The growing burden of student-loan debt and a lack of commitment to traditional theology is threatening the survival of mainline seminaries and watered-down Bible schools who are losing their relevancy to the real needs of the church and its future ministers.
So says a seminary dean in an op-ed article published late last month in the Wall Street Journal commenting on a study by The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, which has done several studies in the past on the implications of theological student debt.
"Big-box seminaries, unanchored from any ecclesiastical tradition and
from any family of churches, might suffer as costs rise and technology
evolves," wrote Russell D. Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
"But that doesn't mean the only alternative is the clickable
equivalent of a mail-order divinity degree. When it comes to ministry,
brick and mortar, flesh and blood, can't be wholly replaced by pixels
and bandwidth. Some seminaries will teeter, and theological education
will change. But I think that finding the next generation of pastors
will not mean plunging into the brave new world so much as treading good
old paths with a fresh outlook."
According to the Auburn study, churches could have fewer job candidates from which to choose since
ministerial students are often so hampered by college student loans—which
can range from $30,000 to $80,000. Such potential or actual debt burdens will either render them unable to
continue their studies or make it eventually impossible to live on the
usually modest salaries that await graduates.
The Auburn study was reported recently in Christianity Today. As the study put it, seminarians may be "too poor for a vow of poverty."
The founders of Greenville Seminary foresaw this more than 25 years ago, and our trustees have consequently been determined to keep tuition rates low while maintaining quality education based on a firm commitment to Scripture and historic Christian confessions. GPTS tuition is approximately two-thirds of that at comparable schools, a fact that has driven our determination to fund our programs largely through contributions by faithful supporters who share our vision — both individuals and churches.
Christianity Today predicted that recent trends in the cost and quality of seminary education would lead to increased reliance on what it called the "iSeminary" — online theological education.
"Trends such as these make Christian academics nervous. After all, our
hymnals and songbooks are already fighting a losing battle against the
overhead-projection screen and iTunes. What happens, academics worry,
when we replace accredited seminaries dedicated to classical disciplines
with the online equivalent of Uncle Ronnie's Bible School?" Moore wrote, adding, "That bleak view of the future is misdirected."
"First of all, solid
theological education, steeped in the classical disciplines, has a long
history; so does low-quality religious education by unaccountable
schools offering credentials to the lazy and unqualified. Churches and
future ministers know the difference. The technological revolution may
empower dumbed-down schools, but no more so than the dubious
correspondence programs of the past."
At Greenville Seminary, our commitments to solid, historically based theological education at an affordable price seek to avoid the "dumbing-down" of ministerial training while still offering innovations in delivery. All of our classes are available to locally mentored distance-learning students via online streaming or electronic download. While we continue to stress the preferability of on-campus learning, fellowship and scholarly interaction, the new methods of delivery are an option for those who cannot make the move to residency studies for one reason or another.
"And not all online ministerial education will be suspect—just as
first-rate universities like Stanford and Harvard are exploring ways to
offer classes online to a wider audience, so too will solid seminaries," Moore wrote.
"Churches and future ministers will know the difference there as well. I
suspect that the next generation will find what the seminary I serve has
seen: online programs supplementing rather than supplanting the
life-on-life classical theological education.
"More important, the sorts of questions raised by student debt and
ministerial career instability may help reattach ministerial education
to its real-world moorings: education with churches in mind, not just
theology. In order to train ministers, Protestant communities must
abandon the current system in which future pastors discern, almost in
isolation, a call from God and then seek out training ad hoc."
Moore noted that there will always be, as there has in the past as far back as the Apostles, a number of men who enter the ministry as a "second career," having been educated and employed in other professions.
"But the ideal pattern is for churches to seek to identify, early in
life, those who are gifted and called to ministry; the churches should
then be held accountable for guiding these potential ministers in
seeking strategic, sound and affordable training. What if local
congregations didn't merely rely on the availability of seminary
graduates who decided to embark on a theological education after
college, but actively kept an eye out for the stirring of the religious
calling in young people all the way back to vacation Bible school?"
This is precisely what Greenville Seminary has always encouraged and sought to implement by establishing and maintaining close working relationships with churches, church bodies and denominations. Our accreditation comes from those who are like-minded, and we have established contractual accountability relationships with 13 church bodies.
Furthermore, churches like these and others who agree to support us financially at specified levels are eligible to send students whose tuition is waived by the seminary, in exchange for certain work-study obligations. We ask churches who send us students to test and confirm the prospective student's gifts, and men who apply for the divinity program must be endorsed by their church's elders.
"The seminaries most closely tied to churches would be those most
likely to thrive," said Moore. "Churches that have an existing relationship with their
young potential pastors will be more likely to support them
financially, and to tie their learning to the life of their churches.
That would be an improvement over the current education model, an
artificially supervised one in which students do pastor-like tasks and
are evaluated by strangers. The churches would be better able to discern
a call to ministry the way the church always has: by watching ministers
minister and, to use biblical imagery, fanning flickering gifts into a
Moore said that the approach he described "would weed out those who simply want to 'help people' or
to deal with their personal demons—a common enough motivation for
entering seminary. And such an approach would narrow the search's scope
to those genuinely equipped to preach, counsel and lead. It would also
enable one generation of pastors to guide the next one not only through
questions like 'What's the relationship of predestination to free will?'
but also 'Where should I go to school and how should I pay for it?'"