Now trending: Candler dean looks to future of seminary education

Spirited Thinking | Nov. 15, 2013

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Emory's Candler School of Theology was named one of 18 "Seminaries that Change the World" for its innovation in theological education.

Emory's Candler School of Theology has been named one of 18 "Seminaries that Change the World" by Faith3.org, a website promoting the engagement of young people in the church. The seminaries were cited for demonstrating "great innovation in theological education."

Below, Candler Dean Jan Love discusses the trends in theological education that have led Candler to create five new degree programs this fall, and her hopes for the new degrees in serving both the church and professionals outside the church in new ways.

What key trend in theological education are you watching?

Theological education has always had substantial diversity, but the institutional forms through which education is being delivered are becoming even more diverse in our current era. That is in large part because of the variety of ways that higher education is becoming more diverse and the ways that congregational life is becoming more diverse.

What are some examples of the increasing diversity in theological education?

One approach is the proliferation of models for addressing the multi-faith environment of the United States. Schools that have historically had a clear Christian identity and a clear mission to form Christian leaders for pastoral and other forms of ministry are beginning to explore the possibility of training rabbis, imams and others who lead religious traditions other than Christianity.

In the United Methodist Church, Claremont School of Theology created Claremont Lincoln University to educate leaders of other faith traditions alongside Christian leaders. We couldn't have fathomed this 30 years ago, in part because the mix of religious traditions in the United States has become far more varied and vibrant since the 1960s, when trends in immigration brought many more Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sihks and those with religious affiliations other than Christianity into the country.

The United States is now one of the most religiously diverse populations in the world. Some seminaries are responding to this new religious America by training leaders from various religions with a common curriculum and in the same classroom. Others, like Candler, continue to have a clear mission of training Christian leaders who are well-educated about other religions and fully equipped to create community and understanding in religiously diverse cities, town, and rural areas.

Whether an institution adopts the multi-religious model of educating students from several religious traditions within the same classroom, or the single tradition model of educating Christians with substantial preparation for engagement with other religious traditions, our great hope is that leaders across various faith communities will learn how to reach across deeply held differences to help tackle concrete problems that all people face.

What about smaller seminaries? Are there other models out there?

Another example is that an increasing number of seminaries are no longer freestanding. They are coming under the umbrella of another university or college or a large local church.

One recent example is Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina, which is now part of Lenoir-Rhyne University. Another is St. Paul School of Theology, which is now renting space from The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, one of the largest congregations in the denomination.

When a seminary merges with a college, university, or church with a large physical plant, the school can concentrate on a whole range of challenging issues (like faculty development, curriculum, church relations, etc.), rather than maintaining buildings, managing an endowment, and similar operational essentials.

On the other hand, the seminary gives up some of its autonomy in order to be "sheltered" within a larger entity. There are benefits to being free-standing and benefits to being embedded. Some free-standing schools have recently made the calculation that becoming embedded enhances the economic viability of their institution’s future and the long-term care of their physical plant. Other free-standing seminaries will continue to be free-standing having made a different calculation.

Is the growth in online education also a reflection of this creativity?

Absolutely. The tremendous growth in online education provides the possibility for schools to attract students who need more flexibility in their schedules while still receiving high quality instruction.

What impact do these significant changes have on the approach to/quality of Christian theological education?

Most seminaries acknowledge that digital delivery is here to stay and welcome it. Many faculty have used various creative digital techniques within their classes that meet face-to-face every week, and many will now offer one or more courses fully online, just as faculties within most colleges and universities do.

Theological schools will vary considerably, however, in their decisions about which degrees to offer fully online. Some, for example, believe that the Master of Divinity (M.Div.), the main degree that credentials those who seek ordination, must have considerable if not predominant "incarnational" components—in-person interactions with their community of students and faculty, such as worship, that enhance their classroom experiences. This represents the view of Candler’s faculty.

Other institutions have chosen to offer the M.Div. degree fully or almost fully online as a matter of providing access to a wider range of students who seek to be ordained or who simply want the degree.

Those schools that do not expect to offer the M.Div. online may well offer other degrees online. Candler, for example, will offer a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree online.

