This issue of Let’s Talk is devoted to theological education. The idea for devoting an issue to this is because of the emergence of new models for doing theological education in our seminaries and curriculum changes in response to new contexts in church and society. Certainly factored into these changes are such practical considerations as: the expense of professional education to students who already have an undergraduate degree and have accumulated substantial education debt; long distance online learning possibilities that helps to reduce educational costs to the students; the diminishing financial stability of seminaries; and the merger of seminaries and church colleges and universities.
Here’s what I have to contribute to this discussion. I teach specialized courses in various institutions of higher learning, but not as a regular faculty member, and not always in a theological school or department. I have not been a regular faculty member, involved in curriculum discussions, since 1981. I have served as pastor of five different congregations in different socio-economic contexts over a forty-year period. But I have now been retired for two years and I don’t do any regular supply or interim work. With this “transparency” in place, here’s what I think.
Whether in the classroom, or by distance learning, or by a combination of both, theological students who may serve as pastors in the Lutheran church need to know these pieces of the Great Tradition if they are to be theologically literate and pastorally competent:
- The whole Bible — Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha
- Along with the Bible, introductions to or tutorials in Hebrew and Greek, perhaps focusing on important biblical words
- The Creeds and Confessions of the Church — everything in The Book of Concord
- A general knowledge of the history of the Church
- A survey of theological systems through a study of the traditional topics in theology and dogmatics: God, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Sacraments, Morality
- Pastoral courses in Liturgy, Preaching, Pastoral Care, Church and Society, Church Administration, Pastoral Formation
The above could probably be accomplished in two full years with breaks at Christmas, Easter, and after Pentecost, at the end of which the student will have earned a theological degree: Master of Divinity with the pastoral courses, Master of Theology without them. Master’s degrees should be done in two years, not four.
A year of internship is a good thing, but it should be placed under church supervision after one has earned a theological degree, with ordination contingent on a successful experience.
I don’t see a way to not cover these basics, and that probably leaves no space for contextual education. I would leave that to workshops provided by the synods. I don’t think it’s unimportant, but my in my experience whatever contextual education I may have had in seminary in the late 1960s was irrelevant by the 1980s and totally forgotten by the 2000s.
In the meantime, decades after seminary I still needed to exegete biblical passages and look up words in lexicons to verify my understanding of them for sermon preparation and Bible classes; explain articles of the creed and teach the Catechisms to catechumens, confirmands, and new members; figure out and often explain to people how the church got into a particular controversy; check my views with theological systems; prepare liturgies by paying attending to the days and seasons in the church year; visit the sick and counsel the troubled; along with fellow clergy deal with issues in the community; prepare church council agendas; help the congregation discern and carry out its mission possibilities; and attend to my prayer life. Quite frankly, in my experience my various congregations greatly appreciated receiving substance in all areas of church life and ministry because people turn to religion for meaning more than for anything else.
I think the merger of church colleges and seminaries has potential. The church colleges were founded, among other reasons, to channel men and women into church vocations. The colleges have stronger potential for raising endowments to keep the institution alive than do the seminaries. An adequate-size theological faculty can be maintained to teach courses to both seminarians and undergraduates. As much as possible, seminaries should be on or near the campuses of the universities.
Perhaps many others in Lutheran theological education have been thinking along these same lines. In that case, add my vote to your proposals. If not, this is what theological education needs to be and do, as I see it.