The Future of Theological Education at VST

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As part of the interview process for the job of Principal at VST, I was asked to give a public lecture in February of 2013. The topic I was asked to address came in the form of a question: What is VST’s role in the future of theological education? What follows is my attempt to begin to answer that question. Don’t worry, blogs won’t usually be this long. I offer what follows as an introduction and I welcome your thoughts on what I said!

— richardt@vst.edu

What is VSTs Role in the Future of Theological Education?

In preparation for this presentation, I did a little research. And as we Canadians know, the vast majority of the literature about theological education in North American, its future perils and opportunities, is actually about theological education in the United States, even if Canada is tucked in the title.

I have been pouring over this material, which makes little or no mention of theological education in our country. However, I started calling people in the wider world of theological education in the US and what did they say? A couple of them said, ‘we’re watching what you are doing in Canada.’ Why?

The word is that we are where they are headed. In some ways, Canadian theological institutions are the canary in the mine for theological education in North America! We are the test case to see if the air is breathable in the shafts of secularities.

Dan Alseshire (Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools in U.S. and Canada) wrote an article in 2011, which was derived from a consultation with the Princeton Theological Seminary, and he imagines The Future of Theological Education: A Speculative Glimpse at 2032.

He argues that three dominant external factors will shape theological education and Christian ministry in the years to come. Let me summarize.

  1. There will be increased secularization. ‘Culture has reassigned religion from a social role of culture-shaper to one that is more personal and private.’ Thus theological education will increasingly focus on the cultivation of Christian virtue and identity rather than shape public life.
  2. There will be an ongoing demographic shift in population. This implies ‘the changing of the racial/ethnic composition of churches and society [which] will challenge assumptions in theological education that reflect the culture vestiges of privilege.’ He expects that students of theology and Christian congregations will become more diverse – racially and culturally – with all that entails for the ecclesiastical discomfort of those currently at the levers.
  3. There will continue to be numerical decline in the mainline Protestant churches. And this will create a potential crisis for enrollment numbers in theological colleges ‘since enrollments are influenced by the number of positions available – fewer congregations will have full time clergy.’ This means that theological colleges will have perhaps more part-time students, dual vocations and that theological training might be extended to church leaders other than clergy for pragmatic reasons. Theologies of ministry will need to be rethought.

As I read this list and convert it into Canadian currency, it turns out that it is 2032 in Canada, particularly here in Vancouver. We already are where American Theological Institutions imagine they will be. I think what this means is that VST (a school located in arguably the most secular of region of the country) is thrust into a leadership role. It is tough to lead however if we aren’t facing forward. If my back is to the future, while I sentimentalize the past, what might be isn’t getting my full attention. A person doesn’t drive well looking out the rear view mirror.

In the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, Rosemary Chang makes the point: the most annoying sound in the world is ‘whining.’ The loss of numbers and cultural prestige by mainline churches and theological institutions in Canada has produced its share of whining. We sometimes decry our losses and circulate romanticized versions of how it used to be.

While I think biblical lament is a healthy process, since it’s about facing the truth of our situation and it avoids the twin perils of denial and despair, we ought to move through our losses to imagine new possibilities born of God and the Gospel. I remember lamenting, eh, whining to Professor Will Willimon about trying to be Christian in a culture where no one goes to church or reads the Bible. He said, ‘well, it could be worse, you could be in Alabama where everyone goes to church.’

As I think about the future of theological education at VST, I imagine lots of opportunities and challenges. The use of technologies that extend our reach to students will no doubt be important and the role of social media in the socialization of the students we get will have serious implications for pedagogy now and into the future. Today, however, I leave these to one side. I want to focus my remarks on what we might hope to accomplish by means of theological education in the immediate future of VST.

1. We will offer theological education for prophetic engagement with culture that is not about privileged access to power but witness

Let me explain by way of disagreement with Aleshire.

