Rethinking Classroom Diversity: Three Student Cultures in a Mainline Seminary
Abstract. Discussions on teaching and learning within theological seminaries often center on the question of student diversity, focused primarily upon issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time that seminaries are challenged to deal with a multitude of pedagogical suppositions emerging from increasingly diverse learning goals, seminaries must also pay attention to the ways their students challenge an institution's core mission to train ministers for service in churches and denominations. Based upon the author's experience teaching in a mainline Protestant seminary, the essay discusses three student cultures that often overlap among today's seminarians. These three student cultures, referred to here as “church seminarian,”“new paradigm seminarian,” and “vocational seminarian,” carry very different understandings of the seminary's role to prepare students for ministry. A critical discernment of these cultures might challenge seminary faculty to reevaluate their educational and missional suppositions amidst divergent student career objectives.
It is a Tuesday afternoon class on the Protestant Reformations. Among the twenty or so seminarians in the class there is always the challenge of facilitating conversation, especially trying to encourage some of the students to enter into the discussions. Yet over the past several years of teaching introductory courses in church history, I have observed a similar dynamic unfold. Early in the conversation, an especially enthusiastic student begins to comment on the course material. He is about fifty years old and possesses several years experience of active participation within a local church in a mainline denomination. The student reveals that he not only understands the topic under discussion, but that he wants to integrate the topic into the issues he faces as a ministry candidate within his tradition. He is a student most apt to raise a question like, “How does this material relate to questions arising out of the parish?” This student has lots of company in the class. While many do not share this student's theological views (or enthusiasm for church history), they do carry an orientation toward learning that tends to be viewed through one's particular denominational or church context. This student, like others who share his worldview, is very clear that his ultimate goal is to enter a ministry vocation (usually marked by ordination), and seminary is a means to an end.
Amidst the discussion, a dissenting voice emerges from a woman in her late thirties who raises a different range of concerns. Although a person of deep faith, her comments reflect a decidedly postmodern view of ministry. Unlike the first student who sees seminary as a means to pursue ministry within a denominational tradition, this second student displays a deep frustration bordering on disillusionment toward what could be called the “institutional church.” While also interested in pursuing ordination, this student is not at all convinced that the mainline denominations represented by many of her classmates have a place for her questions and struggles. Her in-class comments focus on the church's failure to live out what she perceives to be the truth of the Gospel, within the historical context under discussion. Indeed, her comments reflect a high level of ambivalence about the study of church history generally. It is evident that her reflections have as much to do with her struggle with her call, as they do the class topic. Yet hers is a significant voice in my seminary and it reflects a postmodern suspicion of grand intellectual narratives that has influenced theological education since the late 1960s. Like the first student, the second student is seeking to find relevance in what is being taught in the classroom to questions of ministry. However, while the first student may also express disappointment over aspects of his denominational tradition, the second student remains unconvinced that any religious institution can make room for her perspective. Those who align themselves with the second student want to discuss their faith experiences in the class and often express a need to talk about “spirituality.” Yet, these students are not always able to articulate what they mean when they use this term, or how their quest for the spiritual transcends their own personal needs. Those in class who share this second student's perspective also reflect very divergent theological and cultural backgrounds. However, one question ties their experiences together: “Is there a church where I truly fit?”
Amidst these two disparate perspectives, a third voice emerges. In the seminary where I teach it is a minority perspective, but a growing one. This third student, a young man in his mid twenties, shares some of the postmodern concerns expressed by the second student trying to relate the study of church history to a contemporary context. However, his outlook tends to be more positive, even as he struggles to find relevancy in the various historical and theological traditions under discussion. On one hand, this student's worldview is different from that of the seminarians who speak fluently the language of North American denominationalism. Like the second type of seminarian, the third student shares a desire to develop his own personal spirituality and is not at all convinced that the institutional church has a place for his faith perspective. While the first two student groups see seminary as a place to be trained for careers in ministry, the third student sees seminary as a place where he can take his understanding of ministry into his career (Banerjee 2006). This person looks to the seminary as a resource that can help him make sense of his faith and his vocational journey. The question most asked by this student is, “How might seminary help me clarify my vocational goals?”
This classroom example reflects a range of concerns that can be lodged in the comments of individuals and blend or overlap among any number of students. However, my sense is that many seminary faculty experience some manifestation of these three student cultures. While many faculty have responded to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity with increased pedagogical sophistication, the cases I have presented reflect another sort of classroom diversity that can be so subtle that it flies under the radar of many seminary faculty and administrators. But the responses of the three seminarians I have cited represent student cultures that might very well play a major role in shaping the direction of theological education over the next several years.
North American theological seminaries were born at the intersection between the desire to preserve aspects of European models of higher education and the imperative to train professional clergy leaders in the disciplines and practices of ministry. Over the last generation, a growing list of publications on theological education demonstrates the ways in which seminaries have been transformed by a variety of historical, theological, and sociological factors in North America (Miller 2004). Amidst the ways in which seminaries have wrestled with curriculum changes, transformations in educational models, and student diversity, the imperative to train leaders for various forms of professional ministry remains consistent. Indeed, research has borne out that seminary faculties remain committed to this task (Foster et al. 2006). Faculty within a given seminary can devote hours a semester to matters of institutional mission, curriculum effectiveness, pedagogical questions, and ministerial formation. Tremendous fanfare often accompanies the end result of these efforts, a curriculum revision or the inauguration of a new learning initiative. Amidst the effort that faculties invest in implementing these changes, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the cultures of the students we educate often change more rapidly than a faculty can innovate to serve their needs.
