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Rebooting Theological Education

First published in the Huffington Post  February 12, 2016

Theological education is in crisis. By itself, that’s not new news. What’s newsworthy is exciting new progress on the problems that’s now coming up with solutions — real, viable solutions. Tinkering with the old structures isn’t enough anymore.

Admittedly, such analyses are few and far between. Actually, that’s not surprising: the people who have been proposing solutions up until now have usually been working within the very system that’s broken. Yet the problems are serious enough that we’re going to have to work outside the box – perhaps way outside the box.


The Old Pathway Is No Longer Working…

The traditional seminary student was a white, college-educated male. He either had sufficient personal wealth or a denominational sponsorship to pay the costs of relocating his family to a seminary for three years, where he studied Greek and Hebrew, church history and theology, biblical studies and preaching. At the end of the time he was guaranteed a white-steepled church, lifetime employment, and a good pension.

The picture has changed. A larger and larger number of those who are ministering today (or wishing to minister) can’t possibly gain access to traditional seminaries–much less pay for them. These include many persons of color, Spanish-speaking ministers, second-career folks who can’t just pick up and move, people ministering to poor congregations … and the list is growing.

Stephen Lewis, President of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), makes a convincing case that the days of a single pathway to ministry education are gone (check out the video here). To serve those who need and wish to minister today, we need multiple pathways to ministry preparation. Presenting at the First National Summit on Reimagining Theological Education, he described the four pathways as: (1) the normative pathway (accredited degree) (2) alternative, hybrid, experimental pathways, (3) the apprenticeship, (4) community advocacy beginning with a year of service first before moving into training.

… and the Goals Have Changed

Multiple pathways are necessary for another reason: a rapidly increasing number of younger Americans no longer think of ministry as something you do in a church. The Millennials who are my students tell me that they want to change the world, not pastor dying churches. Instead of working within existing institutions, more and more want to serve in para-church or even non-religious settings. They are preparing to become chaplains or heads of nonprofits, leaders of interreligious coalitions and service projects, social workers or community organizers.

Stephen Lewis is right: it’s multiple pathways in, and multiple pathways out the other side. So what lies in between? What kind of education do religious leaders need in order to be effective today? After all, it’s a new world. Brian McLaren puts it best: “If you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world.”


Don’t think small–the solution needs to be of the same magnitude as the problem. We need nothing less than a new system for credentialing religious and community leaders.

Certification of skills plays a major role in the workplace today–mostly because the needs are changing so rapidly that traditional education can’t keep up. Why should ministry be different? Here also we need a broad range of certificates for specific skills. Individual certifications will then be grouped or “stacked” together. People will be credentialed when they have amassed the right combination of certified skills for a particular kind of work.

A new organization, Reimagining Theological Education (RTE) has been formed in response to the crisis. It recently held a National Summit, featuring experimental programs across the United States and exploring this new system of stackable credentials. At the second National Summit this May, a new prototype will be presented and discussed; by the fall it will be implemented on a trial basis in a number of non-traditional settings.

Reimagining Theological Education won’t be easy. In order to do so, it will be necessary

• To focus on programs that train leaders for the needs of the 21st century–in whatever context those needs might manifest;

• To consider different educational models that emphasize practical applications, contextual learning, non-traditional contexts, and along-the-way credentialing;

• To construct new credentialing programs for lay ministers, non-English-speaking candidates, and those without eternal financial support; and

• To provide these services in ways that are financially sustainable.

The only way to meet these goals is to work outside of traditional institutions whose buildings, overhead, and shrinking endowments make them too costly for the very people who are poised to offer new forms of leadership.

Innovation Now

Stackable credentials are not the only innovation in town. Traditional seminaries are developing new kinds of programs, practicums are expanding, and partnerships between seminaries and non-religious organizations are springing up. These innovations open up paths for a broader spectrum of people to move from non-accredited programs into traditional ministry programs.

Programs such as these aren’t sufficient by themselves, however. We need to take far more radical steps–and quickly. Remember: if you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world.

Philip Clayton, Ph.D.   Ingraham Professor, Claremont School of Theology; speaker and blogger on the future of faith