RICHMOND, Va. — When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship held its General Assembly recently in Houston, leaders documented a quiet shift that went almost unnoticed among the 2,000 people attending the annual meeting.
For the first time, participants from the theological schools that partner with the CBF — most of them less than 20 years old — outnumbered graduates of the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, which once provided the vast majority of church leaders for moderate Baptist churches in the South.
And at a meeting earlier this year, directors of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board heard a report that Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary and Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon Seminary now graduate more Texas Baptist students than Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The change confirms what theological educators around the country maintain. The way congregations discover and train their ministers is in transition, and local churches are driving that change, particularly as they reclaim their role in calling out and mentoring potential church leaders.
"The whole question of the way we train ministers is under negotiation," said Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.
Ron Crawford, president of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (Va.), agrees. "Theological training is going through a great transition," he said.
For churches the question is critical. Many observers say the formulaic approach to seeking ministerial leadership — turning to graduates of a trusted pool of seminaries, with master of divinity degrees for small and medium-sized churches, doctor of philosophy degrees for "big steeple" churches — has broken down, in part because of changing expectations among congregations.
In the past 25 years, diminished denominational ties and the growth of movements such as the emerging church have created a demand for new kinds of ministers — and new ways to train them.
"We need a new type of theological education," said Bruce Corley, president of the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington. "We need a new generation of ministers trained in a church-based theological education that will bring academia and the people together."
Statistics bear that out, Corley noted. There's been a "sea change," he said, in the age students begin seminary studies — 35 years on average. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of Baptist pastors under the age of 35 have seminary degrees.
Not only are seminary students older — fewer of them are aiming for ministry in local churches. Only 25 percent of graduates of seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools — the primary accrediting agency in the United States — enter local church ministry. In Baptist circles, the figure is 15 percent, Corley said.
"There are lots of ways to explain this," Corley said. "Part of it has to do with crisis management in churches, burnout, dismissals, conflict — those sorts of things. But I also think the younger generation is on the cusp of a totally different way of learning. That's where the training process needs a radical overhaul."
Many churches aren't waiting. Instead they're taking seminary graduates and mentoring them for one or two years, sometimes in conjunction with an established seminary program, but often on their own.
Since 2002, Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas has maintained a two-year pastoral residency program that has graduated 13 ministers. Funded in part by the Lilly Foundation, Wilshire's program mentors four potential pastors at a time. Each receives a stipend of about $40,000 a year plus benefits, to provide "confidence and skills necessary to become effective pastors," said George Mason, senior minister at the church.
"The residents are part of our staff, but they don't have a program assignment," Mason said. "They participate in all kinds of things like hospital rotations and worship planning, preach on a regular basis and take Wednesday night prayer times. We largely teach them what is involved in the pastoral life, so that when they leave us and go to a senior pastorate, the goal is that nothing will surprise them. They know how to exegete a congregation, how to develop a budget, how to hire and fire staff, if they need to do that."
For Andrew Daugherty, a graduate of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who spent two years at Wilshire, "The residency helped me gain confidence in and deepened the (ministry) skills I have."
Daugherty now is pastor of Christ Church, a new Baptist congregation in Rockwall, Va.
"It confirmed that, yes, I do have gifts and graces for ministry," he said.
Daugherty said he also gained competence in ministry "blind spots."
"The great gift of the residency was, the buck didn't stop with me," said Daugherty. "So I had freedom to take risks and be more honest than if I had gone straight to a church (after graduation). I learned how to be gracious, how to be agile and to do it in a way that honored the people in the congregation — not steamrolling through the congregation because I think I'm the answer to all the problems. I learned confidence and humility in navigating the challenges of leadership in a church."
A recurring question that guided his residency, said Daugherty, was: What if a pastor's first church was actually his or her second church? Residency allowed him to "learn the ropes" in a safe environment.
"There are inevitably certain aspects of church leadership that you just can't know," he said. "We need to create an environment in which (potential ministers) can try new things in ministry without costing them a job."
Mason said Wilshire's residency program has shown results because "we are always working on what makes a successful senior pastor. Churches whose real goal is to get an inexpensive staff member don't really have a pastoral residency program."
Other necessary components to a successful residency program, said Mason, include:
• A healthy congregation. "No one wants to get into a conflicted situation. That's not going to be a generative experience."
