Discussion Points

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Discussion Point #1: The Ecosystem of Theological Education

on October 7, 2011 , Print- 7 Comments

Ecologists call the complex systems within which living things exist “ecosystems.” In a well- functioning ecosystem, resources are abundant, toxins are efficiently filtered and removed, and a rich diversity of life finds niches for flourishing. You could define an ecosystem as a living system for channeling energy to sustain abundance.

However, ecosystems can be disrupted, by changes in the climate or by the arrival of invasive new species. Ecosystems, like many other systems, are flexible enough to adapt to a certain amount of change. But certain kinds of change permanently diminish the capacity of the system to sustain abundance. As this report was being drafted, the largest floodwaters in one hundred years were sweeping down the Mississippi River and carrying tons of fertilizer from flooded Midwestern fields into the Gulf of Mexico. When too much nitrogen-rich runoff is swept into an ocean ecosystem like the Gulf, it creates “dead zones” where there is not enough oxygen for life. The clear blue water of these zones is actually the sign of the death of an ecosystem—what was once a flourishing, diverse web of countless species is now incapable of supporting any life at all. The created world is so marvelously abundant that ecosystems frequently bounce back from these shocks. But they can also be permanently altered, and species regularly go extinct when they cannot adapt fast enough to find a new niche in the changed landscape.

The ecology of seminary education is changing dramatically in the twenty-first century. Most of the changes are beyond the control of seminaries themselves—they are happening “upstream” and “downstream.” But they directly affect the viability of seminaries as they have been traditionally understood. Consider three principal dimensions of the ecosystem where seminaries exist.

Seminaries exist within a complex institutional ecosystem. They are ecclesial institutions that are woven into the life of the church, from local congregations to national denominations to international structures of mission and fellowship. They are scholarly institutions that are woven into the web of theological, historical, and (in the case of Fuller) psychological research; their faculty come from doctoral programs around the world and send students on to those programs, and participate in the professional and disciplinary associations that certify and disseminate cutting-edge research. They are educational institutions that are interwoven with the systems of higher education, including accrediting bodies and government programs for education through grants and subsidized loans. They are religious institutions that represent Christian faith in a pluralistic world of many religions. They are community institutions that must be good citizens within their host cities and towns. One of the greatest challenges for seminary leadership is to sustain healthy relationships with such a wide range of institutions.

The dominant culture that once at least paid lip service to the importance of Christian institutions is simultaneously more secular and more attuned to faiths other than Christianity.

Yet many of the institutions within the seminary’s ecosystem are in the midst of substantial upheavals of their own. Most notably, both congregations and denominations are facing challenges at their very core. The denominations that dominated church life in the middle of the twentieth century are, almost without exception, shrinking numerically, riven by internal conflicts, and grasping for scarce resources. The megachurches that served a quasi- denominational function in the late twentieth century are now also largely on a plateau and wrestling with how to sustain momentum. Many Christian institutions, both church and para- church, face challenging issues of leadership succession. This is especially true for those where the founding generation is on the brink of retirement, but it is true more generally for any institution that is seeking the next generation of leadership from among the notoriously institution-suspicious cohort of “Generation X” (born 1965-1980). Meanwhile, educational institutions are facing new scrutiny from government leaders and new suspicion from the wider culture after several decades of cost increases much faster than inflation. Scholarly jobs are disappearing, with retiring faculty being replaced by interchangeable and low-cost adjuncts. The dominant culture that once at least paid lip service to the importance of Christian institutions is simultaneously more secular and more attuned to faiths other than Christianity.

In sum, the institutions on which seminaries depend for legitimation, financial support, student recruitment, and job placement for their alumni are almost all markedly weaker than they were a generation ago. (An interesting and valuable exercise for any seminary cabinet or board of trustees would be to list the most important institutions in its “ecosystem” and assess whether they have strengthened or weakened in the previous decade. It will be the very rare seminary whose institutional ecosystem is clearly stronger overall.)

While the institutional ecosystem is important, seminaries also exist within a complex relational ecosystem, something that is especially important for seminaries like Fuller that have limited formal ties to any particular denomination. American evangelicalism, for better and for worse, is a movement built as much around personalities and personal relationships as on any set of enduring institutions—a reality rooted in the fundamentalist/modernist split where the historical institutions were overwhelmingly claimed by or ceded to the modernist side. Many students at Fuller—and increasingly at every seminary whatever its denominational affiliation— arrive more on the strength of personal affiliation and recommendation than on affiliation with any of the structures of education, scholarship, church, or religion mentioned above. Seminaries, especially relatively young ones like Fuller that do not have major endowment reserves, also depend on vital relationships with donors who can provide operating and capital funds.

In an era of pervasively weakening institutions, of course, a strong relational network can be a strength rather than a weakness—something that was certainly the case for evangelical Protestantism, compared to mainline Protestantism, in the past fifty years. Yet the relational networks of American evangelicalism are shifting dramatically with the passing of the tightly knit cohort of leaders who founded Fuller and countless other evangelical institutions in the years after World War II. Meanwhile, American Christianity is becoming less and less ethnically white, and global Christianity is becoming less and less American. The relational structures that served white, North American evangelicalism are poorly equipped to serve multi-ethnic, global Christianity. No seminary can afford to take its current web of relationships for granted— substantial new partnerships need to be forged if seminaries are going to be viable contributors to the health of the global church.

