The Future of Theological Education Has Arrived


One of my personal interests is the analysis of projections about higher education in comparison with what we are doing with the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development.  I have dozens of articles that have been written over a period of decades regarding what the future will be like.  Most anticipate a very different future and rarely do we see the realization of the pervasive changes they predict, but there are exceptions.

A recent issue of Theological Education, the academic journal of the Association of Theological Education (ATS), featured seven articles focused on “The Future of Theological Education,” including two by Daniel Aleshire (ATS Executive Director).  Read the editor’s introduction to this issue.

In his article titled, “The Future Has Arrived:  Changing Theological Education in a Changed World,” Aleshire describes the changed world of North American religion, changing theological schools, and possible reactions to a changed world.  He calls for ATS to be a “big tent of educational practices” in order to “diversify educational practice to meet an increasing diversity of educational need.”  Here are the specific innovations he presents:

  1. Baccalaureate theological education.
  2. Alternatively credentialed clergy.
  3. On-the-job education.
  4. Lay education.

Bachelors-Level Programs
For decades, ATS has defined theological education as graduate-level professional training.  Now, they are asking, “How might ATS schools partner with undergraduate institutions to provide ministerial education at this [bachelors] level?”  I love the story conveyed by Aleshire about the president of a seminary asking Aleshire the difference between a baccalaureate-level funeral and a graduate-level funeral.

Frankly, I’m suspicious of whether ATS will make much progress in this regard because they still seem to believe that theological education is primarily the responsibility of the masters-level seminaries.  The article, which is based on a live presentation at an ATS conference, ends with a statement that “most of the executive leadership of North American theological education is in this room.”  This seems to disregard the work that has been done for decades by universities, Christian colleges, and Bible institutes – the very institutions with which they need to partner in order to accomplish this innovation.

Academic level is not the starting point for the design of church-based theological education programs.  Rather, our partners start with existing and emerging leaders of their churches in order to help them build one-mindedness on their ministry teams.  Differentiation of academic level is related to admission to Antioch School degree programs and criteria by which competencies must be demonstrated, but it is not something that necessarily segregates students like in the schooling paradigm.

Alternative Paths to Credentials
One of the most encouraging trends in mainline and evangelical denominations is the development of paths for alternatively credentialed clergy.   Aleshire recognizes the “growth industry” of part-time pastors of smaller congregations in Protestant denominations.  He says, “Part-time pastors cannot leave their primary jobs for three years to study at a seminary and then return to a part-time church.”  Elsewhere he addresses the importance of this issue for ethnic minorities and urban contexts.

Credentialing of ministers has often been linked closely to formal academic programs.  Perhaps the starting point for alternative credentialing paths should not be the traditional seminary curriculum, but the matters of character, skills, and knowledge as determined by the denomination or church network.  We think that the Antioch School portfolio transcripts are much better suited for use in ministry credentialing processes.

In-Service Learning
The need for on-the-job education is a by-product of the formal schooling model.  Aleshire writes, “Seminaries have built educational systems primarily on the professional school model in which students go to school, get a degree, and then begin work in ministry.”  However, as stated previously, there are so many for whom this is not a reasonable path.  Aleshire states, “Theological schools need to give increased attention to the character of education that supports persons who are already engaged in ministry.”

One of the best articles I’ve ever read in this regard is titled “Judicatory-Based Theological Education.”  The article presents the findings of a major research project funded by the Lilly Endowment  that studied “a wider range of educational options for theological study.”  The article, also published in Theological Education in 2003, describes a number of examples, best practices, and issues to address.

This raises the fundamental concept of whether we should think of theological education as pre-service or in-service.  The Antioch School is built on the concept that ministerial training ought to happen in the midst of ministry and in the context of real churches and church planting movements.  Even those without much ministry experience are trained by church leaders in real situations because we think that theological education should be essentially church-based.

Lay Training
Aleshire asks what theological education would look like for “lay persons who are often better educated in almost every other area of their lives than in their faith.”  This dilemma is largely caused by making theological education the proximity of graduate-level academic institutions.  We have never had larger numbers of ministers with high academic credentials than today.  Perhaps the professionalization and segregation of theological education to the context of schooling institutions is part of the problem.

The Antioch School bypasses the dilemma by helping churches train whoever needs to be trained.  This includes those who may serve in vocational ministry capacities, as well as those who won’t.  The foundational concept is not the training of professionals, but the equipping of leadership teams for churches.  Our definition of theological education is “cradle to grave life development for everyone in a church,” not just professional training for the vocational ministers.

It was fascinating to read this article and recognize how these “innovations” for the future of theological education are already standard practices of the Antioch School partner churches.   Lay people, bachelor-level, masters-level, and even doctoral-level students are engaged in collective learning processes using the BILD resources in their churches.   Many Antioch School partners are using their own credentialing processes for local ministry assignments, as well as recognition throughout their networks, districts, and denominations.  On-the-job education is a staple, not an option, for Antioch School students.

Aleshire has given an interesting glimpse on where formal theological education may be going in the future and the Antioch School is already there.

Postscript.  Other articles in this issue of Theological Education raise fundamental questions that don’t seem to call for minor innovations within the current schooling system, but radical reorientation like we have done with the Antioch School.

In his study of Andover-Newton Theological School, Nick Carter wrote, “What the assumptive model of the church is that underlies our curriculum?  Many of our mission statements say that we exist to serve the church.  What church is that?  . . .  When we finished our yearlong study of our assumptions, we were forced to conclude that, other than the gospel itself, almost every one of the assumptions our school had been founded on was in the midst of being swept away.” (pp. 11-12).

We think that Antioch School shows what can be done when you truly question all of the assumptions and start with a fresh perspective of what it means to serve the church.

Alice Hunt of Chicago Theological Seminary wrote, “. . . we have master’s-level students graduating with significant debt to enter jobs paying an average of $34,000 a year.  Plus, we aren’t sure if we are meeting the religious needs of our communities of faith or society.  The list goes on and on.  . . .  Why aren’t we doing something differently?   What are we waiting for?”  (p. 61).

The Antioch School didn’t wait and we are doing something differently, such as radically changing the cost of theological education for our students and starting with the religious needs of our churches.

Image © by jhalper 



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