HomeResourcesSeminary › Prepare to Lead: The Changing Seminary Experience

Prepare to Lead: The Changing Seminary Experience

Email this Print version

Recent Stories

When he was a high school junior, Scot McKnight had a spiritual conversion experience at a church camp that would alter the trajectory of his life.

“The Spirit overwhelmed me in a way I had never known,” McKnight says, of when he asked God’s Spirit to fill him. “That week I dedicated my life to Christ, and from that very moment I wanted to become a Bible teacher. There is no logic to this; it was solely by God’s grace.”

Eighteen years later, he’s a professor at Northern Seminary, 30 minutes west of Chicago (his first 17 were at Chicago’s North Park University). He is also the author of the popular blog Jesus Creed and more than 20 books, including the provocative The King Jesus Gospel, which redefines our contemporary explanation of evangelism. But more than anything, he says, he’s “most concerned with helping the church and helping pastors.”

It’s his passion for keeping Christian higher education ahead of the curve that made him right at home at Northern, which, he says, is one of many seminaries and Bible colleges nationwide transforming the education experience, and in doing so, keeping seminaries, which have witnessed a decline in student enrollment, relevant and effective.

“We need to continually rethink how we do ministry in a changing world,” says Kurt Fredrickson, assistant professor of pastoral ministry and associate dean for doctor of ministry and continuing education at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “We were a churched world [40 years ago] in a churched country, and we’re not anymore. We need to create new and different modes of outreach and evangelism and discipleship. Ultimately, theological education has to change, because if seminaries and Bible colleges don’t change, they’re just going to fold up and die.”

Here are some of the most exciting steps seminaries across the country are taking to ensure that doesn’t happen.

A Greater Emphasis on Evangelism and Outreach

At Northern Seminary, while McKnight is teaching his students how to approach evangelism differently, his colleagues are taking equally novel approaches to their own work. Northern professors Robert Price and David Fitch are taking their students outside of the classroom in a study of ethnography and the missional movement, respectively. Price, who teaches evangelism and urban ministry, is asking his students to consider the context of the culture and community they are entering so they can explain the gospel in ways that resonate with that culture.

“Many pastors are not going to be pastoring in posh, suburban megachurches with lots of money,” McKnight says. “Many are going to be plopped down in small communities and small churches with established cultures, and they need to understand that culture in order to minister to it well. Many of them are being sent into inner cities, and our seminary is really good at helping students learn to minister in the city of Chicago.”

Meanwhile, Fitch, a leading theologian in the missional movement, is working with his students on the related topic of missional theology, and learning to see the local church as a body being a witness to the gospel.

“[Fitch] emphasizes that pastors get to know neighbors, that they become a fixed part of the public realm in the local community, so that they can minister in that context, in a way that people recognize who they are, as a loving presence. The local church becomes the missional presence in the neighborhood.”

“Many pastors are going to be plopped down in small communities and churches with established cultures, and they need to understand that culture in order to minister well.” —Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary

The two aspects of evangelism are intimately linked.

“All these things tie together so that Northern Seminary is becoming 100 percent focused on outreach [in addition to] simply building the inner fellowship of the church,” McKnight says. “We want to do that as well, but there’s a new missional focus in our seminary that’s exciting.”

Phil Jackson, one of McKnight’s students, applied these ideas to Chicago’s Lawndale Community Church, where he is associate pastor. He is in the process of opening the Firehouse Community Arts Center in a decommissioned firehouse, out of which he will operate his youth hip hop ministry and help Chicago’s west side youth change their lives through the arts.

“Our students have to do practical ministries,” McKnight says. “When things come up in class, they begin to speak from their ministry experience. The coursework also requires the student to begin to plumb things like ethnography and missional theology and the gospel, and how that is being manifested in their local church.”

About 25 miles west of Chicago is Wheaton College, where similar developments in evangelism and outreach are taking place. Says Lon Allison, associate professor at Wheaton and executive director of the Billy Graham Center, located on campus, about nine years ago the school began offering master’s degrees in evangelism and leadership or in missional evangelism. The older model at some seminaries, Allison says, requires that students working toward a master’s take just one or two courses in evangelism and outreach.

