Seminary education has entered a period of great change and uncertainty across the historic mainline denominations. Religious leaders are asking whether there are too many seminaries, whether they cost too much and whether seminaries are educating students to lead a church that is also in a period of change and uncertainty. There is even discussion, in some quarters, about a University of Phoenix, higher education for profit approach to theological education.
Writing for Presbyterian Today, the Rev. Frank Yamada, president of McCormack Theological Seminary in Chicago, offers what he calls the top five reasons that theological education matters. After discussing the role that a seminary played in his own conversion, and acknowledging that seminaries have come under some justified criticism, Yamada lays out his five points, including these two:
3. Theological education can be the last bastion of the status quo, but it can also be a context for experimentation. In this time of significant change in church and society, innovation is a buzzword. Innovative leadership, however, requires time and space away from the familiar to imagine the unfamiliar. Seminary offers that time away—through small classes, daily chapel, residential living, and field education in hospitals, prisons, nonprofits, new worshiping communities, and existing congregations both here in the United States and around the world.
At seminary, students are trained to think critically and creatively so that they can connect the dots of history and theological traditions in new and vital ways, sometimes in ways that disrupt the status quo. Theological education therefore has the opportunity to be the research and development wing of the church, a laboratory where we can imagine what is next.
4. Theological education continues to provide a place for emerging leadership of those on the margins. While oppression and unequal representation continue in our seminaries, they are also places where women, people of racial-ethnic communities, and LGBT persons find their voice. Every year we graduate students who are the first persons in their family to get a graduate degree. Some of these same students go on to be the first woman ordained in their congregation, or the first Asian American to lead a ministry, or the first African American woman to be addressed “Rev. Dr.”
I recently spoke with a student whom I had mentored. She came to seminary from an evangelical tradition where women were not ordained. While at seminary her life changed, a conversion that she attributes to her experience at McCormick. She recently accepted a call to be the first Japanese American female pastor of a historically Japanese Baptist church.
What’s on your list of the reasons why seminaries in particular, and graduate theological education more generally, matter?