Note: The author was executive director of the Association of Theological Schools from 1998 to 2017. This excerpt is from Beyond Profession (Eerdmans 2021) as part of the book series Theological Education between the Times. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Citations have been omitted.
For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.Titus 1:7-9
Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way – for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.1 Timothy 3:2-7
This chapter opens with two texts. The two texts have their problems – the relationship of contemporary religious leadership to the elders or bishops who oversaw fledgling house churches in the first century, the use of these texts to assert male-dominated religious leadership, the culturally removed counsel about marriage and keeping children submissive. But the texts remain instructive about characteristics fundamentally important for persons who would lead communities of faith – “temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome and not a lover of money” – the kinds of qualities that are not bound by time or culture. Now compare these two texts to the two [Gallup] charts [below]…:
The charts have their problems – the validity of answers that people give to callers over the phone, the reductionism of forcing perceptions about reality into categorical response possibilities. But the data over time do paint a picture of a declining positive view of the ethics of clergy (a drop of more than 20 percentage points in the past fifteen years) and declining confidence in organized religion (a drop of almost 30 percentage points from 1975 to 2018). These data are the product of sophisticated polling strategies, and even after accounting for margins of error, the decline in these polls remains striking. Is there any chance these texts and charts have something to say about the next theological education? This chapter addresses that question by reflecting on theological education in the current cultural moment. I argue for a mode of theological education that stresses formation and try to assess that goal in relation to the factors that have been so important for theological education throughout its history: the church, the wider culture and higher education.
Theological Education and the Current Cultural and Religious Moment
In the era of colonies and early nationhood, the education of ministers was not distinct from the education of civic leaders, and educated clergy sometimes served in both roles. In the modern age of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, with the growth of urban industrial centers and many congregations, theological education upped its educational standards. By the mid-twentieth century, theological education took the form of professional education with its focus on skills as well as specialized biblical and theological knowledge. Throughout this long period, religion enjoyed a privileged place in the culture and religious participation was generally high.
For the past several decades, however, the social location of religion has been changing, and the data in the Gallup charts above reflect that change. Many reasons undergird this decline in the social influence and cultural esteem of religion, in addition to the moral and legal failures of religious leaders that have grabbed headlines. While a certain kind of religion has been publicly present, evident in recent elections, researcher Robert Jones has shown that it is beginning to abate and will likely continue to shrink in the coming decades because of demographic changes. According to reliable data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the percentage of Americans attending services of worship has been declining. The fastest-growing religious identification in the United States has been “no religious affiliation” (more than 20 percent of the US population), and for several generations the religious participation of generational cohorts has declined. While religious participation in the United States remains higher than that in any other liberal democracy, the changes afoot are neither transitory nor ephemeral. These shifts constitute the cultural context in which to discern the future of theological education.
Theological education has changed and continues to change, but it changes slowly, as I have already noted, and it tends to change by accrual rather than by replacement. Theological schools keep much of what they have always been doing while they add options. Over time, they shed some but not all of the old, and they lean into the new, but not all at once. They do not change by replacement, but they do change. In the past decades, how the schools taught was changing, and for Protestant schools, where they taught was changing as well as when students could study. But, for the most part, what the schools have been teaching has remained quite stable. It was a curriculum that emerged in the nineteenth century and matured in the twentieth century into the model of professional theological education that exists today. This curriculum and educational model developed during an era of strong religious institutions and robust denominational structures. What should be the pattern of theological education when these realities are no longer present?
I argued in the first chapter that theological education seems to be between the times. Perhaps that has always been the case. The education of priests and ministers has always existed, from ancient New Testament qualifications for ministry to current religious practices and structures. If it is always at least somewhat between the times, then theological education never gets it “right” for more than a season. What is good at one time – responding effectively to a fixed scriptural point and a transitory cultural moment – can be bad for another time. I think the current cultural moment calls for renewed attention to the enduring qualities enumerated in the above scriptures: being not violent but gentle, a lover not of money but of goodness, not quarrelsome but prudent, upright, devout and self-controlled. As religion is increasingly on the defensive and many religious institutions are in decline, an invaluable response will be to ensure the fundamental Christian character of Christian leaders. That emphasis on character will require the next theological education to assume more responsibility for cultivating these qualities in ministerial candidates. This effort will change parts of the curriculum and some of the strategies related to teaching and learning. Language of “parts” and “some” might not grab attention in our cultural moment. This is a time that relishes overwhelming change and is fascinated by the one event that can purportedly change everything, even though that is seldom the way things actually work. Changes to “parts” and “some,” however, can precipitate a surprising transformation.
The name I propose for the “next” theological education is “formational.” The 1996-2018 accrediting standards of the Commission on Accrediting of the ATS use “formation” in at least two ways. The introduction to the standard on curriculum, for example, states that “A theological school is a community of faith and learning that cultivates habits of theological reflection, nurtures wise and skilled ministerial practice, and contributes to the formation of spiritual awareness and moral sensitivity.” In this usage, “formation” is limited to spiritual awareness and moral sensitivity. The standard continues that “the curriculum should be seen as a set of practices with a formative aim – the development of intellectual, spiritual, moral, and vocational or professional capacities – and careful attention must be given to the coherence and mutual enhancement of its various elements” (emphasis added). In this usage, “formative” applies to the curriculum as a whole, not just to spiritual awareness and moral maturity. My proposal for formational theological education will include these elements, along with others, and give particular attention to the process of theological education.