• An established relationship between the church and its senior pastor. "A new pastor shouldn't undertake it. Trust needs to have been built up."
• Adequate resources. "It's a fairly capital-intensive program. A lot of churches can do this — the question is, what financial resources are available? We pay a stipend that's the equivalent of a public school teacher."
In attempting to meet congregations' leadership needs, some seminaries are diversifying their degree offerings. At the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, the master of arts in Christian leadership is attracting increasing numbers of students.
"The Association of Theological Schools said enrolment in the (traditional) master of divinity degree has been in decline," said Mark Olson, Leland's president. "The only seminary degree enrolments that are growing are other kinds of master's degrees."
Leland — which offers classes not only at its main Falls Church, Va., headquarters but also in Roanoke, Va., and Virginia's coastal Hampton Roads area — maintains a core curriculum of theology, biblical studies and church history, but is expanding training in practical ministry.
"We still think it's important to have a biblical and theological foundation, but we do feel that students need a greater focus on how to lead," Olson said. "A significant portion of ministry is not just head knowledge but how to move people in a particular direction, how to get people dedicated to a vision, to give generously, to encourage a congregation to, say, form a Bible study that draws people and welcomes newcomers. These all require a knowledge of leadership, as well as knowledge of the Bible."
Modifying degree offerings in response to churches' needs is crucial, said Freeman of Duke Divinity School. "I'm not sure every congregation needs an M.Div. pastor," he said. "I definitely don't think every 'big steeple' church needs a Ph.D. pastor."
"Congregations need to be talking and thinking more about what they need for leadership," Freeman said. "One of the things I think happened in our tight Baptist denominational system in the South is that the whole question of calling for ministry, of preparation for ministry, became institutionalized. It was something only done by seminaries. Local churches stepped out of that or they played a minor role.
"One thing I see happening is congregations taking back a more active role of deciding who is called to ministry — to put candidates in the life of ministry and test them out."
By making classes more accessible, seminaries increasingly are enhancing that discernment process. Some — like Leland with multiple Virginia sites or B.H. Carroll with approximately 22 "teaching churches" scattered across Texas — are avoiding costly campuses in favor of leased or borrowed space.
"Our investments have been in buildings and large campuses," Corley said. "It's going to be very difficult to justify campuses with the high cost of maintenance and personnel in relation to the cost of students.
"Right now, accessibility and affordability are the two biggest issues in theological education," he added.
And for most seminaries, that inevitably will mean leaps into the digital world.
"The most popular form of higher education in this country is blended learning — face-to-face class time with support in the electronic world," said Corley.
"Theological education needs a mix of both those things," Freeman agreed. "Ideally, if you want to educate someone, actually form them, you need to have time with the student, one-on-one discussion times. But online education, when it's mixed with face-to-face can be done very productively.
Crawford, of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, is a recent convert to online learning.
"I wasn't two years ago, but I am now," he said. "I changed because I realized more and more can be done online and most seminary students are extremely comfortable with it.… The truth is, based on student evaluations, online classes are ranked higher than face-to-face ones. Part of that is probably because the students who choose online prefer to study online, so that's right up their alley. But even so, it suggests that online education can be done as well as face-to-face."
Online learning will help churches retain leaders they call out, rather than send them off to distant campuses. "One of our purposes is to call out ministers in their settings," Corley said.
But, Crawford warns, churches should be careful not to trade convenience for quality. "In my mind there is always going to need to be high quality in the training of ministers," he said.
And while he acknowledges that free-standing theological institutions like BTSR will need "to work extra hard" in the future to survive, their success will depend on the extent that they maintain close links to the local church.
Mason agrees and believes churches can enhance the training done in the academy. "Frankly, we ask too much of seminaries," he said. "We kind of lay all the blame at seminaries' feet when they don't prepare a pastor well enough to succeed.
"There was a time when pastors were always trained at the feet of other pastors. They lived in pastors' studies and read their books and learned ministry that way.… Seminaries and divinity schools can do things better than churches when it comes to the intellectual aspect of training…. But the practical dimensions of ministry — exegeting a culture or a church, not a text — are better learned in practice and in a church setting."
Robert Dilday is managing editor of the Virginia Religious Herald.