Briefly Noted: Daniel Aleshire on the Future of Theological Education

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Theological Education is a journal of consequence in religious higher education, and its recent issue on “The Future of Theological Education” is particularly interesting. In today’s “Briefly Noted,” I will (not so briefly) note the significant points Daniel Aleshire makes in his article, “The Future has Arrived: Changing Theological Education in a Changed World.” Aleshire is executive director of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. This article was adapted from his plenary address at the 2010 ATS Meeting.

Aleshire begins the article by arguing that ATS finds itself needing to re-craft its strategy given the dizzying changes taking place in the 21st century. He divides the changes into two categories: changes in North American religion, and changes in theological education. I will provide a concise summary of the two types of change, and of Aleshire’s suggested responses to those changes.

Editor’s Note: In the near future, BtT will be interacting with various questions raised in Aleshire’s article. Stay tuned.

Changes in North American Religion

1. Denominations: Denominations are in flux. Some are stronger and many are weaker, but Aleshire posits that denominations might not be “the structural center of North American Christianity in the future that they have been in the past.”

2. Christian identities: Christian identities cultivated by denominations have also lessened as a result. Denomination switching is becoming more rampant and has altered religious identities and practices.

3. Religious participation: Sixty years ago, residents of Quebec used to attend church more regularly than the Canadian average, but their attendance is now lower than that average. In the United States, more and more attendees are going to larger congregations. For adults, the fastest growing religious preference is “no religious preference.” Young adults are less active than their parents or grandparents were at their age.

4. Christianity as a world religion: More than one-fifth of all Christians now reside in Sub-Saharan Africa and in that region, Christian adherents grew to 500 million during the twentieth century. With the current trend, “North American Christianity,” says Aleshire, “will be more influenced by Christianity in other parts of the world than worldwide Christianity will be influenced by North America.”

5. Religious pluralism: In this globalized world with multiple religions in proximity to one another, stormy results can follow. Religious tensions can threaten the opportunity for human flourishing.

6. Impact of theological education: Changes in denominational strengths affect ATS schools. Aleshire says, “Changed religious preference call theological schools to reassess their work.”

Changes in Theological Education

Amidst all this change, ATS membership has added 47 schools in the last 22 years. During this time, theological schools saw more extension programs and degree programs added, as well as the birth of online courses. The growth in enrollment over the last 22 years is due to an increase in women and people of color. Faculties have also witnessed an increase in both of these populations.

Possible Responses to a Changing World

Theological schools should indeed respond to these changes, but how that should be done is a decision left up to the individual schools.

1. Adapting the gold standard: The first broad response should be to continue doing what theological schools have been doing all along, but to simply do it better. Education developed over the twentieth century has served various denominations well, bringing students and faculty together, supporting leadership needs in churches, and enabling faculty to conduct needed research. This should be continued, yet critically adapted to the changes in theological education presently unfolding.

a. Multi-faith understanding and Christian witness. Although a good deal of the current curriculum should remain as is, two areas need attention: people affiliated with religions other than Christianity and people of “no religious preference.” Within the present multi-faith context, pastors need to be able to minister to families that represent multiple faiths and should handle questions from parishioners about those of other faiths. In the past, pastors ministered to a culture that was largely Christian, but all signs point to that time ceasing. Pastors should know how to relate Christianity to those with little religious interest and commitment.

b. Pastoral wisdom. While pastoral wisdom can come from degrees, research, and writing, it should also come from the task of preparing weekly sermons, figuring out beneficial congregational relations, and living life with people dealing with immense pain and sadness. Fifty years ago, it was thought that ATS schools have too many pastors and not enough academics, but schools are now witnessing the reverse of that trend – abundant academic talent, but underrepresented pastoral talent.

2. A big tent of educational practices: The second broad response, according to Aleshire, should be “to diversity educational practice to meet an increasing diversity of educational need.” ATS has erected a big tent, so to speak, for theological education; one that needs a large fabric (graduate, professional education for ministry), tall poles (exemplar institutions), and poles around the circumference (schools that expanded to diverse ecclesial communities). This model, however, is weakening and being replaced by other more diverse models that provide diversity in educational strategies. ATS schools need a new kind of tent where the large fabric is an education that serves a broader constituency, where the tall poles are the current model of education, and where the shorter poles are diverse educational models. Diversity in educational practice is valuable only to the extent that it actually serves the present needs, reflects thoughtful practice, and has intellectual substance. This diversity could take the forms of:

a. Baccalaureate theological education. Many of the central tasks of pastoral ministry can be learned at more than one educational level. Theological education can include baccalaureate and associate degree levels.

b. Alternatively credentialed clergy. According to Aleshire, “the percentage of part-time pastors has emerged as a growth industry in mainline Protestantism across the past two decades.” Educational preparation may look somewhat different for regularly and alternatively credentialed clergy, yet hurting people need support from either group.

c. On-the-job education. Seminaries have been built on the model of training students to get a degree who then begin ministry, but attention needs to be given to those already engaged in ministry. These people need education that will enhance their current work.

d. Lay education. Some people simply want to enhance their understanding of faith without pursuing degrees or vocational ministry. The church needs these lay persons just as it needs educated ministers and seminaries are one of the best places to train these necessary individuals.

3. Tapping a broad array of resources

a. Higher education conventions. ATS schools tend to model themselves after research universities rather than other practices such as community colleges. This model tends to employ expectations such as tenured faculty, a nine-month academic year, and time away from instruction to read and research. While these practices are fine, they are expensive. Some, not all, schools may need to look more into other higher education conventions.

b. Other theological education providers. According to Aleshire, some schools “have tended to undervalue what can be learned in field education, have assigned too little credit for learning in context, and have not required as much contextual learning as ministerial practice requires.” It may be beneficial to develop ways where appropriate undergraduate level learning, such as that found Bible institutes, could count toward a graduate degree.

c. Technology. Schools should embrace opportunities available to them through the use of technology such as digitized literature. In this world of ever-increasing online courses, technology can help meet current educational needs.

Aleshire’s Conclusion

Aleshire concludes that it is important to remember that Christianity in North America has not diminished, just changed. Moral values still exist and the message of Christianity is still pertinent and powerful. Also, in this changing world, theological schools are needed just as much, if not more, than ever. Finally, adequate resources will be available to accomplish whatever needs to be done through providence, hard work, good budgeting, and creative strategies.