“We recognized that as a huge miss,” Allison says. “Most seminaries were still working with the concept of the American church being a Christendom church, therefore it not being necessary to focus on evangelism. In my opinion, the church never drifts toward evangelism, it always drifts away. And that’s even truer in our academic institutions.”

When Wheaton began offering its evangelism-related master’s degrees, only a few other schools offered anything similar. Now, though, that’s beginning to change.Soul Care and Spiritual Formation

Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology is known for its cutting edge education, and its spiritual formation component, called the Intentional Character Development program, is a great example. The program, which is essentially group and individual counseling for students, addresses any emotional or spiritual struggles the students may have that could later harm their ministry.

“Historically, most people who went to seminaries came from smaller churches and rural areas,” says Gary McIntosh, a professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Talbot. “They typically came from Christian families, so they typically came out of pretty stable backgrounds. A number of years ago, we began to notice at Talbot that a lot of students were coming from broken homes. They were receiving Christ maybe in their senior year of college and were coming right into seminary.”
Bob Whitesel, associate professor of Christian ministry and missional leadership and a founding professor at the 4-year-old Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, agrees that seminaries across the U.S. are shifting from a total focus on intellectual pursuits to one that balances academics with spiritual formation.

“Most seminaries are set up to develop the intellect more than inner heart spirituality,” Whitesel says. “Developing the intellect can become consuming, so that the personal spirituality gets lost. The research shows that if your seminary is not intentional about fostering spirituality, the students will get so wrapped up in the practice and theory that they will ignore their spirituality. In the old model of the seminary, people came out tending to read their Bible less, to pray less. This is because seminaries in the past tended to be knowledge focused and theory focused.”

“A seminary has to include a strong foundation of creativity and innovation so it can stay connected to the people it serves.” —Bob Whitesel, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University

At Wesley Seminary, every student pursuing an MDiv degree takes a spiritual discipleship course, which pairs them with a professor and small group of fellow students through their entire degree program.

“They open up, encourage and hold each other accountable and are discipled in that environment,” Whitesel says. “They share spiritual growth.”

Back at Northern, McKnight relates similar new programs.

“This is a major new development in seminaries, and we are totally on board with this,” he says of a soul-care emphasis.

At Northern, spiritual formation is written into the syllabus of every class. It’s not uncommon to begin class meetings with prayer, or for students to keep a devotional book or journal, exploring an assignment’s personal significance to the student’s life.Accommodation of Non-traditional Students

As student enrollment declines or flat-lines at seminaries nationwide, Fuller Seminary is finding creative ways to reach non-traditional students who otherwise might think seminary is out of the question for them.

“Theological education needs to become more accessible and affordable,” says Fuller’s Kurt Fredrickson. “Over the past several decades we’ve created this almost elite system of education. There are a whole bunch of people who need good theological education but who can’t get it in the normal manner, either because of finances, time or distance, so we are completely rethinking the way in which we do theological education.”

At the degree level, Fuller is introducing this September a revised version of its ThM and MDiv degrees. Both require a minimum of just three residential weeks for a two-year program at any of Fuller’s eight campuses.

“There are a whole bunch of people who need good theological education but who can’t get it in the normal manner, either because of finances, time or distance.” —Kurt Fredrickson, Fuller Theological Seminary

Fuller is also developing two diploma programs. First is an advanced diploma in ministry leadership, intended for pastors who want more theological training but perhaps don’t have the means to pursue a doctoral degree. To earn the diploma, they’ll attend three or four DMin classes and engage in an online mentoring relationship. That begins this fall. Fuller’s new diploma in theological studies is for those who can’t afford or don’t have the educational background to pursue a master’s degree. The one-year, in-person program will be taught locally by master teachers (typically Fuller PhD or DMin graduates) anywhere in the country, and eventually anywhere in the world. The program’s target opening is January 2015.

“There are a whole lot of people out there who are serving churches who love God, love their church and have an NIV study Bible,” he says. “That’s it, but that’s not good enough when a person says, So pastor, where was God when this happened? We’ll help people get a good, rich, theological framework and underpinning so they can do their ministry better.”

Finally, in September 2014 Fuller will offer a doctor of leadership degree, which Fredrickson says they’re still adapting to meet accrediting requirements. This one is intended for professionals (like lawyers, architects or filmmakers) not serving in churches, but who already have terminal degrees or doctorates and who consider the work they do in the marketplace to be a ministry.

