Responding to Boston's bombs: 4-17-13
Easy thoughts and prayers: 4-19-13

A future for seminaries? 4-18-13

As those of you who hang on my every word know (both of you), I've written several times recently about the future shape of seminaries, most recently here. Part of that concern has come out of the impending move of St. Paul School of Theology from Kansas City, Mo., to the campus of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.

Yamada1The other day I had a chance to sit down with Frank Yamada (pictured here), president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and talk about seminaries and their futures. McCormick is one of several seminaries in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, though just over one-third of the students there are Presbyterians. (Frank was in Kansas City to be the keynoter for a weekend all-church retreat my congregation put together.)

Here's some of what Frank and I talked about:

Tammeus: What will seminaries look like in 5 or 10 years and how will you get there?

Yamada: In 5 or 10 years there won't be as many seminaries. I think there will be quite a few seminaries that don't end up making it. The good news about Presbyterian seminaries is that most of us have pretty substantial endowments still. So we have longer runways than most. But I think it's not just theological education, it's all of higher education that is changing very rapidly. With the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), with multiple online delivery formats, we will see an increasing amount of different and more creative types of distance learning.

Tammeus: There will be a cost to that in terms of the end product, will there not? How will you make up the deficit that will result from them not being present with the teachers?

Yamada: Well, I think the results are still out. There are some results we're seeing on the positive effect of distance learning. . .I think we're finding there are more effective ways to do distance learning. . .I think we will find many different models that help bridge that in-person versus distance learning dynamic.

Tammeus: With the church changing rapidly, are seminaries still training people for the old church or are you training people how to be leaders of these new worshiping communities that are growing in grocery stores and bars and laundromats and homes?

Yamada: The answer to both questions is yes. I think there still are a number of seminaries that continue to train people to serve the church as it existed for a good part of the 20th Century. I do also believe that there are some seminaries who have begun to explore new ways of thinking about church, including the methodologies behind them and the skills necessary to provide that kind of leadership.

Tammeus: What would you point to at McCormick that would fit that bill?

Yamada: One of the things we're doing at McCormick. . .is that we currently offer a joint Masters of Divinity and Masters of Social Work degree. This gives people. . .some administrative skills to do some kind of community service work and community organizing kind of work that the M.Div. hasn't always offered. It gives them an additional skill set that can help serve their communities in ways that are very exciting . . . One of the things that I think is going to be an essential skill for leaders of the future is that they're going to have to learn how to build organizations. . .It's very clear to me. . .that entrepreneurial leadership is a desperate need within our churches. . .What I mean by entrepreneurial leadership is that it's a set of skills that require a person to learn from testing and experimentation. . .Unfortunately right now a lot of our churches don't have the stomach for that kind of risk.

Well, there was more to our conversation, and I may find other ways to to share some of that in the future -- a future that will be different for faith communities in ways they can hardly imagine today.

By the way, Frank has posted on his blog some additional thoughts about the future of theological education. You can read them here.

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A new study finds that people who believe in an angry God are more likely to suffer from mental illness. Hmmm. Makes me wonder this: If God has anger issues, who might serve as a counselor?

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.


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