I believe many, if not all, of the surface-level issues we see in theological education stem from one deep-rooted cause. We (myself included) often single out challenges like the fact that theological education is prohibitively expensive or that the curriculum is not connected to local contexts as much as it could be. Recently, many have pointed to post-christendom as the primary challenge facing seminaries because they believe seminaries were built to serve the church in a different era. Others will say that the shrinking the local church or the lack of completely online degrees within ATS is the issue (NOTE: some ATS schools now have such degrees). We could continue expanding this list, but if we dig a little deeper we will find one issue may rest below all of these very real challenges. Dis-integration may prove to be the single biggest issue in theological education, and overcoming it the greatest challenge we face as seminaries.

In a previous post, I commented on my desire to focus on the immense task of integrated innovation. I have since led a workshop at the CFOS Conference (hosted by ATS) on the topic, and I enjoyed the conversations! Integration is an important task and it covers everything we do as seminaries. I have heard some people refer to it as the need to overcome the fragmentation that exists within our schools.

Over time, I will address various components of integration and its connection to the surface level issues we so often discuss. This topic relates to organizational and staffing structures, curriculum design, course delivery, relationships between local ministries and seminaries, and our understanding of ministry. As I address these components, I hope to hear your thoughts so please share them! Let’s begin by looking at what I mean by “dis-integration.”

What is Dis-integration?

In this instance, it does not mean crumbling or fragmentation in the since that things are falling apart. Rather, it refers to a lack of integration or “un-integration” which is inherent in the way we tend to form and operate seminaries. It is evident in how we develop educational programs.

The Dis-integrated Degree Model

Ministry (regardless of the type) is a generalist endeavor; but we have a system of theological education focused on the consumption of highly specialized content. It seems our educational programs are often designed using mutually exclusive building blocks rather than using integrated approaches focused on outcomes.

A student is granted a degree or certificate if he or she adequately participates in a set of courses designed to cover a broad range of topics. A degree becomes a formula comprised of Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Church History and Ethics courses which are supported by a cadre of individual courses focused on various aspects of ministry. A course on pastoral care, another on youth ministry, and another on preaching become additional blocks in the degree pyramid. Finally, students are asked to participate in a field ministry experience – again, often as a mutually exclusive building block. In some cases, the student doesn’t even receive credit for the field ministry program.

This model served us well for many years and it has many wonderful qualities. It may be time to revisit its underlying assumptions. Can one really study theology without considering scripture, the story of Christ’s church, his or her personal ministry context and the relationships involved therein? Can theological education make any assumptions about the level of spiritual formation taking place in local churches? While the building block model has been adjusted over the years with an effort to create “golden threads” that run throughout a degree, I believe we can do better.

A Few Possible Ways Forward

I do not claim to have all the answers or a secret model of theological education that will solve all our “integration” problems when it comes to designing and delivering academic programs. If I did, I would share those answers with as many people as possible in an effort to build the kingdom (versus building my own kingdom). However, I believe I have a few questions as well as a few ideas that might help us think more integratively. Be sure to let me know what you think.

Continuous and Concurrent Ministry Context

It seems that one way forward would be for students to be engaged in a ministry context from the moment they begin their program through to the end rather than relegating field ministry to one specific part of the program. Some schools are doing this, but often the method simply requires the student to be engaged in ministry. This means the ministry context is not truly integrated into the degree and I think we need to do more. The context of ministry is an important teacher and it needs to be more fully integrated. Some schools are beginning to do this well. The question is not “should students be involved in a continuous and concurrent ministry context,” but rather “how can we fully account for and integrate the continuous and concurrent ministry contexts of our students?” It is important for me to note that I use the phrase “local ministry context” to refer to the broad range of reasons students enroll in seminary.

Integrated Courses

Is it possible to design courses that integrate multiple “disciplines” rather than creating degrees using mutually exclusive building blocks? Over the years, many schools have created courses that are “team-taught” in that various professors cover different portions of the course. Some of those courses are more integrated than others. A friend of mine once said, “I don’t think its possible to talk about church history without also talking about theology and vice versa.” If that is the case (and I tend to agree), then why does nearly every institution divide them into mutually exclusive courses? It seems that an integrated system of theological education would build on the natural synergies that exist between the study and practice of ministry as well as those that exist between and across disciplines.

Incarnational Educational Paradigm

Much has been made of the missional church movement, and I resonate with the themes of that movement. What would an educational paradigm look like if it took seriously the incarnational and spirit-guided nature of Jesus’ mission? Would it ask students to continually disengage from their local contexts? I believe it may bring theological study and ministry training into the rhythm of one’s life rather than asking a student to wholly disrupt his or her life in order to engage in education. I am not saying theological study should be easy or fail to be rigorous. Instead, hear me ask the question, “Is there a way to deliver theological education in a way that it encourages a life of incarnational ministry which is guided by the Spirit? Students entering seminary have jobs, families, church or ministry activities, and hobbies which bring joy. We ask them to add an additional 40 to 60 hours per week of school if they want to be fulltime students. Is that a sustainable rhythm of life that allows for “working from rest” and being present in one’s local ministry context? I don’t believe it is, but I do believe an incarnational model of theological education would bring us closer to where we need to be.

Your thoughts?

I know I have asked a lot of questions and opened the doors to many different conversations. My goal is to continue a conversation that has been started by many others. As I begin my new role at Sioux Falls Seminary, I have been blessed by the conversations I have had thus far. There is a strong hunger for new models of theological education. I believe we can create something new if we continue to ask the right questions.

What are your answers to some of these questions? What does an integrated system of theological education look like to you?