“Ministry is not just for those who call themselves pastors, as significant as that is,” Fredrickson says. “Ministry is a much broader term than that.”

Students are also learning ministry online, in increasingly innovative arrangements.

As one of the leaders in online education, Dallas Theological Seminary is always finding new ways to expand this means of learning. This fall, DTS is introducing a program that combines online and in-person elements in new ways. According to John Dyer, DTS’s executive director of communications and educational technology, the program, preliminarily called Mobile Seminary but now called Seminary for the City, offers a master’s in Christian leadership to groups of students in particular cities without having to open up physical campuses.

“We try to gather a group of students who are all on a common mission,” Dyer says. “They really believe they are called to invest in that city, which is why they don’t want to move and go to a seminary.”

DTS will fly a professor to the group’s city once or twice and require that the coursework take place partly online, partly as a group in the home city and partly in Dallas, when the group comes to campus for a one-week intensive period.

“We’re getting people from a variety of different denominations who are at churches down the street from one another,” Dyer says, “and now they’re able to work together through a degree program.”

Dyer anticipates each of the three cities participating this first year—Pittsburgh, Fargo, N.D., and Nashville, Tenn.—will have 20 to 25 students. As interest grows in cities with a host church, the program will expand.

“We really wanted to build a community of learners together and do that in a city where people are working commonly together,” he says. “We’re getting the best of both distance and campus education.”

At Wheaton College, online courses are becoming an increasing part of the curriculum, says Wheaton’s Lon Allison. The school is slowly building into its master’s in evangelism degree, for example, a handful of the required courses that students can take online, while they complete the rest of the requirements by engaging in intensive weeks of cohort work with fellow students in the program.

A global component is also becoming part of doctoral degrees at some U.S. Christian universities. Whereas it’s typical for doctoral students to complete most of their course remotely and online, and then spend a short, intensive period of time studying with a cohort on the seminary’s physical campus, not as many programs take their students to different places around the globe, where what they’re studying is a rich part of the culture. Allison says Seattle’s Bakke Graduate University (which includes a school of Christian theology for church leaders) has such a model for its doctoral students. Each time they meet with their cohorts, he says, it’s in a different country.

“For instance,” Allison says, “if you’re focusing on reaching emergent culture in America, what better place to go than Berkeley [Calif.] or Santa Cruz [Calif.] and be in that hyper-postmodern culture? If you’re thinking of really reaching the world, [you might] do a week in Mexico City, and the whole cohort flies into that place, so you’re living in the midst of the laboratory about which you’re talking.”

For students who prefer to be closer to campus but still want flexibility, seminaries are responding. At Northern, students can take evening classes taught in blocks or week-long, intensive summer courses. At Talbot, students can take evening classes. Several years ago, Talbot also started scheduling its required courses on Saturdays, McIntosh says. Additionally, Talbot has what it calls a “J term” in January, when semester classes aren’t in session. Instead, students can take condensed classes and complete an entire full-semester course in a week or two. It also offers two summer school sessions.

“We’re trying to meet the needs of everybody who has different work schedules,” McIntosh says.

Mentorships and Practical Elements

Sometimes a Christian higher education doesn’t come via a traditional seminary or college. Allison, a proponent of lifelong learning, applied informal education and mentorship to his own Star Fellowship, a program he created through the Billy Graham Center a decade ago. Allison serves as a mentor to about 10 colleagues a generation below him and from countries worldwide who themselves will one day be able to mentor the next generation. For one week a year, they meet in one member’s hometown.

“I follow the model that has been developed by Leighton Ford, and that is drawing together a group of what he used to call ‘guys and gals to watch,’ ” Allison says. “In other words, emerging leaders who have a heart for a lost world. What they’re looking for is intense life on life stuff in the real world of ministry.”

For emerging and executive leaders who are interested in mentorships but perhaps don’t have access to a network in which to form a Star Leadership-type cohort, there’s the Arrow Leadership program (based out of Washington state and British Columbia), an informal training program for evangelistic and missional Christian leaders.