Finally, seminaries, like all institutions, now exist within a thriving, not to say chaotic, media ecosystem. For our purposes, the word “media” encompasses all the ways information is transmitted without requiring personal presence. Of course there have been media for centuries— first, handwritten letters, then increasingly widely available forms of print, books and periodicals. One of the hallmarks of institutional strength for any seminary is its library, which embodies its connection to the thought and scholarship of generations in the media of print and microfilm.

The media ecosystem is changing most dramatically and quickly of all. The information content of even the most massive university library is now dwarfed by the information produced and disseminated by the Internet and by the web of wireless communication— cellular telephones and WiFi—that now surround every resident of the developed world and that are readily accessible even in much of the developing world. As this network adds bandwidth it becomes increasingly immersive and visual, dramatically changing the way children, youth and adults learn, communicate, connect, behave—and, very possibly, believe. Further, these new media do not just transmit information (as print did). They also shape relationships—they are social media. The relational ecology of any institution now depends in great measure on its relationship to social media and its ability to project itself clearly and invitingly through those media.

7 Comments on Discussion Point 1: The Ecosystem of Theological Education
Andy C.October 11 2011 at 15:16 PM

@Anne - I can't take credit entirely for the "reflective practitioner" bit. The lead mentor in the DMin program I'm in uses it quite a bit. We are exploring some of these very issues as we look at the global impact that Western consumerism and individualism has on the church.

Andy C.October 11 2011 at 15:13 PM

@Heath - I like how you put that at the end: "This is discipleship and that is what seminaries should be about." Both you and Anne keenly observe that it is praxis (or practice) that has been lacking in recent years from theological education. I wonder if part of that isn't the delivery mechanism? Most Master's level degrees require one to be a full-time student. If praxis really is important to theological educations, perhaps we need to be more intentional about crafting part-time degree tracks which encourage ongoing ministry engagement, alongside learning.X

Anne HowardOctober 10 2011 at 17:05 PM

Thank you for this fine discussion Andy. I am particularly struck by your comment that we need "reflective practitioners" who incarnate theology in daily praxis. In our work at The Beatitudes Society, we are seeing the need for this--as this "practice" seems absent from most theological program offerings. I am eager to read more.

Heath HardestyOctober 07 2011 at 15:28 PM

Great to see this. Thanks, Andy. It was encouraging to read your post discussing the delineation between information and interpretation. I too think that this is one of the issues at large: we swim (or more to the point, flail about) in an exponentially swelling sea of information. We are certainly not in lack of information or new modes of access to that information, but are in lack of true/sound/proper interpretation of the information tsunami. And this is an issue of authority--by what authority do we trust the information we receive. Who do we go with? How do we ride the wave? This authority is inseparable from an incarnational life--a life miraculously changed to show the world love. The move from abstractions and fragments of information to altered affections and integrated, activated lives is what true instruction is about. This is discipleship and that is what seminaries should be about. I look forward to seeing what comes from this project. Thanks again

Andy C.October 07 2011 at 11:50 AM

(con't. from above) willingness to give much away for the sake of remaining at all. While information communication technologies and the media they enable are changing at immeasurable speed, it is not primarily the access to information that will impact the future seminary. It is being able to sift through and interpret it. That is where the seminary can stake down its tent in the media world. It can help future theologians, clergy, and the laity develop the ability to perform Kingdom orienteering as they navigate the constantly changing media wild. In short, we need spaces that are creating "reflective practitioners." The seminary of the future will realize that these changing ecosystems are reshaping landscapes, not temporarily obscuring familiar terrain. In response, she will focus less on the impartation of knowledge or the passing along of priestly skills, and more on the shaping of people who are incarnating theology everyday. The seminary of the future has the opportunity to situate theology within the praxis of being the people of God.

Andy C.October 07 2011 at 11:49 AM

You're right. Seminaries are in trouble. Gone are the days when we could count theology among the classical professions, alongside law and medicine, a la Schleiermacher. The research university ("multiversity"?) pushed theology out the back door; she is no longer Queen of the Sciences. This poses a huge problem for seminaries as institutions. Formal clergy no longer have the kind of cultural relevance they used to. Individualism and consumerism in the West in general, and America in particular, have led to a spiritual climate in which the individual can serve as his or her own priest or pastor. Google and Wikipedia are serving to close the information gap between clergy and laity that seminary training once bridged. One no longer needs to undertake seminary education in order to access and interpret broad theological concepts. Add to this the post-modern philosophical turn, which questions the very foundationalism upon which institutions of higher education are presupposed, and the institution of the seminary as a place for theological learning and training has picked up a Jenga-like wobble. The relational naval-gazing that has allowed the proliferation of seminaries must also stop. There are many seminaries that are facing (or will soon be facing) profound financial hardship. Soon we will see once venerable institutions forced to shut their doors for good unless they can imagine a future in which they condense and collaborate. These future partnerships cannot be merely financial. They must be pedagogical, geographical, physical, and technological. The future of seminary is contingent upon the individual seminary...

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