For several years, accredited American seminaries have been searching for ways to help make the typical “new seminary student” prepared for parish service.
As the average age reaches well above 30 for these second career seekers, leaders at the schools are facing “enormous challenges” according to an analysis in the Chronicle of Higher Education (April 7). The major issue is over the future of the traditional curricula long serving the seminaries, accenting theology, history, ethics, social analysis and other formal academic fields. Educators find that the approximately 27,000 students in some 179 seminaries across the country have enormous energy and dedication, but are seriously lacking in background knowledge in the major fields.
Many seminarians are comparatively new converts to their respective denominations, and thus lack a long-range understanding of what it is to be a Methodist or Catholic. As the article puts it, “How to educate this new breed of students is the biggest topic of conversation in theology schools today.” What appears to be emerging as a response by many seminaries is the recognition that the new students may lack in academic fields, but bring other valuable gifts to their education. Having been employed for several years, they understand work, money, and family pressures. They can empathize with parishioners who have no long-standing loyalty to a specific denomination.
Beyond that, observers note, the new seminarians bring gifts which in today’s world are highly sought after: comfort in working in a culturally and racially divisive world; administrative and social skills, and a recognition that they are in for the long haul in their second career. This, the article suggests, has already created new conflicts, ones which will only grow deeper in the years ahead. Seminary leaders recognize that perhaps the best qualifications of all for parish pastors are the skills of personal commitment, life experience insights, and social skills.
This may well mean the historical emphasis on seminary education in the traditional fields will diminish over the next few decades. This transition mirrors the national trend of diminishing identification with the older churches (and their history, theology, ethics) and a wider embrace of parish pastor leadership as being a primarily relational, people-serving ministry. Not knowing “Aristotle from Aquinas” as the story title reads, may not be so important as preparing ministers for hands-on social and personal issues.
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contribuing editor