Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on a Chief Challenge for Christian Seminaries and Schools of Theology

It seems to me that there are two primary questions to ask concerning theological students: Are they heading toward ministry or toward academics? And do they have a committed life outside of school, or is school the focus of their life at present?

The latter questions concerns a kind of gradated spectrum from single 22-year olds straight out of college, to married mid-20s folks, to students married with children, to those for whom graduate school is a means to a second (or third) career. Furthermore, any of these may be working part- or full-time (or more than full-time, unfortunately).

Thus we are left with something like four identifiable groups:
  1. School-is-life academics
  2. School-is-life pastors
  3. Life-outside-school academics
  4. Life-outside-school pastors
Seen in this order and identified in this way, it quickly becomes clear how great the challenge is for faculty and staff to formulate an educational strategy that will teach, shape, form, and train each of these types of students -- and everyone in between -- in a way that is in equal parts academically challenging, theologically appropriate, pastorally minded, and practically aimed.

The simplest way to see the problem is to compare the first and the last categories with each other. For example, I happen to fit the first category perfectly: I entered seminary as a 22-year old, with a four-year degree in Bible, knowing that I was headed for doctoral work, and while I was/am married, not only did/do we not have children, my wife's full time income has meant that I only had/have to work part-time -- and that 10-15 hours a week at the theology library on campus.

Now take an example of the fourth category: a man in his mid-40s with a spouse and three teenage children, with a background/degree in a discipline other than religion, preparing to go into ministry, and in fact already working full-time at his church (in a provisional situation, pending his ordination).

How could a professor possibly craft a syllabus and pedagogical plan for a class with only us two students in his class, much less others? I am able to read hundreds of pages a week, digest them, reflect on them, blog about them, enjoy them, compare them with all of my past and present extracurricular theological reading. In my fellow student's case, he has a single aim: to get to the end with a passing grade (and so to the end of the degree). If he learns something valuable (read: practicable), even better. Otherwise, he has a family to take care of, a job to attend to, needy parishioners to be mindful of, worship to lead on the weekends, and this with little to no prior theological education (much less contemporary reading on the side "just for fun").

Whatever various faults and misguided decisions mark the current state of graduate theological education in America -- and there are many -- this single challenge, taken on its own, is enough to complicate matters to a nearly insoluble degree. Keeping it in mind does good work in softening cynicism for institutional choices that prove so annoyingly common, as well as in tempering impatience with fellow students who just do not seem to be keeping up.

In other words, a bit of institutional grace to remember every now and then.


  1. Good thoughts Brad! I agree with the thrust of what you are raising and yet want to beg a differentiation on the second question. I'm not sure the issue is one of single v. married-with-kids but full-time v. part-time student. I know you didn't mean it pejoratively but as a 30-something with a wife and four kids I resist the characterization that my sort is only concerned to get through with a passing grade rather than read and discuss and soak it in and enjoy every minute of it.

    Granted some single students may be in the place to "go the extra mile" a bit more than I can, but to me that would require a teacher who picked up on it, helped discern the appropriateness of it, and then fed that drive in the right direction rather than one that adjusted syllabi on some kind of tiered system. I hate to generalize away the exceptional cases, but by and large I think students should probably be encouraged to have committed lives outside of school no matter whether they are single or married-with-kids. For my part, I was a way better student once I had a family. I have heard others say the same.

    So, yeah, good question, but to me the issues are "ministry" v. academia and PT v. FT.

    One thing my seminary profs did well was to make syllabi that had basic requirements (research paper and exam) as well as a range of other assignment options that students could tailor to their own goals and abilities (but which were roughly the same amount of work). That was well appreciated and seemed very effective.

  2. Jon,

    Thanks for the comment and corrective. I hear what you're saying, but to some extent isn't your point clouded by the fact that you're in a PhD program? I'm mostly thinking of Master's level graduate education, which includes students who aren't serious at all about the academic side but just want to get the degree. It seems to me that there aren't too many doctoral students who think the academic/intellectual is stupid or a waste of time (and I hope I'm not naive here...).

    And of course, a family doesn't necessarily mean a negative influence on school, nor does "having a life" entail less focus on classes. I more meant those as general categories, mainly because the extreme example I gave of the "other" side includes multiple fellow students at Candler. But I have a wife and don't think she hurts my schooling, and I also (hope I) have a life, which is a similarly positive thing. I'm speaking generically, though -- school remains the central focus of my time and energy these days, whereas for many people, there are just more pressing matters. That's all I was aiming for.

  3. Okay, I got you. Yeah, you're right. My seminary had plenty of that too. I always found it annoying when students expected professors to cater to their laziness and/or over-booked state.

  4. As someone who has now taught/TA'd a couple of seminary courses, I think you hit this on the head. It is truly a pedagogical puzzle to teach the contemporary seminary course at a "big name" school in such a way as to meet everyone's needs, make it enjoyable for all involved, and challenge students appropriately. I appreciate your willingness to recognize the dilemma and offer grace.