It’s not an easy time to be a professor in theological education. I stare out my third-story window on a campus that used to be abuzz with students–everyday. Now it is a place of tranquility, a park interrupted only by the occasional bark of a dog or sound of a bird. Most of the students come one day a week, and it feels more like a drive-thru than a sit-and-dine experience. And, with the advent of online courses, the residential moment is only waning. I sometimes fear that this, and other campuses, will eventually be a meeting place for faculty and administrators, who walk past vacant classrooms and come to work from their computers.
Looking out at the chapel, there was a time we used to run to get a seat before it filled up. Guest pastors, educators, missionaries from all parts of the world came to challenge students and reinforce the decision we made to go deep with our minds. How formative were these? I came to seminary with no intention of ever being a pastor. But God used these voices to provoke something inside of me, and by the time I graduated, the only thing I wanted to be was a pastor. And ironically, the parish is where I have spent much of my last thirty-five years.
It’s not that I want to go back to the past. Back to landlines and mimeograph machines and typewriters and airplane smoke. No thanks. What I want—what I hope—is for people to reconsider their choices.
I’ll start with students. Somehow, we need to become convinced that it is not less education, but more, that will prepare us to effectively lead tomorrow’s ministries. A seminary education does not guarantee success, but it increases the odds. One of our former presidents used to say—“Better preparation means a better presentation.” He was right. Earning a specialized degree, rather than a general one, will only prepare you for one aspect of ministry. Taking the minimum will mean ministry at a minimum.
But it’s more than how we present ourselves. It is about being up to the task. Early church fathers like Gregory and Chrysostom placed “spiritual health warnings” over every candidate for holy orders. They knew that a pastor is called to embody a quality of life and faith appropriate to the nature of God. Will this candidate be up to this? They discerned the seriousness of taking on the extraordinary work of being a physician of the soul. And they could only imagine what Hebrews 13:17 must mean when it says God will hold us accountable for the souls given to our care. And then there is James 3:1, and the warning that teachers will incur the stricter judgment. No wonder they and a number of their peers attempted to run from their pastoral call. Only a rigorous education and a disciplined life will do. But I am not sure we are convinced of this today.
The depth of the ministerial task and the complexity of our age call for forceful training. And yet, I meet more and more students who are making degree choices based upon what has the least force, the least requirements. I welcome online education for those whose situation and location make coming to campus difficult, if not impossible. But I find an increasing number do it largely out of convenience. I may be wrong, but it feels like more and more students do not want to sacrifice to learn. Education is simply an add-on.
Maybe my real lament is that I am staring out the window, when I would rather be in a classroom engaging with students face-to-face. I’d rather see a library filled with inquiring minds than one that feels like a morgue.
I’ll end with investors. A good part of the reason students are taking less courses and avoiding the residential sacrifice are the costs. Too much of the burden is placed on students who fear an eventual debt rivaling a mortgage payment. And this is happening because too few churches and individual believers want to invest in the cost of training their future leaders. Here’s what I want to say to those serious about advancing the kingdom of God. If the hope of the world is the church (and I believe this more than ever), and the hope of the church is its future leaders (which I also believe more than ever), then can you tell me a better investment? I’m not aware of one.