Reimagining Theological Education
Brian, this blog is in the spirit of your recent posts (and, I think, in the spirit of your next book!). In your work with Convergence you often summarize the struggles of the church today — the quest for vital spiritual community, but also the discouragement with institutional structures that seem (to many of us) to get in the way of finding those communities. And yet your books and posts are consistently positive and hopeful, looking for solutions rather than bemoaning how hard the challenges are.
I want to bring that same spirit to one of the most urgent issues of today: how we train leaders for the church of tomorrow … and invite you to think with me about how to launch some radically new models. The first National Summit on this topic takes place next month in Chicago (see TheoEdu.org for details), and it’s urgent to build a groundswell of support for change.
It’s easy to focus on the problems because they are so serious: the seminary curriculum is based on a 200-year-old model, developed by the German theologian Schleiermacher for the needs of the Berlin University and Lutheran pastors in the early 19th century. Access to seminary teaching is usually controlled not by ministry experience but by one of the academic guilds, whose allegiance is to the Academy; and professors are often tenured for life. When ministry is taught, the classes assume a traditional congregational context of the head pastor/preacher — even though a minority of seminary graduates will ever be paid full-time to serve in this context.
Access to ministry often depends on ordination, which is controlled by the denominations, and on the only accredited degree for ordination, the Master of Divinity, which is controlled by a somewhat conservative accrediting organization, the Association of Theological Schools. And let’s not even mention the time it takes to get this degree (three years minimum), the strangeness of taking folks away from ministry contexts in order to teach them how to minister (!), and the impossible debt load that seminary graduates carry, which often makes it impossible for them to accept a call to ministry because they can’t afford their monthly debt payments.
Do you think we have a problem here?
Convergence has dived, head-first, into the battle for new solutions. A generous grant from the Carpenter Foundation has allowed us to assemble some of the most visionary leaders to work on reinventing ministry education. Next month (October 9-11) begins a five-year series of National Summits, which will bring together ministers and others with a call to ministry, students, educators, and funders to “reimagine theological education.” The best experimental, future-oriented programs will be featured. For the first time, the full range of stakeholders — not just representatives of The Way It Has Always Been Done — will be able to work on a national scale to work out and implement new and more useful models.
The funny thing is, folks already know the kind of changes that are necessary. The needs of ministry should dictate what “theological education” means, not the opposite. Spiritual formation and practical skills are indispensable. Practicums and internships and hands-on experience must stand at the center, with traditional academic fields playing a supportive role. Most of all, the pathway to ministry must be open to all; or, put differently, we need multiple pathways to ministry for the vast variety of types of ministry today, many of them not congregation-based at all.
It is too early to say exactly what the future of theological education will look like. But (spoiler alert!) here are some features that will probably have a place in the new models:

Ministry education becomes mostly non-residential, perhaps with short-term intense learning experiences with a teacher and cohort of students;
Teachers are scholar/practitioners, blending theory and praxis in their lives and teaching;
Your program is highly adapted to your context of ministry. It consists of a series of modules, which you and your advisors put together to give you the skills and knowledge that you need. The modules are “stackable,” so that they gradually constitute the unique preparation that you need;
Theological education includes a ministry placement early on (and perhaps all the way through!);
Perhaps most important, each module is accredited by scholar/practitioners in that field (pastoral counseling, community organizing, nonprofit management, interfaith activism, new church starts). If you take 16 classes, you walk away with 16 skill sets and 16 credentials. Your mentor(s) work with you to design your ministry experiences and your culminating project so that all the pieces are tied together into a unified whole … of understanding, expertise, and practical skills.

It’s unlikely that the establishment will design a really out-of-the-box, radically innovative approach to ministry preparation — even though new approaches are desperately needed.
So let’s do it ourselves. Nothing is more appropriate to the Convergence initiatives (and to the spirit of your work, Brian) then for us to roll up our sleeves, reimagine the future, and get to work to bring it about.
So come join us in Chicago next month — October 9-11 (details at TheoEdu.org). Listen to reports from the most innovative ministry programs in the country. Join the panels, workshops, and brainstorming sessions where the framework for a genuinely postmodern approach to theological education is being hammered out.
If you want to influence the future of the church, then you need to influence how its leaders are trained!
— Philip Clayton

Philip Clayton writes books at the intersection of faith, contemporary culture and science, teaches theology at Claremont School of Theology, and works with ConvergenceUS.org to train future leaders for a more just and generous Christianity.