re-re-thinking online theological education (part 1)

In this and a series of subsequent posts I’m going to think-out-loud my thoughts on theological colleges, seminaries, and online education. If you’re here usually for mostly classical language pedagogy, feel free to take a short break from reading! But otherwise, we’re going to be thinking about five core questions:

  1. What is theological education for?
  2. Who is theological education for?
  3. What is education?
  4. Who are our communities?
  5. What happens when we go online?

And in today’s post I’m discussing the first two of these questions: what is TE for, and who is it for?

If we rewind 70 years or so, and think about the nature of theological colleges as seminaries, that is as training places for preparing (almost entirely young men) people for a career-length vocation as ministers in denominational settings, I think we get a clearer sense of the earlier version of theological colleges. Those were places generally, where you could expect a man, often unmarried, to come and live for 3-4 years and be trained in how to be a pastor. They’d then go out, get a church, and be in (the) ministry for 30-60 years.
In that historical context, theological education exists for the purpose of producing trained vocational staff for the church. That is still very much part of the rationale for theological colleges – they train ministers. However, that is not all they do, and shifts in (i) ministry-patterns, (ii) education-patterns, (iii) broader demographic changes, all mean that:
  1. less and less people present as young unmarried persons ready to enter a lifetime of vocational ministry. They are often older, married, with children, and they are less likely to spend a whole ‘career’ in congregational ministry (because our patterns of work, career, vocation, etc., have also changed).
  2. who goes to theological college has also changed, as education more broadly has become more accessible, more piecemeal, and more ‘configurable’. Few colleges offer only a single “here’s the 3-year package, sign up and enlist” model. Much more common are multiple degree programs, wide selection of electives, modular, part-time, etc., etc., which increases the diversity of people entering theological college, and hence changes the intended outcome
That means that theological colleges are preparing a broader range of people for different outcomes. No longer is “you will go and be a minister” the sole outcome of a seminary’s training program. And so the what for has shifted.
I think recognising and wrestling with this shift is incredibly important, because theological colleges are essentially trying to do (at least) two main things. (1) continue to train and produce vocational ministers for congregational settings (e.g. your local pastor, your parish priest, etc).. and (2) provide access to tertiary-level education in theology for anyone who wants it, including a broad range of people training for other forms of Christian ministry that aren’t congregational-minister. What’s best for those two groups is interrelated, but the demands you may be prepared to put on group 1, don’t necessarily apply to group 2.
So, what theological education is for is actually tied up with who it’s for. And the shift to open the doors of theological colleges to a wide variety of people seeking deeper theological knowledge, either for their own growth, or very often for greater capacity for service, whether formal or informal, paid or unpaid, in the church, in parachurch organisations, outside the church – that shift is a good thing because it takes “theological education” out of an elite reserved only for a ministerial class, and opens it up to the people. I think it’s reasonable then to claim that theological education institutes exist to “instruct and form people in the knowledge of God for the works of God in the world”. I just made that up, and I might revise it in later posts.
All that said, what we expect of theological colleges still must concern group 1: what sort of theological training ought a college offer to produce “ministers”, full-time vocational congregational church workers. That I think is a question that ought not go away. And the what for, for them, is closely bound up in “what attributes should a graduate of this college take with them when they go from here, out to take up a position as (often) the pastoral leader of a church?” These questions of “what for” and “who for” and inevitable bound up with our next question, what is education?
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