January 31, 2001
Public Perceptions of Theological Education
-- W. Clark Gilpin
What do members of the wider public know about theological educationand think about the religious leaders that seminaries train? Suchquestions recently prompted Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for theStudy of Theological Education to conduct a study entitled "Missing Connections: Public Perceptions of Theological Education and Religious Leadership." To find some answers, the Auburn Center, located in New York City, decidedagainst the predictable approach of mailing out questionnaires and insteadspoke directly to people in four cities with different levels of seminarypresence and varied religious climates: Atlanta, Georgia; Portland,Oregon; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Shreveport, Louisiana. Those interviewedincluded newspaper reporters, college presidents, elected officials, businessand non-profit leaders, clergy and laity.
Auburn's interviewers discovered that theological schools are "virtuallyinvisible," even in the cities in which they are located. Although notall respondents were as poorly informed as the member of Congress who confusedhis local seminary with a nursing home, theological schools and their graduatesare not widely viewed as civic and educational assets to their cities andregions. The most significant exceptions to this public anonymitywere African-American clergy, liberal rabbis, and the presidents of historicallyAfrican-American theological schools, who have established track recordsfor speaking on civic projects and policies. The summary of the reportis in its title, "Missing Connections." Members of the public perceivea lack of involvement in civic affairs by theological schools, and theyregard this absence as a missed opportunity. (The full text of theAuburn Center's report may be found on its website, http://www.auburnsem.org,and a limited number of printed copies are available.)
For this writer, two elements of the Auburn report suggest avenues forchanging the public perception of theological education. First, the reportobserves that public leaders "are not always clear-and when they are clearoften differ with each other-about what increased religious presence inpublic life would really mean." Second, in reference to the low visibilityof clergy and seminaries, Auburn President Barbara G. Wheeler points outthat "the patterns uncovered by our study are not unique to religion."
These observations from the Auburn report suggest two avenues for energizingthe dormant connections of seminaries to public life. First, as educationalinstitutions, theological schools are ideal forums for sustained discussionof "what increased religious presence in public life would really mean." As regular readers of "Sightings" know, varied expressions of religionare omnipresent in American society, and theological schools have a publiceducational obligation to assist citizens in exploring and interpretingthese varied "connections." Second, the perceived public invisibilityof ministry as a profession raises questions about the civic dimensionof professional education in all fields. Theological schools haveunderdeveloped "connections" to professional schools for business, socialwork, law, and medicine, whom theological schools might properly convenein order to rethink the ethical and civic responsibilities that are constitutiveof professional careers and that transcend the narrow "practice" of anygiven profession.
W. Clark Gilpin is professor of the history of Christianity and of theologyat the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of*A Preface to Theology* (1996).