Some 25 years ago, at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, I delivered an address titled “The Crisis in American Theological Education.” At that time, seminary enrollments were enjoying a slight surge, and the future, on the surface at least, looked somewhat hopeful. But I identified three trends that made me suggest that we might be seeing the last flush of a terminal illness.
In the succeeding years, my warning proved prophetic. With few exceptions, seminary enrollments have declined sharply with several having closed. Others, even some of those which might have been thought strongest, have had to retrench sharply, some selling beautiful tree-lined campuses to take up residence in faceless office buildings, and others selling dormitories. Some of this is a domino effect, extending from the precipitous decline of the so-called “mainline” denominations. As those denominations have lost members and income, their seminaries have withered in harmony with them.
As serious as the apparent decline is, the situation is more serious than that. The issue strikes at the heart of what a seminary is supposed to be. Historically, seminaries have been professional schools. That is, like a law school, they have existed to prepare their graduates for a profession, the profession of church ministry. And the bulk of seminary graduates have sought ministerial degrees, most recently the master of divinity (M.Div.) degree.
But that is no longer the case. In most seminaries today, students are not seeking to be trained as pastors. They are looking to become professors, counselors, or leadership trainers (whatever that may be), or they simply want to study religious subjects with little idea how that might contribute to their future. One major denominational seminary which receives over a million dollars in subsidy from its denomination graduated a total of 11 M.Divs. in 2021.
If there was a crisis 25 years ago, the crisis is exponentially more serious now.
In my 1997 address, I highlighted three trends that I believed were precipitating seminaries into crisis. However, I am happy to say that those institutions which have continued to address those trends (for they are perennial and are not going to go away) have survived and even prospered. Still, the price of survival is constant, continuing vigilance. The three crises are these: a crisis of faith, a crisis of vision, and a crisis of nerve.
Crisis of faith
The crisis of faith is a diminished trust in the Bible. Over the last 250 years, the Bible has come in for many serious, unrelenting attacks. The historicity of its accounts has been attacked; its origins in revelation from the one, true God have been attacked; the character of its religious claims has been attacked.
But the Bible is the one foundational document of the Christian faith. Destroy this book, and the faith loses all warrant for existence. The enemies of Christian faith understand this, even if many people who call themselves Christian seem not to get it.
Thus, the challenge for theological seminaries is to equip students with a confidence in the Bible as truth with a deep understanding of its content, and an ability to counteract the attacks on it with competence and a Christian spirit.
Lose the authority of the Bible, and everything else that a theological seminary teaches is chaff blowing in the wind. Undergird everything we teach with a biblical foundation, and it all becomes profoundly significant.
Yet we see seminary after seminary teaching the Bible in such a way that the students’ confidence in it as the fount of truth is not built up, but eroded. We see biblical subjects and the theological subjects that extend from the Bible being given smaller and smaller portions of the curriculum as it becomes necessary to insert more and more “practical” subjects into it. But if the minister does not have confidence in, and thorough knowledge of, the Bible, I daresay the minister has no worthwhile ministry to practice.
Crisis of vision
The second crisis, I call a crisis of vision. What does a seminary exist to do? I argue that it exists to train pastors who are deeply capable biblical theologians. Other people can mow the lawn, change the light bulbs, and run the potlucks, but there is almost certainly only one person in the congregation who is or should be trained to answer the question “What says the Word of God?”
Seminaries must see it as their business to provide that kind of training. Unquestionably, we have to work with those who come to us; we can’t turn away those who want to study with us although they have no pastoral call. But if we keep ourselves afloat by catering to those call-less persons, all the while subtly projecting the image that to be a pastor is really a second-class affair, we have lost sight of what we are about.
We must find ways to publish the truth that there is no higher calling than the call to pastoral ministry, to lovingly shepherd the flock that is often cantankerous, rebellious, and wayward, but utterly lost without a shepherd. Maybe it will mean giving up a “guaranteed appointment.” Maybe it will involve bi-vocational ministry or church planting, but we must find ways to say to students that if they are called to the pastorate, they should not stoop to be kings or queens.
Crisis of nerve
The third crisis in theological education is a crisis of nerve. Someone has said that the strongest drive in the human psyche is the drive for acceptance. Whether that is true for individuals or not, it is certainly true of institutions. We want to be accepted, to be honored. But whose honor do we seek?
Too often, as it was for Israel, the honor we seek is that of the sophisticated, cultured Canaanite. So we pursue “excellence,” not so that we may be approved by God, but so that our peers will no longer look down on us. We want the approval of the world, and we prostitute our mission in order to gain that approval.
I want to ask myself and my colleagues, “Who are you working for?” and “What are you working for?”
If we sell our birthright, as Esau did, to satisfy our lust for the world’s approval, we will have lost everything. Will we compromise ourselves to get another million? Will we consider saving the institution more important than fulfilling our mission? This is a subtle but absolutely vital distinction. If we save the institution by compromising the mission, what we saved was not worth saving.
Now it must be said that as the church goes, so goes theological education. We are facing a precipitous decline in church membership in North America. Will the market for theological education in an institutionalized form dry up? Is the crisis a terminal illness? There is that serious possibility, but there is hope.
The prescription: If we will hold fast our faith in the Bible, our vision for training shepherds, and our nerve to stand against the world, theological education will continue in one form or another until the Lord returns. Have we the nerve?