I raised several questions on Monday about the future of seminary education in North America. The hard facts behind my question are not in serious debate:
- Seminary enrollment, on the whole, is in decline. This is especially true if you consider the data in view of the degree given to most students who are preparing to become pastors; i.e., the M.Div.
- Many seminaries now face serious problems, both financially and institutionally. If student tuition, to give but one example, must carry the burden of institutional survival then they will likely fail.
- A number of profoundly good questions are being asked about traditional forms of education. Can they deliver what they actually promise? Is this really the best way to prepare leaders for the Christian church in the twenty-first century?
- How do seminaries recruit students and, much more importantly, how do they decide the most important question of all: “Who should attend our school and thus be prepared for church leadership?” If money plays such a huge role in this entire process then is the fly in the ointment not obvious?
I believe seminary education, in one form or another, is still highly desirable. We need to provide a context in which minds and hearts can be changed and developed for transformative Christian leadership. We must also re-imagine what the future of the church should look like. New life is not only about beliefs. It is a process that must lead to moral and spiritual fruit. So how does a school, or in a growing number of cases, a non-traditional pastoral program, catalyze students to become effective Christian theologians and leaders? Northern Seminary provides an answer that I find immensely helpful.
- By bringing together programs, ministry partners, and faculty which all create engaging classroom settings and immersive experience for students.
- Through innovative, re-imagined models of ministry training. Students must be led down a path of renewal and spiritual formation and equipped to participate in God’s mission.
I would add to Northern’s response that we must also teach students what John 17:21 means for them and their ministries. If we are serious about Jesus then we must become serious about the answer to his prayer for the whole church. This means that we must become missional-ecumenists. Some of the things Northern Seminary has done to create a missional context for seminary education strike me as sound, both biblically and ecumenically.
- Adding first-rate biblical scholars to their already competent faculty.
- Creating eighteen partnerships which are connected to eight different academic programs.
- Institutional changes that have made theological education more accessible through diploma and certificate programs that do not require a bachelor’s degree.
- An increase in the number and kinds of Doctor of Ministry programs for leaders already engaged in ministry.
- An innovative cross-functional staff system.
This process began less than six years ago and the results are plain to see in 2013. The local church is God’s change agent for the kingdom’s advance. For this reason seminaries need to follow the lead of schools like Northern who have stressed using strong congregational leaders as teachers and mentors. Partnerships with urban and multi-ethnic congregations, as well as with growing mainline churches, makes Northern a unique evangelical seminary shaped by mission. A cynic might suggest that Northern took this approach because it experienced a sharp decline in enrollment over the last several decades-plus. I choose to see the bad news of non-growth and decline as the kind of crisis moment that led bold leadership to ask the right questions and then to come up with solutions that pushed Northern to focus its energy in the right places, places where the kingdom of God actually intersects with people and their deepest needs. Student enrollment at Northern in 2010 was 270. In 2012 it had reached 370. This kind of growth is no accident. The same kind of story can be seen in suburban Philadelphia at Biblical Theological Seminary where there has been a “near-death” experience followed by new life. (There are other schools which have followed this same path but I use these two as good models because I know them the best personally.)