It is easy to feel defeated by the bad news that pummels the church from every side and to panic at the release of yet another statistical survey that portends our demise. Fewer people! Less money! A changing world! We’re dying!! I can’t help thinking of Jesus’ disciples, struggling to stay afloat in their boat while it’s battered by the wind and waves. The storm is hugely threatening, but Jesus is sound asleep in the stern of the boat, unbothered by all the commotion. The disciples yell at him, “Lord, don’t you care that we are perishing?!” (Mark 4:38)
I have enormous sympathy and respect for deans and presidents of theological schools who are kept awake by the financial, cultural, theological and educational waves that batter our seminary boats. (I know about their limited sleep because I happen to be married to one of them.) I am immensely grateful for their efforts on our behalf.
As a part-time peripatetic professor, however, I have the luxury of not having to worry about keeping a school afloat.
This means that while the waves are rolling, I can gaze at the scenery and take comfort in the fact that Jesus is sleeping nearby. From that privileged perspective, I see and hear a lot of good news from theological schools these days, including the three with which I have closest affiliation: Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), Yale Divinity School (YDS), and Moravian Theological Seminary (MTS). 1
- God is still calling! From Boomers to Millennials, folks raised in the church and those new to the gospel, from the margins and the mainstream, liberals, conservatives, and middle-of-the-roadies: the diversity is astoundingly beautiful. Seminary communities remind me of the lyrics to a long-ago hotdog jingle, “Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks; big kids, little kids even kids with chicken pox…“ Not all seminary students are preparing for rostered ministry (indeed, not all of them are Christian, although they have chosen to study among people who call Christ Lord), but most are seeking to connect head and heart before God. We sometimes struggle to listen to and understand one another across such diversity, but the effort matters and we are changed by it for the better.
- Worship! I love the rhythm of daily worship. Categories like “traditional” and “contemporary” mean little at these schools within the dancing variety of worship and music forms. And the preaching —oh, the preaching! I have been convicted, enthralled, moved, encouraged, empowered and changed by the proclamation of God’s good news by our students, staff, and faculty.
- Change and consistency! Societal and financial realities have forced most seminaries and divinity schools to make changes to curriculum, delivery models, and even degree offerings, creating the potential for flexibility in meeting current and future needs of students and the church. While the residential M.Div. remains the bread-and-butter degree program, LSTC, YDS, and MTS offer close to 20 distinct degrees between them; e.g., Masters of Arts in Religion, Theology, or Clinical Counseling, dual degrees such as MDiv/MSW, professional and doctoral degrees in a range of theological disciplines, as well as certificate programs in congregational leadership and spiritual formation along with increasing options for continuing education. On-campus courses remain the norm, but the schools are experimenting with distance-learning models as well. No one knows which programs or models will prove to be viable; each school is building on its unique strengths, including the gift of place.
- Discipleship! The Greek word for disciple means one who learns. It goes without saying, I hope, that a lot of learning how to learn happens inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to academic requirements, the schools are giving increased attention to physical, emotional and spiritual learning as well (e.g., through wellness initiatives, access to spiritual direction and counseling, etc.). Further, on any given day, our graduates are developing creative responses to a host of ministry challenges that fall into the category of “things we didn’t learn at seminary.” They are inventing programs, engaging communities, and sharing the gospel in new ways.
Indeed, one reason I remain positive about our seminaries and hopeful for the future of the church is because of those students and their enduring passion for God’s good news in Jesus Christ.
That, and the fact that Jesus is still with us in the boat. Even if he is asleep.
- ^(1) I served as a tenured member of the New Testament faculty at LSTC until 2008 and now as an adjunct professor; (2) This past semester I was the acting dean of students at Yale Divinity School, where I have also served as a visiting professor; (3) I was an adjunct instructor at Moravian Theological Seminary (MTS), where my spouse is the Dean.