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Continuing the conversation on the future of theological education

Continuing the conversation on the future of theological education

Jim Naughton’s post in The Lead on the presiding bishop’s recent remarks on new models for the formation of leaders generated considerable comment. It struck us that we ought to encourage a continuation of that conversation.

Here’s just a bit of what the presiding bishop said:

As old models become unsustainable in some contexts, dioceses are finding new ways to form leaders – like the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka that serves students from four neighboring dioceses. Theological education is much in the news, with active conflict in several places, a result of deep anxiety over looming changes. We have excellent resources for theological education, yet they need to be redistributed to form and train leaders more effectively for new and changing contexts.

The comments on The Lead and on Facebook include comments from lay people, a member of PEALL (Proclaiming Education for All), seminarians, several academic deans and seminary faculty.

Extracts of some of the comments are reproduced beneath the fold.

Bishop Chris Epting:

She is spot on. Most of our seminaries are training priests for a church that no longer exists…and hasn’t for decades.

The Rev. Thomas Ferguson, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Bexley Hall:

I agree with much of the PB’s remarks, but I think we also need to realize it is not only diocesan formation programs that are innovating. CDSP has a fully online MTS degree and low residency options for the MDiv. Nashotah has as many students in its low residency programs as in its residential programs. Bexley Hall and Seabury Western federated to share resources and have built relationships with lots of non-Episcopal seminaries. And that’s not an exhaustive list. We need to be wary of extrapolating situations at GTS and EDS as indicative of a failure of theological education as a whole.

Ruth Meyers, Dean of Academic Affairs, Church Divinity School of the Pacific

I think it’s important to consider the benefits of a church-wide seminary. Local formation programs may offer some equivalence to the basic theological education and practical training that are part of a Master of Divinity program. But they’re local, drawing people from the same region. A different kind of learning happens when people from many different contexts come together in the same classroom, whether virtual or face-to-face. In CDSP’s low-residence Certificate of Anglican Studies (students spend 2 weeks in residence, for 2 summers, and take 4 more courses online; the equivalent of one year of residential seminary education), we’ve had several students who were locally trained, and all of them have found the time with students from different contexts to open new horizons for them. …

The Rev. Dn. Susanne Watson Epting

Educators, leaders and ministry developers have been saying this for several decades. In fact the church has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars studying these issues (most recently the PEALL task force). Thankfully dioceses and regional partnerships have sprung up as alternatives. We know what needs to be done but seem simply to lack the will. How exciting it would be if we really returned to the concept of the total ministry of the church and equipping the saints more locally. [PEALL is Proclaiming Education for All, a taskforce formed by General Convention. One of its reports is here. – ed.]

Tim Sedgwick, faculty, Virginia Theological Seminary

This extended conversation on theological education and formation of leadership in the church of the 21st century is much needed. I have been a seminary professor for 35 years, including serving time as academic dean, and have been a younger contemporary and supporter of the visionaries and leaders of “total ministry.” …

…Any proposal for theological education for a next generation of leaders for communities of faith in the missionary context of post-Christendom must understand and offer resources in light of the larger history and critique of what Aidan Kavanagh called “the omnivorous presbyterate.” Otherwise, seminaries are rightfully critiqued as being ideological, pressing forward their interests for an educated clergy in ways that fail to honor the distinctive, indigenous communities of faith that are spread throughout the world…

… The need is not tearing down old institutions and building up new ones but how to develop collaboration from the bottom up that creates networks which, like social media, will be creative, flexible, and informed. Some of this is happening and more will happen, even while there is flailing and death of some institutions. Such is our faith and life as marked in the inseparability of cross and resurrection.

[These extracts only give a taste of his comment. – ed.]

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Don H. Compier

I have had the privilege of serving as the first full-time dean of Bishop Kemper School for Ministry since July 1. regret that I didn’t join this very important and interesting conversation earlier. Timing–my daughter just got married!

I have very much appreciated the various comments. This is precisely the sort of discussion that I hope will continue as we determine the best strategies to form our ministers for the church’s mission today and tomorrow.

At Bishop Kemper School we are not in competition with or undermining the accredited Episcopal seminaries. We are grateful that they prepare persons who will be full-time presbyters. Each of our four sponsoring dioceses (Nebraska, Western Kansas, Kansas, and West Missouri)sends persons to our accredited seminaries and will continue to do so.

