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    Is Seminary Education "Better" Today?

    Respondents to a survey are at least agreed on one point: seminary education is different than it was 40 years ago.

    Randy Frame

    In his historic 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter, candidate Ronald Reagan asked the nation's people if they were better off "today" than they were four years previously when Carter was elected. In similar fashion, for the purposes of this article seminary representatives were asked if a seminary education is better today than it was a generation (40 years) ago.

    Not surprisingly, responses varied greatly. Because of changes in technology and in the culture, the nature of seminary education has changed substantially in 40 years. Whether it is better today is a question that defies a simple yes or no answer, but all of those who responded would agree that it is different.

    James Flanagan, president of Luther Rice Seminary, says, "I do not necessarily believe that clergy are better educated today than they were 40 years ago. I do believe society has changed, and that the kind of student entering a theological institution today has changed." But, he adds, "to say that the kinds of courses and curriculum that served the needs of those enrolling in theological institutions 40 years ago should necessarily be the same today is a prescription for obsolescence and irrelevance."

    The words of Jerry Flora, professor of theology and spiritual formation  at Ashland Theological Seminary, aptly summarize the changes that have taken place in seminary education: "When I was a seminary student 45 years ago, our curriculum was heavy in biblical studies, church history, theology, and homiletics. Today, teaching in that same seminary, I work in a curriculum that is lighter in all those areas in terms of required course-hours, but heavier in subjects such as pastoral care, church leadership, and personal counseling."

    Says Flora, "If to be better educated theologically means that seminarians today can handle the details of theology more deftly, it might be doubted. But if the quality of educational preparation means touching the realities of pastoral life and work, then it could be argued that a seminary education is better today."

    The effects of contemporary technology on theological education comprise something of a mixed bag. Ashland Seminary Professor of Theology Dale Stoffer points out that the computer "has opened up access to a wealth of information, documents, and sources that previously were very difficult to obtain. And the Internet has facilitated much easier communication in all aspects of seminary life." On the other hand, Stoffer says, "increasing reliance on the computer and technology has resulted in a kind of virtual community that lacks the dynamics of face-to-face contact that is necessary to connect with people at the level of the spirit and soul."

    Pining for the past?

    "Clergy are undoubtedly more poorly educated today than they were a generation ago," says R. Fowler White, dean of faculty and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, "following the decline of educational standards and achievement throughout our society." He adds, "Too few clergy are readers of serious literature today. Fewer still speak or write with clarity or insight." White continues, "The explosion of knowledge, in the biblical and theological realms and in others, may have brought an exposure to a breadth of information that was impossible heretofore, but it has brought neither broader nor deeper knowledge and understanding of God's person, work, ways, or Word."

    White adds that, along with the decline in educational standards and achievement, there has been a "paradigm shift in how 'effective ministry' is defined." He says, "Ministry effectiveness is now too often defined in terms of efficiency and quantity, the expense of quality."

    Gary T. Meadors, dean and professor of Greek and New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, generally agrees. He observes that "the answer to the question of whether clergy are better educated theologically today than they were 40 years ago" is suggested by the high number of churches he has to visit before he can "enjoy a well-crafted message that accurately reflects the text/genre of the Bible and astutely applies the results of exegesis to the current culture."

    Meadors maintains that "rather than striving for integration of the academic disciplines, we run to shore up what has been lacking by reacting against what used to get the emphasis. For example, biblical languages, exegesis, and theology were central 20 to 40 years ago, but are now downgraded to 'using tools' in order to provide more space for internships and other items on the practical agenda."

    Daniel L. Akin, academic vice president and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says, "Far too many seminaries have compromised in the area of biblical and theological conviction, and as a result they have adopted a more therapeutic model when it comes to educating their ministers." Citing Ephesians 4:11, Akin asserts, "A pastoral care model too often dominates rather than a pastor-teacher model, which is true to Scripture." He adds, "At Southern Seminary we give a premium emphasis to the classic disciplines of theological education, and we are convinced that this is absolutely necessary for the health and vitality of the church as we move into the twenty-first century."

