Can we reimagine theological education?

UPDATE (05/27/14): All links to Theocademy now point to the new website and project.

I’ve started an experiment, and I wonder if you’d like to help.

No lie, I was keynoting a conference last weekend, struggling with getting to sleep as I often do my first night away from home an a trip, and decided to read Seth Godin’s new (free) book STOP STEALING DREAMS: What is school for? (the all caps are his, not mine, btw). That was a bad idea.

Seth Godin is one of my “People you’d want to have lunch with” (Malcolm Gladwell being the other), and I find anything he writes to be perfect. He has an uncanny ability to cut through the bullshit of a given topic and lock onto the aspect that needs considering/questioning/improving/reforming/etc. In his new book, he turns his sights on education, specifically higher education. Here’s the blurb:

The economy has changed, probably forever.

School hasn’t.

School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.

In this 30,000 word manifesto, I imagine a different set of goals and start (I hope) a discussion about how we can reach them. One thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.

Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.

Reading this book did not help me go to sleep. Quite the opposite. Given my professed love of in depth theological education, I automatically thought of seminary as I read.

I thought about the countless seminary graduates who bemoan that “seminary did not prepare them for this” or “I didn’t learn to be a pastor in seminary. I learned to quote Calvin/Luther/Wesley/[theologian of choice].”

I thought about the crisis (yes, crisis) we are currently having around seminarian debt load.

I thought about the fact that the pilgrimage model of obtaining a residential seminary education is no longer desirable or tenable for many would be pastors (I, also, don’t happen to think it is a necessary model). Even if a person graduates with no educational debt, they often incur significant consumer debt in order to live.

I thought about the fact that, even if we can get young adults to enter ministry, a disturbing number of them are gone after 5 years. My own denomination released a study in 2005 that indicated that the number of “ministry drop outs” has quadrupled from a similar study in the 1970s.

I thought about the increasingly powerful tools of digital, online collaboration.

I thought about Wikipedia.

I thought about YouTube.

I thought about TED.

I thought about Khan Academy.

After all of this, at around 2am, I had an idea. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a Divine Download. I was jazzed, and didn’t go to sleep until after 4am, and the idea I’m calling Theocademy was born.


Before I go too much farther, let me make a few things clear.

I love seminaries. Specifically, I love the seminaries of my own denomination (I serve on the national committee which seeks to serve these 10 amazing institutions). This is not about sticking it to seminaries. I know that a lot of people think that what’s wrong with the Mainline church today is our seminaries. I could not disagree more. These seminaries know what the Church is facing and they are working to respond. Cut them some slack that the change isn’t happening as fast as you want. Most of us can barely get our 100 member, $200K budget churches to change. Try turning the ship that is a seminary. It’s not easy or quick.

Yet, while the current slate of seminaries are working to address the coming future of the Church, we have an opportunity to dream new dreams and take advantage of the tools and ethos at our disposal. So, while this isn’t about hurting seminaries, it is about experimenting to see if there is a new and different way forward than the one we’ve assumed.

This is also not about trying to replace the process by which we form pastors. In fact, if I was being honest, I would say that denominations have wrongly abdicated their responsibility to form pastors to the seminaries. If the folks at the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project are to be believed (and I think they are), the only way to be formed as a pastor is to “practice pastoring.” Yes, we need a bit of information, but the way you become a pastor is by actually pastoring. And yet, we expect fully seasoned pastors once we hand them an MDiv. Sorry. That ain’t gonna happen.

And so, if the purpose of seminary can’t be – shouldn’t be – to “form pastors” then what are we left with? Learning theology, biblical interpretation, etc.

And here is where we have a problem. With the countless resources available to me online, what is to stop me from getting a theological education by taking advantage of those resources and working through them with my pastor? What? They aren’t qualified to reflect on that material deep enough to help someone reach a level of competence? Then why are they a pastor? We need to get those folks out of congregations quick before they screw up the people in Sunday School!🙂

Here’s what I want to try: Can we figure out a way to generate a body of theological, biblical, and pastoral knowledge and make sure that everyone who wants it has access to it?

Yes, I’m proposing a theological Wikipedia of sorts. Yes, I’m asking if what has worked for Khan Academy can work for the Church.

