipeline looked corroded with rust. Jaded seminary students increasingly dropped out of the ordination process. Technology job opportunities grasped greedily at graduating seminary students, promising six figures within two to three years. However, the beauty of God’s world is that nothing is ever truly stagnant. Nature has a way of healing herself, and the mysterious pipeline that connects the desiring theologians to the way of service within the church is mending itself. Despite our human natures, Sophia perseveres.
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is in its own Renaissance era. There is a fluidity of holy opportunities pouring out of our seminary that prides the students, faculty, staff and alumni. This has been ushered in through the installment of a new incredible library that has a recording studio, rooftop study space, meeting halls, study carrels and over 90,000 theological books. The library serves as an oasis for all in the community, oftentimes crowded with University of Texas students who have joyfully discovered a peaceful space off campus to study and discover their faith.
In 2021, the seminary opened its doors to refugees, converting empty housing to subsidized housing for two families from the Middle East as they acclimate to life in the United States. The children play cricket with seminary children in the parking lots during the twilight hours. They chatter in Arabic and broken Pashto and write their names in English upon the wooden fences.
This interfaith community has helped future ministers significantly, as we have celebrated Ramadan alongside our Muslim neighbors, learning the vital importance of peace and dialogue and, most importantly, relearned the principal of hospitality. My friendship with these families has ultimately changed my life and redirected my own call to ministry to focus on peace and reconciliation work.
The air is full of possibility and vision in Austin, Texas. The seminary is situated mere blocks from the Texas State Capitol, and the interconnectedness between the injustices occurring in Texas against minorities and women and the calls to ministry stand firmly in tension.
The calls to action at our seminary seem to be congruent with the mission and recent activity of the Office of the General Assembly. As a seminary student, I feel immense pride when I read about the activities of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in terms of social justice. I witness an alignment of Christ-focused action within our seminary, through initiatives such as Education Beyond the Walls, the student social justice committee, an active and embracive Queer Alliance and a focus on rigorous academic study. Programmatic D.Min. studies such as Leadership for Public Theology and Leadership for Wonder have been developed to support continuing education for active and engaged ministry leaders. The certificate in Jewish-Christian relationship helps bridge the gaps of understanding for faith leaders. Unitarian Universalists enroll at our school, bringing non-Christian perspectives to our sacred texts and opening our minds even further.
My professors challenge my foundational Christian beliefs with objectivity, historical criticism and alternative theological perspectives. My education has taught me to think differently in terms of talking about God. The required clinical pastoral education (CPE) unit changed my life. I worked primarily in the intensive care unit in crisis and post-crisis pastoral support roles. I held mothers as they watched their babies die. I worked with more gunshot victims than I could count. The real-life experiences of seminary work in tandem with the classroom teachings required to obtain our Masters of Divinity.
My experience in the classroom at seminary, the required supervised practice of ministry (SPM), CPE unit and an additional international Peace Fellowship through Odyssey Impact have completely transformed me from the inside out. I think that if you do seminary correctly, you graduate a different person than you matriculated in as. Seminary has strengthened my sense of purpose, and my confidence in my spiritual gifts. It has humbled me on an elemental level. Every cell of my being recognizes full dependency on God.
Polarization remains seminary’s greatest threat, and when we are entrenched and surrounded by those who think only like us, we are not truly engaged in Christ’s community. We remain at a critical juncture of theological education, however. There is great opportunity for reframing our pipeline of talent, ensuring we can provide the future of the church with educated and sharp theological thinkers who are capable of loving those who think differently than themselves.