In his article on the future of theological education, Aleshire makes the point that in the nineteenth century, church leaders in North America were shaping culture as much as they were leading in their congregations. Theological education in those halcyon days of Christian cultural influence was aimed at shaping candidates to shape the broader culture. ‘The power of theological education to shape the broader intellectual culture was a function of the public intellectual status that clergy enjoyed in that culture.’ Fair enough.

However, Aleshire goes on to indicate that because ‘culture’ has decided that religion will not shape public life any more -’not give it a seat at the table where the fundamental future of the culture is concerned,’ theological schools should and probably will increasing focus on Christian practices in congregations and parishes.

I do agree that theological schools should teach students in ways that enable them to instill Christian formation in congregations (I teach the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed – that’s catechesis). Ironically, however, I think that this sort of formation will broker a greater concern for the common good, for mission. How can you say the prayer – ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ let it seep into your life and not be moved to address disparity on earth? I can’t imagine an inculcation of Christian identity through teaching, preaching and liturgy that isn’t for the sake of the world that God so loves. Prophetic witness and speech and action in the public sphere are ingredient to the Gospel, even if secularism, in its fundamentalist forms, would like to police them out.

Just because Christian leaders are no longer the go to people for public policy doesn’t mean the churches and their leaders ought to get all quietist. Let’s face it on issues like pipelines and ecology, economics and justice, church and its leaders have a humanizing take and a grateful responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ. We envision life in the detoxified kingdom of God, and it has a certain critical relation to the current arrangements. We believe the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and so it matters what happens to the earth. And it’s worth saying so, in public, often, even if it is annoying to those who would like, in good enlightenment fashion, to keep private faith out of public life. We can be witnesses without privileged access to power.

I think what this means for VST is a theological education that is inter-disciplinary and that encourages risk. That way we don’t embarrass ourselves by turning out graduates that either can’t or won’t engage the issues with intelligence. I think Michael Jinkins, president of Louisville Seminary is right: one of the reasons for the failure, where it comes to the engagement with culture, is that too often Christian social witness has been either mean or ignorant. I think he might have also added cautious to that list.

Most traditional seminaries don’t turn out church leaders that are public intellectuals because radical cultural engagement requires a repertoire of knowledge and skills acquired through exposure to multiple disciplines. I think VST with its liberal and liberationist protestant legacy, and with its openness to other faiths and First Nations voices, has potential to produce prophets. Speaking together with others who are also interested in human flourishing in our cultural common life has real strength. Working together with others who have been minority voices for a longer time, and managed to speak out of minority identity to majority culture, could teach us a great deal. That’s our future now.

I think VST can and does and ought to inculcate a prophetic imagination that isn’t singular and individualistic, but which graciously looks for partners as action gets taken in our cultural life of the good of the world that God so loves.

Strains of contemporary missional theology encourage Christians to expect that God is at work in the world and to understand the church as an instrument in God’s mission to reconcile the world to Godself. The church is not the end point of the mission of God, but one of the means that God requisitions for the sake of the reign of God. Take that seriously and following Jesus will bring us into the company of all kinds of interesting partners depending on the issues.

2. We will offer theological education for the kind of churches we actually have, but it will be rigorous, theological education!

The bad conscience of theological schools and seminaries these days is that we can propose to train leaders for an institution that may not have a place for them when they graduate. This can be either because there aren’t any positions to be had or because graduates are not suited to the positions or projects that there are.

In conversations with the leaders of church judicatories about graduates from theological schools they collectively wonder out loud whether seminaries and theological colleges actually get the crisis going on in mainline Protestantism. They wonder out loud about the monopoly that churches have given seminaries and theological colleges. They are sometimes replacing what we do here with week-end seminars and workshops. Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say theological education is out of touch. Students get lots of good ideas but often don’t understand how to move and lead people.

Will Willimon notes, ‘They’ve got ideas, they lack initiative!’ Almost all of the mainline theological colleges in Canada have no training, for example, in how to start a congregation, a worshipping community. We used to be really good at this. As a theological professor and a Minister of the Gospel, I worry about our neglect in this regard.

