Sioux Falls Seminary was founded when a group of German Baptist churches felt the need to work together to develop pastors for German Baptist churches. Taylor Seminary, our sister seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, was founded by a group of pastors who gathered to develop additional pastors for service in Alberta. Stories like these are common for seminaries all across North America and even around the world. Theological education began as something the church did in order to develop pastors. In those days, theological education flowed from within the local church.
It was not long, however, that the distance between the church and the academy began to widen. Soon, seminaries became something that “served” the church rather than something that was part of the church. In this world, the academy hands to students what it thinks they need and those students then hand it to members of their churches. As this process continued, the “culture” of theological education began to take shape in such a way that it hindered change.
In a journal article titled Theological Education: The Next Generation, Wayne Stacy noted that it has become difficult to make the kinds of changes, pedagogical, philosophical, and institutional, that both the church and society demand. This is true for smaller schools as well as for larger ones. Inertia due to size is not the only factor. The broader culture of theological education is too. This culture serves as a ballast against the kind of creativity needed to think differently about theological education.
In our opinion, reconnecting theological education to its roots in the local church is perhaps a good way to push against this inertia. By decentralizing the process of theological education and empowering local churches to take ownership, once again, of developing disciples who can lead and serve the church, change, creativity, and ongoing innovation become the norm and not simply a one-time endeavor.
The connection between the church and the academy is important for the body of Christ, but it must be a relationship in which each side recognizes and values the input of the other. Neither the church nor the academy has the “right” answers, and each needs the other, for it is in community that we are able to discern the call of God and the movement of the Spirit.
In a recent essay written by Philip Thompson, Heather Henson, and myself, we articulated this point by writing:
“While the theological school continues to exist, it cannot be the center from which all content emanates, though one could adopt a more medical analogy and say it serves as a kind of ‘nerve center’ through which impulses are directed rightly for the carrying out of necessary actions. Even then, there is a decentered quality. Local decisions are not made by the faculty meeting together and then handed down. Yet they are not made in an entirely disconnected manner. Discussions that arise from ministry contexts and situations receive input from the seminary through the faculty mentors. That said, there is a certain ceding of uniformity for the sake of context and local mentor teams that also could conceivably raise the question of acceptable levels of diversity in practice.”
With Jesus as the center, one’s journey of theological education must flow from her experience within the life and ministry of a local church while being supported and informed by the resources present within the academy. Reconnecting to our roots within the local church is perhaps the most important step that Sioux Falls Seminary has taken over the past four years. We are excited to see how God continues to pull us closer!