Tradition and Innovation: Seminaries that Change the World, Class of 2017-18

I loved going to Seminary. It defined me. It challenged me. It shaped me. It broke me down and built me up. Because of it, I am who I am today.

Seminary made me into my best self and from that place I gained the courage to engage in the world with energy, creativity, experience and confidence.

In seminary, I learned about the multi-cultural context of the Bible’s literature. I learned about the courage and stamina of the Hebrew prophets. I learned about the history of our faith. And I learned that ministry didn’t have to look any certain way.

In seminary, I was challenged not to accept easy answers, but to ask tougher questions and then to lead with insight, grace and resolve.

During my field education experience (the “internship” portion of a theological education), I given a training ground, lent a pulpit and a congregation.

In seminary, I learned that ministry could be fun, that ministry could be innovative, and that I could bring my whole self to the job.

The professors, clergy, classmates and alumni propelled me to a place where my commitment to justice in the world was inspired, sustained, and deepened through my spiritual exploration and faith formation. Seminary has been a defining institution for the church and the world, but also for my family and me.

In the nearly twenty years since I graduated from seminary and the world has changed significantly, but the need for leaders trained to think theologically has not.

It’s easy to get caught up in laments for the church. And it’s true:

  • • Seminary applications are down throughout theological education
  • • It has become increasingly difficult to recruit the type of talented individuals to seminary that are capable of and committed to leading the church
  • • Funding theological education has become more difficult given the student debt that most seminarians bring with them
  • • With mainline denominations shrinking, the job prospects and possibilities for seminary graduates becomes more and more bleak

What is not clear is what is behind these challenges.

Is the drop in applications the result of a lack of interest, or a signal for the seminary to reimagine and redesign and relaunch a new, more relevant, fast-paced, affordable education?

Is the dearth of qualified leaders interested in theological education the result of lack of interest in ministry, or do we need to recapture and communicate the powerful role that ministry plays in the community?

Is the decline in church attendance the result of a distracted or disinterested population, or the result of the Church’s infighting and intolerance which has left congregational life damaged or uninspiring?

Here is what I do know:

A small yet powerful (and loud) group of faith leaders have taken over the identity of faith communities. As a result, within our culture, the Church is often seen as judgmental, exclusive, intolerant and self-righteous.

There is a desperate and urgent need for faith leaders - especially those at seminaries and divinity schools - to resist these narrow views and instead demonstrate God’s presence, grace, and inclusiveness.

While church attendance is down, there is a booming interest in spiritual exploration, particularly among young adults. While people may have stopped going to church, this does not mean they no longer need ministry or community.

So how are we equipping young adults to lead in ministry and community building? Who are we training to be the moral leaders of the future?

The reality is that many young adults who exhibit strong leadership abilities are politically sophisticated, but biblically illiterate. But the biblically illiterate are not a population that seminaries and divinity schools have traditionally paid attention to or know how to access.

While theological education was primarily designed to train individuals to be leaders of the church, today seminaries are called to educate and launch leaders to have an ethical and faithful grounding in all that they do – whether within or outside of the walls of a church.

Hope in the midst of transitions: Seminaries that Change the World

So, what is a seminary to do?

This summer I was walking on a seminary campus and noticed newly printed banners on display. One of them claimed the school’s commitment to tradition and innovation – on the surface a seeming contradiction of terms.

This week Protestants around the world are marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s reformation. 500 years of the messy work of balancing tradition and innovation. It never gets any easier, it seems.

So how does an institution live into this tension? How does an institution equip leaders for a church and a world that needs something new and innovative, while still being true to its history and traditions?

I think the answers can be found in the innovative work already taking place at seminaries and divinity schools around the country.

Each year around this time, the Center for Faith and Service publishes a list of “Seminaries that Change the World.” This year’s list includes a diverse group of institutions that vary in size, theology, and geography. In their work, I find courageous action and reason to hope. In their work, I find a healthy dose of reverence for tradition tempered with bold commitment to innovation.

In this collection of schools, I have found schools that are educating and training some of our most inspiring leaders for critical roles in local, national, and international communities.

They are imagining, developing and delivering the most interesting, compelling, relevant and affordable graduate degree program in our culture. Along the way, they are reimagining how they fund theological education, who they recruit, and what types of careers and ministries they are equipping their students for.

These seminaries and divinity schools are living into the tension of tradition and innovation.

Understanding the challenge, seizing the opportunity

The call for seminaries to boldly innovate can be threatened by the understandable desire to fortify the institution against market forces, the desire to bolster endowments and protect from cultural shifts.

The schools identified in this year’s class embrace the challenge of innovation rather than retreat away from it. They value innovation over preservation. These institutions will not run out of mission before they run out of money.

Market forces are important to pay attention to, but they do not define mission. The visionary leadership of the schools that are recognized by Seminaries that Change the World is not merely reacting to the new realities, but also is charting a new course that anticipates opportunity and moves boldly in that direction, bringing others along in the process.

The world cannot afford seminaries to resign themselves to reduce their footprint. Rather than be defined by market forces, the leaders of these institutions are interpreting the shifts and are moving us forward accordingly.

“The horizon leans forward offering you steps to place new steps of change. (Maya Angelo)” And when we live into this we will fulfill the promise offered to us in the Book of Joel “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men and woman will see visions.”

2017-18 Seminaries that Change the World:

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Bethany Theological Seminary
Boston University School of Theology
Brite Divinity School
Calvin Theological Seminary
Candler School of Theology at Emory University
Christian Theological Seminary
Columbia Theological Seminary
Drew Theological School
Duke Divinity School
Earlham School of Religion
Eccumenical Theological Seminary
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Howard University School of Divinity
Iliff School of Theology
Luther Seminary
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University
McCormick Theological Seminary
San Francisco Theological Seminary
Jesuit School of Theology
Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry
Seminary of the Southwest
The School of Theology at Sewanee, The University of the South
Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University
Union Theological Seminary
The University of Chicago Divinity School
Vanderbilt Divinity School
Virginia Theological Seminary
Wake Forest Divinity School
Wesley Theological Seminary
Yale Divinity School

To learn more, or to see the 2017-18 Seminaries that Change the World, visit www.stctw.org

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