SEPTEMBER 10, 2001
Problems and Solutions in Theological Education
-- Martin E. Marty
The classic professions, medicine, law, and religion, have long had distinctive cultures. One shared element of these cultures is the desire among physicians, lawyers, and clerics to assess their respective professional cultures, to look for trends, and, if necessary, to call for changes.
We like to report periodically on what Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education finds about the education and training of clergy. Auburn's attractive new report booklet asks "Is There a Problem?" in respect to "Theological Students and Religious Leadership for the Future." It focuses on "entering master's-level students at theological schools in North America their ages, genders, social backgrounds, and vocational goals." Most findings are consistent with those of the past two or three decades. Yes, there are problems. Not all of them are deadly. Some of them are addressable.
It will surprise no one that the mid-century predominance of young, white, male college graduates in our nation's seminaries is long gone. Today, one out of three seminarians is a woman. In some sectors as many as half are women. Minorities are better represented but not nearly sufficiently to meet the needs of a changing America. Not surprisingly, the median age of students entering seminaries has risen.
Congregations have become better recruiting grounds than college campuses. Non-religious liberal arts colleges and universities, fertile recruiting bases a half-century ago, are now disaster areas. One result of this recruiting drought is that far too many of today's seminary students have insufficient collegiate training in the humanities. Students entering seminaries without a strong background in humanities, do so without one of the firmest academic foundations for theological and ministerial studies.
The biggest problem, it seems to us as we read the report, is that seminaries have, often of necessity, become quite unselective in admissions. When compared to law and medical schools, seminary selectivity is especially low. The academic demands in many theological schools are lower than they should be. Christians who invoke Paul the Apostle's "not many wise were called. . . ." folksily romanticize this "non-selectivity" theme, but Auburnites and the Association of Theological Schools won't have it. Ours is a complex culture and theological and ministerial needs make enormous demands on the intellect as well as the spirit.
Those who are young, recently graduated from college, and steeped in the humanities, bring one set of obvious pluses. Wheeler & Co. are careful to point out that the older, second-career people with varieties of backgrounds and experiences bring pluses of their own. They won't let participants or observers on either side of the age divides belittle the other.
But the study's recommendations are clearly on the side of bringing a sense of urgency to changing collegiate culture, introducing the values of communal-congregational-organized religion in a culture that values more gauzy individualized spirituality, and helping seminaries work together to make higher demands.
Public religion in America, like medicine and law, does not profit if the clergy is weak. Neither does public America, religious, non-religious, or anti-religious, as a whole.