In his book Earthen Vessels, Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, refers to 2 Corinthians 4:7 as a pivotal verse in his understanding of the role of theological education. In the introduction to the book, he writes about how he used that verse in the beginning of a course he taught called Formation for Christian Ministry. A concluding statement he provides for one paragraph reads, “A jar has value only to the extent that it fulfills its function. Ministry is like that – and this is Paul’s point. Ministry is never about the minister; it is always about the gospel the minister proclaims.”
He goes on to say that theological education is also like an earthen vessel or a clay jar. It is durable and fragile, perfect for a given use, but also imperfect. Perhaps his most intriguing statement is, “Earthen vessels, unlike wineskins, can hold both new wine and old wine. At a time when change is a dominant characteristic of religious life in North America, it is reassuring that a resource, like a vessel, that served in one way in an earlier time can serve in another way in another time.”
The challenge and opportunity set before us today is to “serve in another way in another time.” Theological education in North America is undergoing significant levels of change. Some of these adjustments address areas within our system that are in dire need of change (like the price of tuition). Other adjustments are attempts to retain the important essence of theological education or to preserve important pieces of history. There is value in each approach.
As Sioux Falls Seminary continues on its remarkable journey of transformation, we do so with a robust understanding of 1) the changing landscape of the Church in North America, 2) the characteristics of the schools who are committed to theological education, and 3) the modifications to our system that are coming as a result of the perceived disconnection between the Church and theological education.
Over the few months, we are going to share some of what we have learned in each of these areas. In doing so, we will create an up-to-date picture, a selfie if you will, of theological education in North America. I think we will see a need for change, a need for holding fast, and a need to let go.
The treasure we have in clay jars, the gospel of our Lord, deserves to be handled with care and intentionality. In doing so, followers of Christ are able to create a fresh expression of ministry, an expression of what it looks like to be on mission with God. As a seminary, we are called to provide a system of theological education that facilitates such a reality.