Roman Catholic schools use “formation” as the primary name for education that prepares candidates for the sacrament of ordination. Not sharing this sacramental understanding of ordination, most Protestants have been leery of the term. Roman Catholics have also been comfortable with the implication that “formation” suggests a specific outcome of a process; Protestants also object to the notion of a prescribed outcome. Even with these hesitations, in recent years different groups of Protestants have begun to talk of formation more frequently.
William Sullivan called this emphasis on formation a distinctive feature of theological education. Sullivan, then at the Carnegie Foundation, oversaw a series of studies on education for the professions, including clergy, engineers, lawyers, physicians, nurses and others. He notes that at the center of the pedagogy for the education of clergy is “the idea of formation: the recognition that teaching and learning are about much more than transferring cognitive facts or even cognitive tools. Learning in the formative sense is a process by which the student becomes a certain kind of thinking, feeling, and acting being.” Sullivan continues: “Although seminaries have not escaped the power of the technical model of professionalism, the intellectual core of their teaching has been a concern with the significance and practical implications of the interpretation of texts, customary practices, and experience. The focus of which has kept the idea of formative education alive” [in Charles Foster, et.al., Educating Clergy, p. 10]. With dynamics like these in mind, I use “formation” as a name both for a particular kind of goal for theological education and for the educational processes that goal requires.
I think that the present cultural moment is calling theological educators to make explicit what has been assumed, to accept responsibilities for areas that have been minimized in theological education, and to expand its focus to the wide range of characteristics that will give ministry the authenticity it needs in this culture at this time.
The Goal of Formational Theological Education
The place to begin exploring the goal of formational theological education is in the tradition of Christian thought. Edward Farley noted that, in the Middle Ages, theological study was understood to result in a habitus, “a cognitive disposition and orientation of the soul, a knowledge of God and what God reveals,” [Theologia, p. 35] which reflects an Aristotelian concept of knowing as an “orientation of the soul.” Theologian David Kelsey has argued that the aim of contemporary theological education should be to understand God truly, and that the theological concept of “wisdom” is one of the ways in which Christians “understand.” He goes on to note, however, that “wisdom obscures important differences” that include “contemplation, discursive reasoning, affections, and actions that comprise a Christian life” [To Understand God Truly, p. 34]. The goal of theological education should begin with careful attention to these two observations. Such education should be about a habitus, an orientation of the soul, and should understand that a wisdom of God and the things of God is a kind of understanding that embraces many ways in which an individual comes to know God, such as contemplation, rational discourse and actions.
Theological education found its way to the colleges in the American colonies as the study of divinity. Farley noted that divinity as studied in early America was “not just an objective science but a personal knowledge of God and the things of God in the context of salvation.” It “was an exercise of piety, a dimension of the life of faith” [p. 7]. The study of divinity was required of all students in those schools, not just students studying for ministry, but as education for ministry separated from general higher education, the “study of divinity” fell into disuse.
What goal would attend to habitus, to Christian understanding with its many characteristics, to the concept of the study of divinity that intermingled Christian commitment and knowledge, and to the formational educational practices that theological education brought to its version of professional education? The goal that I propose attends to these but with significant additions. Farley’s and Kelsey’s descriptions are broad, but they focus on the cognitive and intellectual, with some leaning toward the affective. I want to increase the affective elements and include stress on a range of behavioral elements, including those that constitute the practices of ministerial leadership. Farley argued that one of the problems with theological education (by which I think that he meant the professional model) is that it has become too clerical in orientation. My proposal assumes that the practices of clerical ministry are themselves formative; they are a way in which pastors and priests come to an orientation of the soul. As a result, I propose a goal that assumes that cognitive, affective and behavioral elements are all important, perhaps equally important.
The goal of theological education should be the development of a wisdom of God and the ways of God, fashioned from intellectual, affective, and behavioral understanding and evidenced by spiritual and moral maturity, relational integrity, knowledge of the scripture and tradition, and the capacity to exercise religious leadership. This definition is an awkward and technical effort to get at something that is far more ineffable. The awkward and technical aspects can be elaborated while the ineffable aspects can only be respected and affirmed…
Theological education has had many futures, and I think its next future will need patterns of education that are as intellectually rigorous and pedagogically sophisticated as present patterns, but that also take seriously and responsibly a wider vision of the aims and purposes of theological education than the current model has embraced. The next future of theological education will not be completely different from the current version; schools will need to use the tools they have already developed, recover some patterns of education they have allowed to go dormant, and continue to do some of what they are doing. But they will also need to imagine a larger arena in which theological education does its work. The next future of theological education will concern itself with the content of theological studies, the skills needed for ministerial leadership, and the spiritual, moral and relational character of Christian life to which religious leaders should aspire. It does not give itself permission to exclude any of these areas.