Seminaries, Pastoral Training and the Future of the Church in North America

monkimage-1.phpI visited the campus of Northern Seminary in nearby Lombard (IL) last week to meet with Greg Henson, the chief of institutional advancement for the school. Greg and I were connected by three mutual friends within the short span of three weeks. We felt it important to talk face-to-face since so many friends had suggested that we meet. Greg is a 31-year old innovative (Millennial) thinker who understands what is really happening to educational institutions in America. He also grasps how these changes are having a profound impact on all our seminaries. His daily work is to understand these changes and to help Northern adjust to the post-Christendom future. One of my partner ministries in the ACT3 Network routinely sends me to seminaries all over North America to recruit faculty for a summer training opportunity. As a result of this work I have visited something like 40-50 seminary campuses over the last 28 months. By asking a lot of questions, and by spending time with administrators, faculty and students, I have seen first-hand what is going on in theological education in a wide range of contexts. In my blogs this week I would like to reflect on some of the most significant changes that are taking place in the church in North America, how these changes are impacting our seminaries, and how we might respond to them effectively with a missional-ecumenical paradigm. Ironically, I studied at Northern Seminary during the years 1973-74 after I had completed a master’s degree at Wheaton Graduate School with a major in ministry and missions. At the time I was planting a “new” kind of church in a nearby suburban community and wanted to do further pastoral study with a growing desire to pursue doctoral studies in mission and ministry. Northern was only twenty minutes from my home and had a great campus and a solid academic faculty. At that time it was a thriving traditional seminary (with students from all over the nation as well as many other nations) serving in affiliation with the American Baptist Churches. I was unprepared to see the physical changes that I encountered as I walked on the Northern campus. Many of the buildings that were filled with activity when I was a student in the 1970s are in non-use today. (This is true on almost every seminary campus that I visit across America!) Almost no one lives in the apartment complexes and, except for several administration buildings that were built after my time, large amounts of space go unused. What I experienced was a snapshot of what I see happening everywhere. Seminaries are presently undergoing major changes across America as churches decline and denominational loyalties slowly die. This is certainly true in most mainline Protestant seminaries. One of the major reasons why a number of historic mainline seminaries remain open is their large endowments and the sale of property in urban centers that has brought them considerable sums of money. There are several exceptions to this statement but on the whole I believe that it is accurate. What many do not realize, however, is that this same reality is true in the evangelical and conservative seminaries too. The ones without property to sell, and/or large endowments, face critical institutional concerns. This is one reason their tuition costs are so high. (Some need as much as 80% of their total funding from tuition which makes things very hard for students. Those without scholarships will borrow large sums of money and then be limited in their mission for years to come because of debt. Something about this picture is desperately wrong!) Some seminaries will close in the next 5-10 years while others will merge and almost all get much smaller. I have not studied Catholic seminaries with the same attention that I have Protestant mainline and evangelical seminaries but I know several things for sure. First, the number of candidates for the priesthood is in sharp decline, thus seminaries are deeply impacted in enrollment. Second, the major reason for any recognizable numerical growth on Catholic campuses, so far as I have seen firsthand, can be directly traced to non-American born students, both from Africa and Latin America. I think that I am right in saying that all the large Protestant seminaries are all in some form of numerical and institutional decline. Most of the smaller ones face a major crisis looming on the near horizon and only those who adapt to the shrinking church and decline in students will survive. Greg Henson, says of his personal vision and mission:

I am passionate about the Church. It is God’s change-agent and theological education is simply part of what the Church should be doing. I serve at Northern Seminary because I believe we can positively impact the Church. In order for theological education to be relevant, accessible, and affordable, I believe we need to create very integrated systems which involve more than the work of a seminary.

profile-imagePrior to serving at Northern Seminary, Greg was as a District Director for the Boy Scouts of America. He has also served as a senior pastor, a youth pastor, a worship leader, a church camp director, a database developer, and a member of a church-planting team. His experience, for being only thirty-one years of age, is textured and rich. He is the kind of leader that “church next” needs to move into the post-Christendom era with a deep sense of what mission really means. Greg shared some pretty exciting accounts with me last week about what is happening at Northern Seminary. (This story could be repeated in several other places as well but I will use Northern as my example.) Northern plainly understands the missional paradigm. It not only permeates their literature but it is deeply rooted in their curriculum. Northern, just like Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania (suburban Philadelphia), has undertaken a definite strategy to train seminarians as “disciples on mission.” (I was honored to serve on Biblical’s board of trustees several years ago and still remain close to the school.) Northern is being missional by adopting innovative programs and models that embrace partners and create collaboration. In the last five years Northern has more than doubled its number of available programs, increased student enrollment by 23% and nearly doubled its doctoral enrollment. This year they added two highly respected full-time faculty members who make the school incredibly deeper in what it offer to students – Dr. Scot McKnight and Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling. One of the things that Greg Henson said to me that is important to understand is that the changing demographics and economics of our North American context have radically altered the reality of seminary life. Students now live within about a 40 mile radius of campus. This is true for most seminaries and the ones who adjust to this reality will more likely be the most successful in the next few decades. It is also apparent that what I did in the 1970s, namely enter ministry and do formal training at the same time, is now the new norm for most non-Catholic seminary experience, at least in the more evangelical contexts. Dr. Bob Price, one of Northern’s faculty members, has said, “Ethnography is the pastoral skill of mission. Leaders need to be ‘participant observers,’ to get inside the story of the context, from whence we proclaim the gospel.” I read this quote in Northern’s impressively simple public relations piece titled: “The Missional Project.” But what does Dr. Price mean? I’ll answer that tomorrow.

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