Church & Seminary Together: a response to "Where Are Tomorrow's Leaders?"
by Mark Woolfington
In the article, “Where Are Tomorrow’s Leaders?” published recently on the Advent Christian Voices website, and reprinted from the Advent Christian Witness, veteran Advent Christian pastor Steven Brown poses an important question. He argues that the traditional model of theological education in a seminary or divinity school no longer serves the needs of the Advent Christian Church.
He correctly states that “formal education was not universally valued in the churches”. The early leaders of both Aurora College and Berkshire Christian College faced a general apathy as they sought to build their institutions. Today, few Advent Christians seem to understand the importance of theological education. This is reflected in at least one area: the Advent Christian Church does not have uniform ordination standards on a national level. Some conferences require a degree, while others do not.
Rather than the local church as the only method of theological education and leadership development, I believe that the best model is a partnership between the local church and the seminary.
When I began my ministry in 1996 in the Southern California Conference, I learned that according to the Conference’s Constitution and By-Laws, I would need to serve as a licensed minister for two years before being considered for ordination. A further review of the Constitution and By-Laws found that this requirement would be waived for graduates of “Aurora College or the New England School of Theology”. The New England School (Berkshire Christian College) had ceased operations by this point, but the Conference Ministerial Committee decided that my degree in Christian Studies from Aurora University met the criteria for ordination.
Brown cites the cost of Bible College and seminary as cause for a “serious reconsideration” of the model. While it is true that theological education can be expensive, the costs are comparable to higher education in general. The cost of pursuing one’s education does not prevent millions of American families from sending their young adult children to college campuses every year. Aurora University, for example, recently admitted the largest freshman class in its history.
There are several solutions to the problem of the high cost of theological education.
At the local level, churches should sponsor the education of their members who wish to pursue a theological degree, and the continuing education of their pastoral staff as part of their compensation package. In addition to assisting with the cost, lay leadership should allow their pastoral staff to arrange their working hours to include additional time for reading, study, and other activities that graduate studies require.
Some Conferences, and a few of the Regions within the Advent Christian Church, offer scholarships for ministerial students. These funds, where possible, could be pooled together at the national level, to provide the opportunity for all of our churches to benefit.
The model for this program is found in the Western Advent Christian Association, or Western Region. The Western Region provides generous financial assistance for ministerial students, on the condition that upon graduation, they will serve an Advent Christian Church in the Western Region. The loan is then repaid by months of service, rather than dollars and cents. In the event that the recipient is unable to find a position in the west, the loan is then repaid in the traditional fashion. Originally designed to help recruit new ministers to the western United States, this program has been a blessing to many young pastors, now serving in the Western Region and elsewhere.
Another way to address the high cost of theological education is for local churches to increase salaries for pastors. It is entirely possible for a pastor to spend a six-figure sum to obtain an Master of Divinity, which requires 7 years (or more) of study. Upon graduation, the new minister can look forward to a starting salary in many churches that are scarcely higher than minimum wage. Other benefits like health insurance or a retirement package are simply not offered by many of our churches. Given these challenges, is it any wonder that we are facing a shortage of new ministers?
Brown describes the local church as the ideal model for theological education in three ways. He is correct in his description of the ideal local church, but evidence is lacking as to whether these conditions exist in many Advent Christian congregations.
For example, he says, “The church should be a hermeneutical community”, which is a lofty goal. Citing the fact that the interpretation of Scripture has been the work of primarily scholars and academics, thereby making it “inaccessible except in the academic fraternity”, he offers an alternative. Rev. Brown asks his reader to “Imagine leaders wrestling together over current spiritual and cultural issues informed by an ordered investigation of biblical/theological principles.”
This scenario is an excellent description of my experiences in seminary, both at the master’s and in particular, the doctoral level. The Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary was open only to those who had completed a Master of Divinity, in addition to three years of full-time ministry experience. Our discussions in the classroom and around the table at mealtimes were rich, as experienced Christian leaders gathered for study, in a setting very much like the one that Brown described.
In the local church, such times have been rare. Sunday School classes and small group meetings can easily devolve into what has been described as the sharing of ignorance, as member’s view are based on the teachings of televangelists, the world-views of cable news pundits, and“common sense”. Little learning actually takes place. I suspect that this scenario is more common than many of us would care to admit.
Brown further writes that “the church should be an educational community”, and while I am in agreement, I must take issue with his statement that “As home schooling has proven superior to public education in the church could become superior to current leadership training built off the university model of the West.”
The debate between home schooling vs. public education is far from settled, even among Advent Christians. No evidence is offered in support of this statement, so the appeal for a paradigm shift in theological education on this basis is similarly open to debate.
Pastor Brown continues: “The church should be a serving community”, to which I heartily add my “Amen!” He then argues that a church-based model of theological education would be less disruptive to the student’s family and church, and prevent further delay from service to the local church and the Kingdom of God.
The seminary model of theological education that is described does not reflect the reality of many candidates for ministry today, because of the changes that have occurred within the model.
As of this writing, there are 13 seminaries or divinity schools within a 50-mile radius of my home in La Grange, Illinois, according to the Association of Theological School’s website. The ATS is the largest accreditation agency for seminaries in the United States and Canada. 12 of the 13 identify as Christian, ranging from theologically liberal to evangelical, such as Moody Theological Seminary and Wheaton College’s Graduate School.
Each of these 12 schools requires the completion of a field education course for graduation. Even the 13th, a Unitarian-Universalist school that falls outside the realm of orthodox Christianity, has this requirement. This requirement can be met by completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, (CPE) in a non-traditional setting, such as a hospital or prison, or through an internship in the local church, under the supervision of an experienced pastor. The ATS requires a supervising pastor to hold a Master of Divinity and a minimum of 5 years of service in ministry. The seminary intern then gains the benefit of working in a congregational setting, with the guidance of a more experienced, and presumably, more mature leader.
Returning to my own experience in this area, Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas required all students to be active members of a local church before the end of their first semester of study. As students completed their course of study, the same requirement for field experience would be met, often in that same local church.
The field education requirement in all ATS accredited seminaries could potentially benefit many of our churches, in the ways that Brown describes.
The Church of the Highlands, where I currently serve, is in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. While many Advent Christian Churches are not in close proximity to such a large number of seminaries, there are an increasing number of satellite campuses offering instruction in regional centers to those who cannot relocate to the main campus. The main campus of Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts has trained many Advent Christian students in New England, and their satellite campuses in Charlotte and Jacksonville, Florida have as well. On-line learning in higher education has increased dramatically in the last decade, and theological education is no exception. It is now possible to earn a Master of Divinity, from an accredited and reputable seminary through online learning. These developments can only benefit the Advent Christian Church, as a seminary education is now accessible to more of our pastors than at any time in our history.
Regional Superintendents and other leaders should research the seminaries within their respective regions to discern which schools offer the best educational experiences for their students. Consideration should be given to factors such as the school’s theological and cultural beliefs, cost, and proximity to the Advent Christian congregations. Armed with this information, they will be well-prepared to guide young men and women within their regions who feel called to pastoral ministry.
Pastor Brown’s proposal, of a church-based model of theological education and leadership development, does not reflect the current state of theological education. While the needs of the church in general, and specifically, the Advent Christian Church are great, seminaries have responded to these needs by developing new programs and methods of delivering a biblically sound education in partnership with the local church. Let us seek out partnerships with the seminaries who can best serve the needs of our ministerial candidates, while we support them with our guidance, nurture, prayers, and dollars.