BKSM emerged because of the urgent need to educate persons in our part of the world who will be bi-vocational presbyters, deacons, and lay ministers. While the curricula for each vary, some classes overlap, and all worship and share in community together. We believe that strong ministerial teams and supportive collegial ties are formed this way. We have the freedom to develop innovative courses in areas such as the church’s social witness and Latino/a ministries.

We believe in the value of local formation and education. Each locale presents unique challenges and opportunities. We also pursue catholicity, as demonstrated by the collaboration of four different dioceses and by our constant interest in and exploration of partnerships with other Episcopal institutions and other denominations, in the US and in other parts of the world. I strongly second Profesor Sedgwick’s call for increased collaboration in theological education.

At BKSM we constantly strive for excellence, as demonstrated in the formation of ministers who can address the realities and demands of mission in specific places today and tomorrow. We maintain flexibility so that we can adapt to ever changing circumstances.

While being uncompromising in our pursuit of excellence, we offer a very cost-effective way to train ministers (at only $1800 per year, including meals and lodging), in formats that are accessible to persons holding full-time jobs.

We have an outstanding faculty, larger than that of any traditional seminary, featuring superb academicians and cutting-edge ministers. The faculty is integrally involved in the development of our curricula and consult with each other and with their colleagues at a variety of quality institutions of higher learning such as the University of Kansas and Rockhurst University.

We have a distinguished student body comprised of persons who have accomplished much as college professors, lawyers, medical professionals, executives in government and private enterprise, and entrepreneurial business.

While our track record is short, thus far our presbyteral candidates are performing as well or better on General Ordination Examinations as students from the traditional seminaries.

The most important indication of our institution’s quality is the ministerial performance of our graduates, which we will carefully monitor.

We are a very young school still very much in development. We welcome all constructive input. We will do our part to keep the church alive and well in our part of God’s vineyard, and we stand ready to work with others as we find ways to offer vibrant theological education and formation to all ministers, lay and ordained.

I would be glad to provide any additional information that might be helpful to the discussion.

The Rev. Dr. Don H. Compier, Dean

Bishop Kemper School for Ministry

Topeka, KS

John B. Chilton

[Posting a comment from Facebook.]

Elizabeth Geitz

As a Canon for Ministry Development and Deployment for 9 years, I saw first hand how critical a 3-year seminary education is. Without it, priests in charge of congregations can too easily make mistakes that prove harmful to those in their care. Yes, a 3-year seminary education is costly, often inconvenient, and requires great sacrifice, but our church deserves no less. And yes, seminaries do need to change, as GTS is currently doing with its Wisdom Year, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Michael Russell

@ Marshall The canons require that people be deemed proficient in the seven canonical areas before they are ordained. So a “C” level of mastery might squeak by. If people cannot tell the story in some coherent way I suspect we should not ordain them. If they cannot speak to the “center” content of the seven areas, what are we doing to the community by falsely declaring them proficient?

We could, of course, give them a Book of Homilies, but we have the internet for that now.

We have a common core already in the catechism and the Quadrilateral so why not define those resources we should read in common from the core of disciplines and those resources that reflect the spectrum of views in orbit around the center?

I spent 10 years on the MD COM and 10 as a GOE reader,so I have seen the spectrum of mastery as incarnated in those processes.

None the less, none of our issues will be solved by structure, they will only resolve through content.

George Clifford

Several years ago I suggested that TEC seminaries consolidate for financial and other reasons (cf. Since then, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific has been busy raising scholarship funds to make theological education affordable without incurring great debt. Contact their Director of Admissions and Recruitment, The Rev. Andrew Hybl, for full information.

Marshall Scott

Brother Michael Russell, I understand your question. That said, I want to be cautious about discussion of “mastery” of content from our seminaries. One of the points faculty made to my senior class long, long ago was that seminary could not teach the candidate for orders all he or she needed to know. Rather, it could give some basic understanding, point to appropriate resources, and teach a process of using those resources (and recognizing inappropriate resources). In an analogy (not perfect, I’m sure), I graduated from seminary a journeyman. Mastery took me a while longer (and requires constant maintenance).

I expect that the most the national church can do in shaping specifics of theological education is establishing the areas to be studied (which it already does, in approving canon). The suggestion has been made for a “common core” style of curriculum. My fear about that would be that it would end up inflexible, an end in itself. Educated clergy who intend to stay educated need most, I believe, to learn how to learn and how to keep learning. Emphasizing that “keeping learning” is something that the Church must maintain, and can’t assume.

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