    Satisfied with the present

    In contrast, Northwest Baptist Seminary Dean Kenton C. Anderson states, "My gut says that younger clergy today are more theologically astute. They are certainly better educated for the most part." He adds, "The array of options was more limited in the past, which perhaps leads to a perception of deterioration of theological acumen among contemporary pastors." Says Anderson, "We cover more territory than ever before. We have to." He does, however, concede, "Whether or not we are spread too thin is a matter of concern to me."

    For various other reasons, some respondents maintain that, on the whole, seminary education is better today than it was in days gone by. Donald L. Brake, vice president and dean at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, says, "It seems that the emphasis on developing the whole person through internships, quality mentors, and practical aspects of ministry has improved. In the past, the emphasis on theology and other biblically related subjects might have tended toward head knowledge alone."

    Louisville Presbyterian Seminary's director of admissions, Marilyn S. Gamm, believes that the integration of family-systems theory into theological education constitutes "the single most significant improvement in seminary education from a generation ago."

    Ashland Seminary's Stoffer adds, "Seminaries are taking far more seriously their role in the spiritual formation of students. No longer does a seminary need to be a place where students 'lose their faith,' as has sometimes been claimed in the past. Rather, seminaries are increasingly giving attention to the nurturing of the soul as well as the training of the mind."

    Stoffer is pleased as well with "the growing number of outstanding seminary texts and resources being written by evangelical authors." He adds, "Since I teach in the areas of theology and history, I am also pleased with the growing awareness of and attention to voices outside our Western culture in textbooks. Such diversity will only enrich and enhance our sense of the global dimensions of the Christian faith."

    A "mixed bag"

    George Fox Seminary's Chuck Conniry believes that, on balance, seminary education has improved over the last 40 years. "In evangelical institutions," he says, "the study of the Bible, church history, and theology is approached less as a thing in itself and more as a set of disciplines integrally related to the practice of ministry. I see this as very positive."

    Conniry believes that the critique of seminary education of the past is "not entirely unjustified," that critique being that seminary education was "so academically oriented that it was minimally helpful in preparing one for the day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry." However, Conniry says, "The risk we presently face is seeing the pendulum swing to the other extreme in which seminary education is so pragmatically oriented that it gives would-be pastors little in the way of real theological substance." He adds, "I feel that we have struck a pretty good balance at George Fox Evangelical Seminary between academics and praxis, but this is something we have to keep an eye on constantly."

    Al Mawhinney, academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, says, "In my own tradition (Reformed and evangelical), it seems to me that the best-educated pastors today stand on the same level as the best from 40 years ago. At the same time, it seems that the lower end of today's spectrum extends lower than it did 40 years ago. That is, the range seems greater today, with those at the lower end being less equipped in the liberal arts, in Bible knowledge, and in theological discernment."

    Ken Swetland, academic dean and professor of ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says that seminary education has had to change because the nature of the students coming to seminary has changed. Says Swetland, "We can no longer assume we have students who are called by God, who come with a supporting church, who are well taught in biblical truth, and whose emotional lives are stable. The remedial work that seminaries have to do means, I think, that graduates may not be as prepared today upon graduation as they were 40 years ago." Swetland adds, however, "On the other hand, students today are exceedingly bright, and, with careful mentoring, demonstrate great potential for ministry."

    Swetland points out that, while some seminaries no longer require courses in biblical languages, "at Gordon-Conwell we have retained the languages because of our conviction that pastors need to be competent in the exegesis of Scripture and must think theologically and biblically in order to minister to people's needs. We don't think there is a short-cut to this kind of competency."

    Steve W. Selby, associate academic dean at Trinity College and Seminary, notes that, while some seminaries have de-emphasized the importance of biblical languages, ironically, "working with the original languages is much easier today with the electronic lexicons and word-study programs available." He notes, "Students also have access via electronic means to interactive maps, archeological artifacts, and secular histories and writings."