We used to train pastors in apprenticeship situations all the time. For thousands of years, one pastor trained another. The centralized theological academy is not the end all and be all of theological education. When I have access to the teachings of Richard Rohr at my digital fingertips, why do I need to travel half way across the country to learn it from you? Why can’t I reflect on it with my pastor? Isn’t she equipped for that?

To that end, the experiment known as Theocademy.

I want to see if we can become our own instructors again. I want to see if the Church is able to reclaim its responsibility to train the leaders that she will need for the next phase of the Church’s life. I can give you a dozen names right now that already are stellar instructors and that I hope participate in this experiment. And that’s just from my Twitter following list. I know there are people out there that I don’t know that will blow our socks off. Would you come over and be a part of it?

17 thoughts on “Can we reimagine theological education?”

  1. Ok, I’ll admit that the initial debut of Theocademy kind of made me yawn, but this post has made me really really interested. I can think of a million reasons why “it won’t work,” but I don’t care because if it can work (and I think it can), then it could be a game-changer.

    1. That makes my heart race in a “What would have happened if we couldn’t have found our lost kid?” way. Okay, then. I expect you’re help on this.🙂 You’re the kind of critical thinker that it’s gonna take to make something like this work.

      I agree – this could probably make things a lot different, but we’ve got a lot of things to test out. The biggest, in my mind, is whether people are actually willing to do something like this. I think they are, but that’s a pretty big assumption.

  2. Part of me finds this idea exciting–and part of me is horrified. When I think about the number of truly incompetent sermons I’ve heard, when I recall the frightful theology in some of the devotional booklets I’ve read, when I reflect on some of the boneheaded pastoral care I’ve been told about, I have a hard time getting enthused about the idea that any pastor could be a suitable mentor. Why can’t I reflect on [theology and ministry] with my pastor? Isn’t she equipped for that? In too many cases, no, she’s not.

    1. I absolutely LOVE that you used the word “horrified.”

      I do not doubt the examples you offered at all. I have been on both sides of those. However, my thought on those would be “But that’s what seminary as we know it has gotten us thus far. Ready to try something new?”

      I know a vast number of high functioning pastors who were trained in the current system. But if the critical piece is formation, then I want to free up everyone to focus on that, since information is readily available.

      And now, a pointed question: Given that you edited Open Source Church and know my thought process as well as anyone, do you buy this explanation?

      1. I didn’t intend to take so long to respond to this note, but life has been one interruption after another the past while. I think your question–Ready to try something new?–is a good one. But if we’re going to break away from the world we’ve gotten to “thus far,” we need leaders (using that term in the broadest possible sense) who really do think and see differently.

        That said, your referring to your book gives me hope. Yes, really! You’ve reminded me that we don’t have to rely on the experts, the usual sources, that there’s plenty of wisdom “out there,” if only we’ll open the floodgates and let people share what they know, their hard-won wisdom.

        So OK, yeah, let’s give it a whirl!

      1. I was referring to the Theocademy. If a congregation member is studying at/with the Theocademy then they have the opportunity to hear many voices on theological matters other than their pastor’s. They have the opportunity to have their own voice heard and affirmed as well.

        So Clyde and Stella have the opportunity to hear someone say something different than Pastor GodCausesEarthquakesToPunishSinners. They can dialogue about these other theological perspectives with Pastor GCETPS and if he shoots them down with no real dialogue they still have other Theocademians to dialogue with and realize that their Pastor may not know everything.

      2. Got it. yes. I think that’s the idea.

        And God bless Pastor GCETPS. Cause someone needs to.

  3. I like the basic idea behind this. One of the things that always stuck out to me while in seminary was that largely we were having the same conversations that could have been had for the past 2000 or more years. Sure we gain new insights based on new experience/understanding/whatever, but for the most part, much of the work is coming from the same source material. So theoretically someone with the time, and access to the right resources could be just as trained as the most highly educated pastor. Maybe there is still a need for some specialized research, like church history, Greek, or whatever, but much of the practical theology is pretty accessible. That isn’t true for all fields. It would be hard for someone to get the medical practice that they need to be a highly trained nurse or doctor by just reading books or looking at pictures of the body (and not in that way, perv.).

    I think that a couple of things need to happen simultaneously to this though.

