Decisions, Risks, and Innovations in Forming Faith Leaders

By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen

I remember the feeling of sharp panic that morning in December 2012. I did all the right things: Ph.D. from a top school, excellent post-doc, publications, and finally a tenure-track job at a respected seminary. But then my school became the latest casualty among the historic theological schools and seminaries in North America, and within a year, nearly half of the faculty were gone — including me.

Given my own experience, then, it might seem strange to hear me say how hopeful I am. Let me explain why. While I had a front row seat for one seminary’s crisis, now in my position at Auburn’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, I now have a front row seat for the whole field of theological education. I’ve spent the last two years researching amazing innovations in how the faith leaders of the future are being trained. Unfortunately, nearly all the stories about theological education these days are archaeologies of crisis (here, here, here and here, just in the past 12 months). So I’m very excited to share the flip side of the story in our report out today: “Bright Spots in Theological Education: Hopeful Stories in a Time of Crisis and Change.”

Dynamic changes in spiritual practice and modes of gathering in community require new ways of forming faith leaders, and that’s exactly what the 15 innovative case study organizations in our report are up to.

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Here are just a few examples to give you a sense of the exciting experiments underway:

At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio has founded Seminary Hill Farm, an organic farm on campus helping connect faith to the importance of the environment, but combined with concerns for racial justice, helping partner in building urban gardens in locations where food deserts affect communities’ health and well-being.

Zaytuna College, located adjacent to the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of historically Christian seminaries in Berkley, CA, is a liberal arts college deeply grounded in Islam and connected to the challenges of our current society. Its innovative, integrative, and wholistic education includes what they call “learning outside the classroom” in, for example, Ferguson MO to engage racial justice work, or on wilderness backpacks to reflect on impacts of climate change.

Western Theological Seminary in Michigan has radically engaged its local community as a means to form faith leaders. For example, they founded Friendship House, a co-housing residence where seminary students live side-by-side with people with disabilities, both teaching each other. The seminary now offers a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, the first of its kind in the USA.

While one part of my story connects with stories of theological education in crisis, and I know first-hand the realities of loss some schools face, I am excited by the flip side of the story: the bright spots. Our report profiles fifteen such bright spots, and describes some of decisions, risks, and imagination exemplified by their leaders. Yet we know they are many more “signs of life” to learn from, and we look forward to this report provoking a conversation about where they are, what they are doing, and how they can teach others trying to navigate these tumultuous times.

Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education.  Which Voices leave you wanting to hear more? Email us ideas for interviews at [email protected].

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