It turns out that we can no longer suppose healthy congregations to which our graduates will go. Leaders in churches and in church related organizations are pressed these days. ‘No longer do they need managers of decline; but entrepreneurial practioners and leaders of a transformational movement.’ As a friend of mine likes to put it: ‘Mainline Churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers of the status quo’ (Will Willimon).

I know of bishops who no longer ask questions of candidates like: ‘what are your gifts and graces for ministry’ – as it turns out everybody is gifted and graced; but rather, ‘when is the last time you started a ministry?’ Tell us about your most recent failure in church? What did you learn?’ (Willimon, ‘Ministry, Difficult as it Ought to Be’).

I wonder if we need to begin to use a different analogy than various departments of graduate studies for the theological college (that’s been the dominant model since at least the 19th century). It might be helpful to think of the medical school as an analogy. In medical school deep and difficult and disciplined learning takes place for the sake of a practice; of participation in something salvific, life-saving, transformative. Lives depend on how well you listen and learn and perform your craft and do your research.

Theological education is for the sake of sharing in the ongoing work of a God’s work in our world. It is all about following the God who’s doing something about what’s wrong with the world. It is about the willingness to discover that the Gospel is a great deal less serene that we might have imagined. Theological education will mean upset and surprise, being disconcerted about what it is at once a matter of bewilderment and delight. As I read the gospels, I can’t remember Jesus ever saying to his disciples. ‘O.K. guys, you’ve finally got it just right, don’t change a thing, just keep it like that forever.’

All of this has huge repercussions for our seeking candidates for ministry together with the churches and how we train them. Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi and leader in the family systems theory talked about ‘adventurous leadership’ as opposed to anxious leadership; I like that notion very much.

On the other hand, I think that week-end seminars and workshops as replacements for a theological education will prove very thin and perhaps disastrous. In the future of VST as I imagine it, we are going to have to make powerful arguments for why critical, imaginative and constructive formation in bible and theology and liturgy and pastoral practice and church history and inter-religious and indigenous studies are so important.

We can train people to read a script – liturgy and preaching can be written down, and sermons can be borrowed from the internet, with a little theological training a person could even learn to steal the good ones. However, there is no script for bringing to bear the deep wisdom of the Christian tradition on major calamities and struggles in our culture and in personal lives. We need faculty who do credible and meaningful research for the sake of passing on a faith chastened by critical reflection but fired by conviction. We need learned leadership in the theological college for the sake of learned leadership in our churches!

I get concerned about some of the talk about imagination that is found everywhere in church and leadership materials these days. I worry about it in the church because sometimes those who want to be imaginative have a very romantic idea of drawing all new directions and ideas out of the reservoir of their own subjectivity. I don’t want a doctor who is all creativity! I don’t want a surgeon who is just making it up as she goes along. Imagination works best when it is stoked by memory of what was. The best jazz musicians first learned scales, where the keys are! The most creative preachers know the deep structures of the text. To improvise, a person has got to undertake training and disciplined observation of the masters. And so we delve into what Christians before us have done and said and written to stoke memory in order to riff on texts and traditions for the challenges of our time.

I believe that stoking of memory through theological education is really important in secular Canada. Some students, occasionally even some professors!, have been so well colonized by secularity that they frame every problem and challenge that the church faces first of all in managerial or social scientific terms. While these are helpful disciplines, they do bracket out God to make sense of things. And that’s called atheism. Our work as a Theological College is to make sure we actually have a subject matter than matters to all our work. Our vocation is to train church leader’s to read the world and the church in the world theologically, as though our decisive context is corem deo – before God, because it is.

I like the job description for a congregational minister I saw recently. One of the competencies expected was: ’The ability to minister the Word of God in a variety of circumstances.’ To do that it takes more than the ability to read a text; a person would need to be able to read life by means of the gospel; reframe imaginatively what is going on in terms of the life-giving stories of scripture; nurture a deep life with God. This spiritual skill set is similar to what Aristotle called phronesis – deep practical wisdom born not just of information acquisition but of life experience, meditation, discernment, conversation, holy friendship, the cultivated capacity to listen and pay attention.