    First, beyond theological/practical training, there needs to be a space for personal formation. I know that many come to seminary as mature, well rounded folks who just need the theological framework to attach their experiences to. Many though, myself included, showed up at seminary with a lot of need for formation and maturing. So even though I don’t use my seminary training to the degree that someone serving as a church pastor might, I don’t consider my education, or the 20 years of paying off student loans that I have to look forward to, a waste because I know that I was transformed through not only the training, but also the relationships that I formed during seminary.

    Secondly, congregations and denominational/organizational leadership really need to figure out what it is that they want from their leadership, both pastors and those who would invest in this time commitment of learning and growth. Without this happening in conjunction with designing the new way of teaching/learning, all will very much end up for naught. I think that this is one of the key challenges that churches are facing right now, they have never really spent much time thinking about what they want from their pastors, and therefore what sort of training they would hope that they would have received. Everyone wants someone to show up that will help them grow, maybe spiritually, but almost always numerically, says nice, and sometimes challenging things on Sunday, etc., but do they really know what they need, and does the training program even exist that would help form the leadership that they are seeking? I think a lot of trust is currently placed in the institutions and structural processes right now that individuals go through that congregations take for granted when they seek a pastor. Sometimes that trust is well founded, sometimes it isn’t. But deciding what the training needs are for the future it will be hard to create a new system for that educational process.

  4. I agree with Shawn. I specifically added extra spaces, only to have them removed. It is going to take me some time to work through this.

  5. As a software engineer having just applied to candidacy and seminary in the ELCA (Lutheran), here’s my take on it. Engineering is a long undergrad program, with internships on top of that. So I graduated, thought I knew a lot, and quickly found out that I sure didn’t. I know a *lot* more now. Not claiming to be an expert, but I can truthfully say I’m a solid contributor to my team now, after some years in the field. And yet, I think my education was as it needed to be. Lots of info, but they couldn’t have made me into an engineer. Good mentors did that, and now I’m the mentor, and that’s my ministry at this time.

    I’m coming to candidacy with that background. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to get Greek, Luther, Melancthon, and Tillich crammed into my head (true dat!). And I think this will go the same way. They’ll drill the knowledge, but I have to accept responsibility to also attach myself to caring people who will help my formation. And cultivate relationships with people I can offer my love and support. Thanks be to God that Luther Seminary has a distance program for MDiv! Sadly the ELCA is kind of behind the times in its definition of professional ministry.

    So no, I’d never be selfish enough to expect my pastor to mentor me. Because I have the luxury of a finite work week, and it’s A LOT of work to mentor AND do my own things. With the expectations thrown at him, there’s just no way he could give me that much time. But, I engage him, and I know it will continue to build me up along my path. And I’m still young, determined, and passionately believe that problems are opportunities.

    To make a long story short (too late!) I pray our seminaries will continue to beef up their distance programs, and to be more flexible in timelines. Time may very well be our friend. I’m excited about your theocademy project, and hopefully some of your non-Calvinist, non-Reformed brothers and sisters in faith can be good contributors along the way!

  6. In the absence of any paying gig in ministry I have taken it upon myself to reach out to those that want to $%&@ the ministry box and those that are scared $h!tless as they are about to graduate seminary and walk with them as we are teaching, supporting, and creating communities of theological conversation together.

    I will never serve or engage church systems in any normative fashion. Who am I kidding. Normative systems and I have a Sid & Nancy like relationship.

    I am down with this endeavor. I hope we can pursue all kinds of ideas with vigor. If we fail, let us fail gloriously. If we success, let us succeed in the Name of God. Either way stuff will hit the fan, stuff will drop, stuff with strike a nerve, and the fearfully, wonderfully creatures of God will be loved.

  7. I think that the biggest issue in going to seimnary’ or bible college as its called here in Australia, is the complete lack of attention paid to practical application of what you are learning. I find it unbelieveable that there is next to no importance placed on giving students the practical hands on tools they will need once they leave study. After all Christianity is a very practical lifestyle, its all about going, serving, giving, teaching etc yet the very places we trust to train our pastors seems (by inaction usually) to totally fail at equipping students with practical skills That is why I’ve worked hard to do all my study by distance while i’ve been actively involved/working at a church so that i can get the balance i need and learn both aspects to ministry. I think we need to think more about making this happen in our churches, because i feel the current model sets a lot of people up to fail as soon as they leave study and hit the real world’. I know of a lot of people who have simply disappeard’ from church after leaving bible college with their qualifications

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