The two-year program includes residential learning experiences, practical leadership training, assessment feedback, mentoring relationships and ongoing academic education. Participants meet with their cohort of 20 people for a week every six months and work with guest practitioner thinkers who are experts in all aspects of missions and evangelism, Allison says. Upon completion of the program, leaders can receive transfer credit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, Nova Scotia’s Acadia Divinity College and Saskatchewan’s Briercrest College and Seminary.

“It really works well for people who already have been in the field, they’ve been involved five to 10 years in either the pastorate or in missions, and they say, Boy, there are just lots of questions I have now that didn’t get answered when I was in seminary or Bible school. Something like Arrow Leadership is a very good way of doing it.”

Gordon-Conwell is embracing mentorship and practicality in its own way. Its Boston campus, known as the Center for Urban Ministerial Education, is located in the heart of Boston’s multi-ethnic Lower Roxbury neighborhood, and it takes its calling to serve its neighbors seriously, through its Field Based Mentored Ministry courses.

“We can’t just teach in isolation of the church,” says Mark Harden, dean of the Boston campus and associate professor of community development and outreach. “We have to be in their house, and they have to be in our house so that there is more of an interface.”

To that end, the courses, introduced just last year, replicate real-life ministry by sending groups of students to local churches or parachurch organizations. Under the supervision of a project mentor, the students can work together, like they would outside of the classroom, to solve problems at these partner churches or agencies.

“In real ministry situations, you don’t do it by yourself like a lone ranger. We have to engage with the real church [using this group modality], and that has never been done in seminaries before,” Harden says. “It’s like at a business school like Harvard, where they send a group of students to India to do community and economic development in a third-world village. It becomes the actual laboratory for these business students to contextualize their learning in such a way that they are really doing business work, even though they are technically in school. Leadership skills are soft skills, and it’s hard to teach those in the classroom.”

In addition to field based mentored ministry, Gordon-Conwell is also exploring the option of introducing new degrees in compassion-driven, humanitarian ministry, like disaster relief, counseling, community development, social justice or human trafficking. Right now, Harden says, such a degree is only a possibility, but the hope is that such degrees could soon become part of Gordon-Conwell’s offerings. They’ve identified 48 specific areas that fall under humanitarian ministry, and right now they’re trying to decide which they want to emphasize.

“The younger generation wants to serve people,” Harden says of the seminary’s interest in humanitarian ministry. “That’s what’s popular now.”

He also is seeing a demand for such a degree from an older, bi-vocational population. Perhaps someone is a doctor, he says, and they want to serve Christ without abandoning their career. They might earn a humanitarian degree and then seek work with an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

“For all seminaries, those are the two fastest growing areas right now,” he says, “and so we’re trying to respond to that need.”

Back at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, Bob Whitesel says his school is working in its own ways to bring practicality to the classroom.

“You have to balance teaching theory with teaching best practices,” he says. “Most seminaries focus almost entirely on theory. One of the reasons we started Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University is because we wanted a seminary where the students would take the principles we were teaching and apply them to their local ministry. Our homework in all of our classes is based on the student applying it that week to their local ministry contacts and reporting back to the professor how they did.”

To teach both theory and practicality, every required course at the seminary is team-taught by one theory-based professor and one who knows how to apply those theories to real-world scenarios.

“This is one of the radical things we’ve done as a seminary,” Whitesel says. “When you partner with another professor, it means the student is getting the whole picture. That’s something no other seminary I know is doing. That’s because we started by building the seminary from the ground up. We all felt that seminary could be done better, and that’s what we’ve done here.”

By shaking up the traditional modalities of seminary education, Whitesel and many of his colleagues across the country are working to reverse the impression among many in the Christian world that seminaries are irrelevant or that their educations are unattainable.

“The common seminary today is viewed as theory-laden without a lot of practical application,” Whitesel says, “and it’s viewed as elitist in that it’s expensive and requires pastors to leave their ministry and go away for three years to earn a degree. That model worked in the past, but today, people in the churches want their pastors [to remain at the church], and young people want to enter the practical ministry sooner. They don’t want to wait and get all the theory before they start to practice, and so this is a great new world in which you are learning the theory and applying it at the same time. I think in the future you’ll see more seminaries moving in this direction. A seminary … has to include a strong foundation of creativity and innovation so it can stay connected to the people it serves.”