Seminaries adapt to changing religious landscape - Word&Way

Seminaries adapt to changing religious landscape

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (ABP) —Six years after starting as a pilot project, Central Baptist Theological Seminary's center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., recently became fully accredited to award the master of divinity degree and diploma in theology.

Students take a major portion of their courses online and complete residency requirements by attending weekend classes in space donated by the city's First Baptist Church. Six graduates so far have received master's degrees by transferring credits to Central's main campus in Shawnee, Kan., but with accreditation, the center now can award degrees of its own.

Changes in America's religious landscape have had enormous impact on seminaries. Mainline schools that once mainly trained ministers for their own denominations now welcome students of all denominational backgrounds.

"This is a new way to offer theological education in the 21st century," said Ircel Harrison, director of the center now named Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee. "Students who are already involved in the ministries of the church do not have to pack up and leave home to get a seminary degree."

During the 20th century, the three-year post-baccalaureate program of study conducted as graduate professional education became the "gold standard" for theological education, said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an organization that approves degrees granted in more than 250 graduate schools in the United States and Canada.

"It is actually quite an accomplishment, when you think about it—such divergent groups have adopted such a common pattern," Aleshire said in a series of lectures last year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. "It served mainline liberal and conservative, free church and connectional, sacramental and nonsacramental—all use a common model of theological education."

While the master of divinity degree program—commonly called the M.Div.—continues to be the norm by which other models for theological education are judged, Aleshire, a former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who has led the ATS since 1998, describes the current state of the field as a "wilderness experience," a temporary time comparable to the children of Israel's wandering after being delivered from Egypt.

When Aleshire graduated from seminary in 1973, he had gone to a college and seminary related to the denomination where he went to church. In those days, a strong denominational identity was the norm. Today, it is becoming an exception.

Nearly half of adults have switched denominations at least once, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. People tend to be less aware of what it means to a Baptist versus Methodist or a Lutheran. Church shoppers care less about denominational brand than whether they like the youth program. Church attendance is down, and the fastest-growing segment of the religious population is composed of those who profess no religion.

Changes in America's religious landscape have had enormous impact on seminaries. Mainline schools that once mainly trained ministers for their own de-nominations now welcome students of all denominational backgrounds. Claremont School of Theology, a 125-year-old Methodist school in California, now trains not only pastors, but also imams and rabbis in partnership with the Islamic Center of Southern California and Academy for Jewish Religion California.

Waning loyalty to denominations affects giving. Many schools once funded significantly by denominations have seen that funding drop, prompting development and institutional advancement efforts to find new funding partners such as family foundations. With red ink flowing, many campuses face cutbacks or even closure. The Assemblies of God recently merged three financially struggling schools into one.

Seminary funding woes affect students in the form of higher tuition. While tuition at ATS schools continues to be low compared to tuition for graduate or professional education, over the last decades, schools have increased tuition about twice the rate of inflation. Student debt becomes a factor in deciding whether to enroll in seminary, particularly for those entering ministry later in life.

Aleshire believes the need for theological education is greater now than ever. Along with continuing to do what they have already done well, he advocates development of new "gold standards" to meet a changing religious landscape. Those include:

Multifaith understanding and Christian witness. While much of the curriculum should remain as it is, Aleshire says two areas related to religious realties in North America need attention—the growing number of people affiliated with religions other than Christianity and with no religious affiliation. "Ministers and priests will need more sensitivity to the nature of Christian ministry in an increasingly multifaith context," he said.

Alternatively credentialed clergy. While there always have been bivocational ministers, Aleshire says, "tent making" has become a growth industry in Protestant denominations. With attendance declining in many congregations, the trend seems likely to increase.

On-the-job education. Aleshire says seminaries need education that supports students who already are involved in ministry. "Many of our students have responded to the call to Christian ministry after being involved in other careers," said Harrison of Central Seminary's Murfreesboro center. "Others are bivocational ministers or volunteers in their churches."

Lay education. Professional degree training at seminaries equips students for religious leadership, while academic degree programs prepare them for advanced study. Neither meets the needs of laity seriously interested in learning about their faith but who do not want to work vocationally in ministry. A number of students at Central Seminary's Murfreesboro center are such "life-long learners."

Technology. Twenty years ago, theology schools barely were on the Internet. Today, thousands of students complete courses online. Aleshire said online resources for theological education are increasing, but they still are less abundant than they are for medical or legal education.