    Nevertheless, Selby is concerned that seminaries' "increased emphasis on training students to be instruments for social and political change and ministering to social problems" may result in a "de-emphasizing of spiritual rebirth, moral change, and spiritual growth."

    Bert Downs, president of Western Seminary, believes that seminaries' shift toward an outcome orientation has improved the quality of a seminary education. He points out that today's professors "are much more likely to be sound field practitioners" in addition to being teachers. However, Downs adds that, in the past, "a certain breadth of education was expected. The minister was able to think and articulate broadly over classic disciplines as well as current trends and realities. That brought credibility and strength to his theological interpretations of times and events. It gave the minister a role in the larger culture that today may be all but lost."

    Challenges for the future

    Joel B. Green, dean of the School of Theology and professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, believes that in comparing seminary education today with that of 40 years ago, "the issue is not so much quality but difference." He says, "I want to give theological education of a generation ago the benefit of the doubt and presume that it was well suited to its time. I am confident, though, that theological education today needs to be different than it was forty years ago because our contexts and understanding of ministry have changed."

    Green identifies cultural shifts "from a shared Christian story and vocabulary to a cacophony of stories and multiple, competing worldviews; from rural and town-and-country to suburban and urban; from majority/minority relations to multiculturalism; from local and regional to global; from industrial to informational to cyber; and from print to images and from books to nonlinear media."

    To this, Reformed Seminary's Mawhinney adds that pastoral ministry is not as easy to define as it once was. "There was a day," says Mawhinney, "when almost all pastors were solo pastors. In addition to that role, today there are senior pastors who supervise any number of other pastors on the staff of their church. There are associate pastors, youth pastors, ministers of worship, executive pastors, pastors for young adults, ministers for assimilation and small groups, pastors for counseling. The list goes on and on."

    For the foreseeable future of seminary education, administrators and professors are likely to continue to struggle with finding the right balance between a traditional theological education and training in practical ministry. On the one hand, says Luther Rice's Flanagan, "leadership and interpersonal skills may be more necessary than extra courses in the biblical languages." But, Flanagan adds, on the other hand, "being relevant ought not be equated with dumbing down a curriculum."

    According to David K. Clark, Dean of the Center for Biblical and Theological Foundations at Bethel Seminary, seminary education, all things considered, has improved, due in part to the advent of emphases on spiritual formation, transformational leadership, and contextual awareness. Clark cautions, however, "Anyone who replaces commitment to Scripture and evangelical theology with these values sells the birthright for a pot of stew." He adds, "Conversely, anyone who diminishes these values in the attempt to accentuate Scripture and preserve evangelical thought is naïve. The seminaries of the future will seek a robust integration of deep, biblical skill and thought with nonnegotiable values of inner spiritual life, organizational effectiveness, and cultural sensitivity."

    Like Clark, Grand Rapids Baptist's Meadors believes strongly that the governing approach "should not be either/or but both/and." Meadors recalls, "Many years ago, at my ordination, I was asked by a preacher, 'If you had your choice between 500 books or 500 members, which would you choose?' I was too young then to be agile with an answer, but if I could go back, my answer would be, 'I want both of them.'"

    Along these lines, the responders from Dallas Theological Seminary observe, "The diversity of cultures and the globalization of the church demand more theological sophistication, not less."

    Reformed Seminary's Mawhinney believes that part of the solution for seminaries to achieve the "both" and the "and" to which Meadors refers lies in partnering relationships with churches: "The issue of the partnership of seminaries and churches will be one of the great challenges of the first part of this century."

    Louisville Presbyterian Seminary's Gamm says, "Clergy who receive their theological education from seminaries where the faculty have kept pace with the times in terms of teaching methods and the social and psychological context in which pastors now minister provide the best preparation."

    Finally, Ashland Seminary's Flora counsels that even the best classroom experience, combined with good field education, "can never prepare pastors for everything they will encounter in ministry." Says Flora, "Maybe the wisdom of some of the old-timers has some relevance: 'Be a person of prayer and the Word; then use your God-given common sense.'"

    Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.