Why does theological education matter today?

February 26, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Rev. Dr. Frank Yamada, President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, reflects on theological education from his experience as a seminary student, professor, and president. Frank seeks to answer the question “Why does theological education matter today?” Frank recently accepted has accepted the position of Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and will begin in that role on July 1. He is chair of the Committee on Theological Education

I have had two conversions in my life. The first happened when I converted from my Buddhist upbringing to Christianity at 19. I quickly joined a large 20,000-person mega-church and dropped out of pre-med to become a religion major at the nearest Christian liberal arts college. This decision was not a popular decision in the Yamada household. I was not a Presbyterian nor was I the son of a Presbyterian. I was a dentist’s son.

My second conversion came during seminary. Theological education revealed to me a world in which there were two different creation narratives in the book of Genesis as well as a history not of one tradition, but many. I studied Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and of course, Calvin. I read Walter Brueggemann, Delores Williams, Kwok Pui Lan, and Phyllis Trible. Seminary was where I found out that there was such a thing as Asian American theology and ministry. It deepened my faith and sense of call and provided a supportive community. It taught me how to care for people in hospitals and in our pews, to translate theology into worship, community service, and education, and to pursue justice.

There is no question: I am a convert to theological education.

Knowledge comes from beyond the classroom

Some would argue, of course, that seminaries are in need of their own conversion—a transformation from obsolescence to relevance. As a seminary president, I occasionally hear arguments that contrast the out-of-touch ivory tower of the academy with the practical realities of the church. I hear the criticism that seminaries are not training leaders for the current needs of the local congregation.

That criticism takes on new weight when considering the immense educational debt accrued by our students in college and sometimes in seminary—a debt that only grows when they graduate and may not be able to find a congregation to serve or must get part-time jobs to supplement their income.
We in theological education must take seriously these questions.

Our response, says one of my presidential colleagues, Ted Wardlaw, from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, must surely point to the entire church ecosystem—families, congregations, pastors, mentors, presbyteries, and seminaries. They are each necessary in preparing our rising pastors and all who seek to minister in a radically different era of Christianity. No longer can theological education be seen as the sole prerogative of our seminaries. New challenges require that we come together to share in this calling to teach and nurture. Knowledge will no longer come solely from the lectern of the classroom; it will come from the homeless shelter, the worship-committee meeting, the local Bible study, the community protest, the Twitter conversation, the church visitor as well as the member of 50 years.

New challenges

Surely, theological education and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) face significant and new challenges. The rapidly changing racial-ethnic demographics in the United States, the game-changing influence of digital technologies and the Internet, and the gradual shift of power and influence from baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) to millennials (born between the early 1980s and 2000) will undoubtedly have an impact on the future of the church and society. We must continually re-evaluate the effectiveness of our systems; but I am convinced that the individuals, denominational bodies, congregations, and seminaries that make up this system remain vital to the success of forming the next generation in the church “for such at time as this” (Esther 4:14).

Five reasons theological education matters

Does theological education still matter in the 21st century? I believe there are at least five good reasons that it does.

  • Educated, well-trained leadership is synonymous with what it means to be a mature disciple of Jesus in the Reformed traditions. When Jesus commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28:18–20, he instructed them to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. Growing in wisdom and the knowledge of God are deeply rooted biblical traditions across the witness of Scripture. Moreover, the Reformers were not just pastoral leaders; they were scholarly theologians. Without their intimate knowledge of the biblical languages they would not have been able to translate the Bible into the vernacular, putting Scripture into the hands of the people in a way that was unprecedented in the history of the church. In the early years of our country, Presbyterian schools continued this tradition, providing men and women with the education that enabled their better citizenship. Education and a deep commitment to learning is what we do as Presbyterians. It is one of the pillars of our legacy.
  • Our seminaries prepare pastors for an increasingly ecumenical and diverse church. At most of our seminaries, Presbyterians are no longer in the majority. They are joined by Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Methodists—by students from around the world and of every race and ethnicity. They study and worship alongside one another. At McCormick Seminary, for instance, no single racial-ethnic group or denomination holds the majority.

This is the future of our society, and I believe this is the best way to train the future leadership of the church. Students of our seminaries are not formed in theological bubbles where everyone believes the same thing in the same way. This culturally and theologically diverse environment requires students to not only learn from difference; it pushes them to think critically about and articulate more precisely the reasons they believe what they do. These skills will be prerequisites for leaders who are headed into the unprecedented cultural and religious diversity that will mark the 21stcentury. Seminary is a place for preparing Pentecost Christians who bear witness to the mighty works of God in a diversity of different tongues (Acts 2:11).

  • Theological education can be the last bastion of the status quo, but it can also be a context for experimentation. In this time of significant change in the church and society, innovation is a buzzword. Innovative leadership, however, requires time and space away from the familiar to imagine the unfamiliar. Seminary offers that “time away”—through small classes, daily chapel, residential living, and field education in hospitals, prisons, non-profits, mental health facilities, new worshiping communities, and existing congregations both here in the United States as well as around the world.

At seminary, students are trained to think critically and creatively so that they can connect the dots of history and theological traditions in new and vital ways, sometimes in ways that disrupt the status quo. In this way, theological education has the opportunity to be the research and development wing of the church, a laboratory where we can imagine what is next.

  • Theological education continues to provide a place for emerging leadership of those on the margins. While oppression and unequal representation continue in our seminaries, they are also places where women, people of racial-ethnic communities, and LGBT persons find their voice. Every year we graduate students who are the first persons in their family to get a graduate degree. Some of these same students go on to be the first woman ordained in their congregation, or the first Asian American to lead a ministry, or the first African American woman to be addressed, “the Rev. Dr.”

I recently spoke with a student, whom I mentored. She came to seminary from an evangelical tradition where women were not ordained. While at seminary her life changed, a conversion that she attributes to her experience at McCormick. She recently accepted a call to be the first Japanese American female pastor of a historically Japanese Baptist church.

  • Theological education produces more religiously mature and tolerant Christian leaders. In an age when fundamentalisms threaten to discredit the role of religion in society, educated Christian leaders can be thoughtfully mature embodiments of the gospel for today’s religiously fraught world. Our seminary-trained leaders hold the promise of bringing sanity into a world where many view religion as insane. When students are exposed to the depths of our Christian traditions, apply themselves to the rigorous study of theological disciplines, and engage each other within a community of rich cultural and theological diversity, one of the outcomes is humility. Micah 6:8 reads, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Knowledge breeds humility and leads to the path of mature discipleship.

The future of our denomination, indeed of religion, depends on well-formed, intelligent, and theologically trained leaders to bear witness to the wisdom of God—a wisdom that produces fruits of peace, justice, and thoughtful engagement and presence in the world.

This article was originally published in the magazine Presbyterians Today and then on the McCormick Seminary web site and blog. You can read that here