The world has changed dramatically and with dizzying speed in the past few decades. We’ve gone from being round to being flat again. We’ve seen the collapsing of hierarchies, the faltering of institutions and the myth of their permanence, and the exponential power of networks transforming not only our communication but also our mindsets. And yet, the Church and its system of theological education has been slow to adapt to those changes.
Change and Challenges
Our world today is postmodern, post-Christian and post-institution. It is increasingly both more global and more local. We are inundated by a vast array of choices unfathomable to those who came before us. Depending on whether people have a modernist or post-modernist worldview, often correlated with their generational cohort, there are startling differences in how they see the world and interact with it. These differences and complexities are especially unsettling to those who were formed by the inherited ways of being and understanding the church. The church, in particular, brings people together across generational lines, creating the potential for misunderstanding and friction over everything from what people wear to what they believe and value.
Our world is postmodern, post-Christian and post-institution . . . both more global and more local.
Many church attendance statistics are disconcerting to those of us in the church: the fastest growing religious group is ‘unaffiliated’ (16%); between 1991 and 2004 there was a 92% increase in the number of unchurched Americans; and only 4% of those born since 1982 are now Christian. And yet: 25% of Americans say they are spiritual, 55% say they are spiritual and religious; and 49% say they have ‘had a mystical experience’ (Pew US Religious Landscape, ARIS). According to Harvey Cox’s recent book, The Future of Faith, we are shifting from a 1500-year focus on belief about God (Christ, Bible, church, doctrine, etc.) to understanding faith as an experience of God. He is joined by Phyllis Tickle and many others who are helping us to better understand the comprehensive shifts occurring in these times.
The church must learn how to respond to these trends, but most clergy and church leaders are woefully unprepared and have few resources to guide them. Patterns of ministry are changing, too. Many faith communities cannot afford a full-time clergyperson, let alone a seminary-trained one. Some leaders are pursuing ordination while others are serving as lay leaders, perhaps as part of a leadership team. These leaders (and their judicatories) are often at a loss for high-quality, affordable, flexible formation and education to help them find better ways to lead and to understand their own spirituality.
New Approaches at Seabury-Western
At Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, we’ve spent the last several years as a laboratory for the change demanded by these trends and challenges. The result is that, although we are more than 150 years old, we have been reborn — at times with enthusiasm, and at other times as unwillingly as Nicodemus.
Perhaps most notably, we’ve let go of our traditional understanding of how to educate and form ordained ministers through a 3-year residential master of divinity (M.Div.). Our previous program had twin problems: high fixed costs (i.e. $45,000 per student per year vs. $13,000 per student per year received in tuition) and too few applicants. We loved the old way of forming and educating clergy, and we were good at it. We sent forth some excellent priests into the world, many of whom are still doing essential ministry in God’s church. Change didn’t come easily to Seabury, at least at first. At times we resembled the children of Israel who moved only when the Egyptian armies — in our case, harsh economic realities — were at their backs. But now we’ve left behind what was known and familiar to us in favor of new and innovative ways of educating people for ministry.
People come to us for one-time lectures, for D.Min. degrees, and for everything in between.
Today we seek to educate all people who are engaged in God’s mission of reconciliation with each other and with God. We’re rooted in the Episcopal tradition. We embody generous Christianity. We’re open to the intellectually and spiritually curious. Our program offerings include lectures, short residential sessions including weekend or weeklong intensives, and workshops. People come to us for one-time lectures, for D.Min. degrees, and for everything in between.
To support our new mission, Seabury is organized around three overlapping program areas: Building Communities of Faith, Equipping People for Ministry, and Enriching People in their Faith.
Building Communities: What does it take to thrive?
To provide faith communities with leadership for our rapidly changing and complex environment, Seabury and Church Divinity School of the Pacific have partnered to offer a D.Min. in Congregational Development. We also continue to offer a joint D.Min. in Preaching with several other Association of Chicago Theological Seminaries. And for lay people, clergy and candidates for ordination who want to learn but don’t need to earn a degree, we offer certificates, diplomas, and continuing education. We offer short residential courses in Illinois and California and, soon, across the country. Many of our courses have online components and, when appropriate, some will be fully online.
Equipping People for Ministry: What does it take to lead?
Context is everything — no one program fits all. Seabury’s diplomas and certificates in Anglican Studies and Congregational Leadership use short residencies and online facilitated peer groups to allow participants to take advantage of theological and academic excellence and spiritual formation with increased flexibility and affordability. Those preparing for ordination are seeking alternative solutions to the M.Div. while new models of ministry include more leadership roles for lay people who will also increasingly need access to quality formation and education.
Enriching People in their Faith: What does it take to grow?
Our enrichment programs recognize that our mission calls us to become a center for lifelong learning. Believing that all Christians are called to ministry, Seabury endeavors to provide learning opportunities that will support and educate all those who look to join God’s work in the world. However, we develop our programs for a broad audience — mainline Christians, people from other faith traditions, and those who may not have had any experience of organized religion. Our enrichment lectures and workshops address the intersection between the critical questions of our time and the life of faith, including the Anglican tradition. We present well-known speakers, thinkers, and authors as well as new “up-and-coming’ voices from a variety of disciplines and areas of expertise.
A few years ago at Seabury, we encountered a crisis. At times we resisted change and mourned our losses, but we have come to believe, along with David Bosch in Transforming Mission, that to “encounter a crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” Today we continue to encounter crises every day in the form of the post-Christendom, non-hierarchical and globally connected world, but now we embrace it instead of avoiding it. To meet its challenges, we are evolving with enthusiasm and striving for agility as we create learning communities that will educate and form people of faith to lead the Church into God’s future.
Our theological education . . . embodies generous Christianity and is open to the intellectually and spiritually curious.
Seabury is what’s next in a seminary: Our theological education — from single classes to certificates and doctoral degrees — embodies generous Christianity and is open to the intellectually and spiritually curious. For church leaders, for seminarians, and for pilgrims and seekers, Seabury’s innovative programs are rooted in the Episcopal tradition and presented with academic rigor.