Is seminary relevant?
Will it help me serve God effectively?
Any student who is pursuing a call to ministrywith all of the hard work and sacrifice it entailswants answers to these questions. Additionally, as student lives grow more complicated, pursuing a graduate degree can make a delicate balancing act even more challenging.
Beyond taking advantage of technological innovations, seminaries and graduate schools are finding ways to meet the particular challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. "The landscape of graduate theological education has changed significantly in the past two decades," says John VerBerkmoes, dean of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Rather than enrolling in a master of divinity program, "many students are opting for a master of arts degree, which is typically shorter and more specialized. Schools are also seeing greater numbers of female and second career students." These trends, he notes, are documented by data from the Association of Theological Schools.
Reaching a new student
One way seminaries have met these trends is with more accessible course offerings. Block scheduling, in which a class meets once a week, additional intensive courses, and increased evening and weekend classes are designed to make the completion of a seminary program feasible for working professionals.
Some schools have established full-scale programs specifically for this constituency. Grand Rapids offers a program exclusively for students who work full-time. In addition to the above features, the Theological Education for Professionals program pairs each student with an academic advisor and is taught by full-time faculty.
The Advancement in Ministry track at Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions combines one-week intensive courses and independent study to provide degree programs for students who live at a distance. Says Robert Ferris, Associate Provost, "This program packages intensive, online and internet-enhanced courses to provide entire M.A. and M.Div. curricula, including the spiritual formation and ministry engagement aspects of Columbia's campus programs."
In recent decades, as church activities have expanded beyond what one pastor can reasonably lead, laypersons have taken increased ownership of their churches' ministries and are looking to seminaries for training. Many schools now offer specialized diplomas and certificates in addition to welcoming lay leaders into their masters programs. Besides offering graduate diplomas in such concentrations as Biblical studies, Christian ethics, Christian counseling and intercultural studies, Phoenix Seminary offers parachurch and lay leaders a two-year M.A. in Biblical Leadership.
"Many people view seminary as something that is only necessary for senior pastors or missionaries, but we disagree," says enrollment counselor Lee Richards. "All people can benefit from solid instruction in the Word of God. All people can develop their ministry skills while learning alongside other believers who are pursuing various types of lay and vocational ministry."
Reaching a new culture
While working to meet the logistical and educational needs of students, seminaries also strive to equip them for relevant and effective ministry. As many who are on the front lines of ministry recognize, the gospel is unchanging but cultural currents demand engagement in ways that weren't prevalent 20 or 30 years ago.
In 2000, Multnomah Biblical Seminary established The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins as a forum for contemporary issues. "Students still seek to know and understand the text of the Bible so that they may have a relationship with Jesus and bring others into that relationship," says admissions counselor Clive Cowell. "Within this, there is a trend toward new ways of bringing Christ to culture."
According to the school's website, a desire "to stir the hearts and minds of students, to heighten their awareness of issues, and to challenge them to respond and take ownership within our culture" lies at the heart of the institute. Through conferences, research seminars, an online community, and an academic journal, New Wine, New Wineskins is engaging participants with a wide range of concerns, including class and racial issues, postmodernity, environmental stewardship, sexuality, the arts, and constructive alternatives to the rhetoric of "culture wars."
Some schools have chosen to address contemporary ministry issues through their practice of ministry offerings. In addition to the emphasis that Candler School of Theology places on its Contextual Education program, the school prepares students for ministry in diverse contexts, with special attention given to smaller congregations. "With the realization that most local churches in the United States have fewer than 200 members, Candler offers opportunities not only for urban ministry, but also for ministry in rural and suburban areas through the Teaching Parish Program and courses such as Town and Country Ministries," says Shonda R. Jones, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid.
Reaching a radical culture
Other schools have taken a more radical approach.
"The historical extreme emphasis on text at the expense of soul and cultural issues has left men and women exposed and unprepared for the onslaught of trauma, crisis, unpredictability, criticism, and unrealistic expectations that accompany ministry careers," says Ron Carucci, chief operating officer at Mars Hill Graduate School. In response, Mars Hill recently unveiled a new M.Div. program under the banner "Reinventing Divinity Education."
"Students want to be prepared for the 'real world' into which they will step," he says. "Emerging leaders and gen-nexers are far more relational and emotionally intelligent than their incumbent mentors. And in a more market-savvy Christian world, churches want leaders who understand the complexities of the ministry world and have the skill to navigate the ever-present tensions between spiritual and pragmatic demands of church communities."
Through extensive research with current ministry practitioners, Mars Hill has created a curriculum it hopes will blend theological, spiritual, leadership and ministry training in a uniquely responsive program. Earning the degree entails three core disciplines: theology and cultural engagement, the Bible and textual interpretation, and relational leadership and ministry practice.
"I want people to understand that Mars Hill Graduate School is a community of learners together seeking to create and prepare leaders who are deeply passionate about [the biblical] text, courageously prepared to step into the dark nights of the soul, and curious and appreciative of the vast cultures into which they will go," Carucci says. "Ours is a dynamic, even volatile, journey of change, because we believe those who wish to effect change must first be changed themselves."
Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.