We do not yet have an accumulation of sufficient evidence to know what, if any, the differences are in students’ capacities to excel in ministry with these different forms of pedagogy in various degree programs. I’m sure someone will study this in the not too distant future.

What's the overall trend driving the need for this diversity and creativity?

The number of schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is growing, but the number of students who are seeking a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree is declining. So, it’s a matter of supply and demand in the most common and traditional degree seminaries offer—the MDiv. For some denominations, including those considered mainline or historic Protestant churches, enrollment is declining sharply for the MDiv degree especially.

Moreover, the various forms of church are changing fairly rapidly, which necessarily implies that theological education must change, too.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the number of minority students grew by 55 percent over the past 20 years. Isn't that leading to enrollment growth?

That growth made a huge difference in enrollments in recent years, and among Asians, Latinos, and international students (called "visa" students in ATS language), the numbers may continue to climb. Among African Americans, however, this growth may now have leveled off. The same seems to be true for women as well.

Since the population of the United States is becoming more racially mixed, educating leaders who are persons of color is a wonderful and crucial opportunity for schools of theology. Educating women for ordained ministry, however, continues to be among the most contentious issues in Christian churches and theological education.

Why is seminary enrollment declining?

One of the reasons is that people in the United States are less religious overall and are less attached to institutions. This is backed up by data from the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project. Many people will not be attending the church of their parents, if they go at all. Institutional loyalty or family heritage isn't playing as large a role in selecting a church.

Pew studies show that the U.S. population is becoming less attached to religion in general. There are more "nones"—people who aren't affiliated with any religious tradition—than before. Many of these nones feel drawn to what we might call religion, but they don't like to use that term.

What effect does the increase in the "nones" have on seminaries?

The overall decline in seminary enrollments, particularly in some Christian traditions like the "mainline churches" in the United States, results in some seminaries closing and some making very new strategic choices. A lot of institutions that have been historically important in theological education in the United States were built under the presumption that this part of the Christian family would continue to grow across time. Instead, this portion of Christian presence in the United States—Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.—is declining demographically. Most of the seminaries that have served these churches are also smaller than they used to be. Some have closed.

In contrast, others are growing. For example, Latino immigration represents substantial growth in the Catholic Church in the United States, and Catholic seminaries seem to be doing well overall.

Moreover, some seminaries that educate students for quite conservative Christian protestant traditions (e.g., those that do not ordain women) or non-denominational churches seem to be doing well overall. The ATS categorizes this group of institutions as "evangelical," in contrast to the other two ATS categories, "mainline" and "Roman Catholic/Orthodox." Candler, like our peer schools, is in the "mainline" category.

How is Candler responding to these trends?

We’ve been asking ourselves, "If the church is changing, do we need to change the way we're serving the church?" The answer is "yes." One of the ways is the return of the Doctorate of Ministry degree, which is a practitioner's degree. It is designed for those working hands-on in the local church. And, it's Emory University's first doctoral program online. It allows those already serving in the church to continue their work while furthering their education and enabling them to put this new knowledge to work immediately in practical, concrete ways.

We are deeply dedicated to serving the church. Eighty percent of students in the last decade have gotten the MDiv degree. But, if there are fewer people wanting the MDiv because there are fewer churches to serve, we have to find other ways to serve the church.

We've also asked, "If there are leaders in the church who are not ordained, do we have anything to offer them?" The answer is "yes." The new Master of Religious Leadership degree is aimed at them. Many churches have people serving in ministry positions who aren't ordained. Whether they work with youth, music, outreach or administration, they can enrich their ability to serve and improve their marketability by furthering their education.

Why is Candler now offering a degree for professionals outside the church?

Religion permeates every aspect of life. We discovered that accountants, nurses, social workers, doctors, lawyers and many others need to know more about religion than in generations past, especially in light of the growing religious diversity of the country. We want to offer them the opportunity to learn about religion at Candler so that their professional engagements that involve religious dimensions can be completed more easily and more productively.

Our new Master of Religion and Public Life program will create much more robustly informed lay people in the church and in society. If the people in our communities become more educated about religion in public life, they hopefully will be better citizens.