For the future of VST, I think the question of how we attract students with these gifts in the making, educate them to becomes visionary leaders and maximize their ongoing potential to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a pressing one. It may be that we will need ongoing support for graduates once they commence their work, identifying best practices congregations where reliable and live-giving examples are embodied; it could mean that VST together with our denominational partners starts a new congregation for real life experience to the mutual benefit of college, student and church. If we’re going to talk missional church and emergent church, maybe we need to be from Missouri – the ‘show me’ state. It might also add some more credibility to our ecumenical commitments if we did it together.

3. We will offer theological education that includes apologetics and inculcates skill in communication

My brightest students, and they are all bright, have always made me aware, sometimes painfully, that the way we talk in a theological college is not the way most people talk. Post-modernism has taught us, I think, that there is no one language that we all speak; and that there is no religious or theological Esperanto. I quite like the Spanish American philosopher George Santaya, who said, ‘it is as possible to be religious in general as it is to speak language in general.’ There are particular religions and there are particular languages. No one says, “could you speak a little language, please?” but rather parle vous francais.

However, I do sometimes worry about the effect of immersing our students into the specialized languages of theological study. Of course, a student of theology and religion needs to enter into the critical conversations about these topics. Of course, like all disciplines we have local languages that are a part of our disciplines. And, of course, language about God requires special consideration since we’re always stretching and bending language to gesture to a reality that we never control but that graciously gives itself to be known.

And yet, I think it is a sobering question to ask whether students are also taught to communicate to a public that no longer has a residual memory of things religious or Christian. Charles Taylor, a Canadian Philosopher, wrote the Templeton Prize winning book entitled, A Secular Age, and in that book he makes the case that people in this part of the world mostly live in an ‘immanent frame.’ What that means is that language about God is a kind of foreign language, and even when grasped, is regarded as an irrelevance, or an extravagant way of talking about ourselves.

I think VST has a role in forming students in such a way that they are able to communicate in this kind of context. It may be that the historic discipline, apologetics, that used to be taught in our seminaries, needs a creative recovery. By this term, I mean an engagement with our time and place that involves clear and declarative sentences, an understanding of the intersections between culture and gospel where conversation might be interesting and life-giving.

Jeffrey Stout, a Princeton ethicist, said a few years back, that reading some modern theologians is somewhat akin to going to hear a speech, and listening to the speaker clear his or her throat for twenty minutes. Sometimes education breeds anxiety about saying anything about God or the Gospel. After three subordinate clauses the net value of the sentence is zero.

In this regard I have learned a great deal from my students who’ve demanded a little more clarity, repeated what I awkwardly stated in the language of the theological guild with the preface, “so what you’re trying to say is . . .” And then they communicated. I hope that whatever the value added of a theological education at VST, we aim to communicate to students in ways that leverage their communication in this time and place.

The places where language about God is still operative in our culture, according to Taylor, is in the realms of beauty and ethics. People experience something greater than their own little lives when beauty presents itself. Augustine says if you contemplate beauty it can take up a staircase to the ultimate beauty that is God. And even our post-modern contemporaries still want to believe that love and justice are not arbitrary. Interestingly more and more missional and emergent churches meet in art galleries and theatres – connecting these common places of beauty and everyday life with the worship of God . . .

In conclusion: I offer a poem, written by Jill Baumgaertner. It was written as she returned to life having suffered the death of her godson. I think her words are instructive and life-giving, for churches and church institutions who lament the losses of Christendom, but who turn back to life from loss:


We turn back to our lives,
plot lines altered,
palimpsests: characters erased,
We will never be the same.
Burned clean of illusion,
we face the cross,
finding there the exacting cost of grace.
We lift our faces to the softer light
we sense beyond the treetop shadows.
We step into the path,
thick with fallen leaves,
the earth beneath sheltering
the tight fists of bloom
spring will uncurl.