The three students in my introduction were doing something significant in the classroom that went beyond the academic mastery of the subject. They were engaging me on definitions of ministry in relationship to their seminary studies. The students within these paradigms are distinguished not so much by issues of race, gender, theological orientation, or demographic differences (for example, whether a student is full- or part-time, commuter or residential, Caucasian or African American, gay or straight). They are distinguished by the fact that each has a different understanding of what is meant by the term “ministry.” For years, seminaries have sought to stay current with the ways that church cultures struggle with changing views of ministry. One aspect of that dialogue has been seminaries' development of programs designed for ministries other than ordained (such as lay certificate and diaconate programs). Yet the predominant emphasis among North American theological seminaries remains the expectation that their graduates will serve some type of religious institution. In the case of most mainline Protestant seminaries, this has meant that the primary purpose of the seminary is to train students for ordination in denominations that await the graduation of seminarians to fill their increasingly thinning (and aging) ranks. However, the three student cultures challenge seminary faculty to engage a wide range of student perspectives on what is meant by the term, “ministry.” These cultures challenge faculty to think creatively and critically not only about what to teach but also about how to teach. They challenge faculty to wrestle with the fact that there is not necessarily a clear consensus on what is meant when we speak of a seminary's mission to prepare students for ministry.
The three student cultures outlined in this essay argue for seminary faculties spending more time navigating a teaching terrain occupied by students who are not just traversing diverse theological and cultural perspectives, but who are actually contesting disparate understandings of theological education related to the seminary's role in preparing religious leaders.
The Church Seminarian
As a seminarian in the mid-1980s, I lived in a world that in hindsight seemed simple. The majority of my classmates, like myself, were under thirty and shared a common passion that our generation would take the institutional church by storm. While reflecting diverse theological, cultural, and racial-ethnic backgrounds, we shared a passion to bring about earthly manifestations of the kingdom of God within the denominational and ecclesiastical traditions that we planned to serve. Our schedule revolved around classes and chapel services. Our spare time was spent in lively conversations (and sometimes heated debates) over meals, coffee, and late evenings poring over the practical wisdom within a given assignment. Increasingly, this model represents a bygone era in theological education.
The seminary of the early twenty-first century looks very different from the one that I attended in the mid-1980s. It is still filled with students of my generation. But they are older now; they've waited longer to enter seminary. In my experience, most second-career seminarians in their forties, fifties, and sixties made the decision to pursue ministry after years of intense discernment. These students, like the majority of seminarians from a generation ago, show up on campus from day one well versed in the language of their denominations. However, unlike an earlier generation, many of these second-career students come to seminary with several years of pastoral ministry under their belts (often serving as lay pastors of small membership congregations). Despite a plethora of studies that describe the so-called baby boom generation as a “generation of seekers” (Roof 1999), many boomer seminarians are conducting that search within the parameters of a particular faith tradition. While these students will vary in how much attention they pay to matters of curriculum formation and on-campus involvements, they see seminary primarily as a requirement in pursuit of their chosen vocation in ministry. For years, this student population was the predominant group in North American seminaries. It is a population that seminaries by and large serve well. Many of these students enter an M.Div. program with a clear sense of their vocational goals. They will often frame theological differences in the classroom and refectory with a particular church context in mind.
The major challenge for faculty teaching this group of students, as it has always been for liberal seminaries, is to develop the students' ability for critical thinking and reflection (Foster et al. 2006). Classroom pedagogy often centers on helping students develop multiple tools of intellectual inquiry, so that they are able to view a topic from a variety of perspectives. This educational model is predicated on the often justifiable assumption that when students approach a particular problem in their ministerial context, they will need to be able to see multiple responses that can help form distinctive ministry practices.
Another challenge of teaching these “church seminarians” is that for all their personal investment in pursuing a theological education, they often approach learning in a somewhat passive manner. This is not to suggest that these students are disinterested in their studies or are not passionate about what they are learning (as the first student described in my introduction attests). It points to the fact that they do not generally challenge the missional suppositions of the institutions they attend (or the theological or ecclesiastical suppositions of the traditions that they will enter). Faculty can get into protracted and heated discussions with these students, especially when a student feels that the school's curriculum is not connecting with their own goals for educational and ministerial formation. These students may grumble about the lack of certain courses in the curriculum, or complain about particular aspects of the seminary's culture (for example, that a school's ethos is too liberal or out of synch with the culture of the local church). But their worldview is rooted in assumptions of the seminary's institutional permanence. Like Augustine's City of God, the seminary is an extension of the church in the world – a church whose existence and centrality these students never doubt.
Church seminarians leave faculty with the proverbial good-news/bad-news conundrum. On one hand, these seminarians are clear about where they are going after seminary, and in most cases that means pursuing ordination within a particular denominational tradition (or in certain Catholic and Protestant traditions, pursuing a form of diaconal or lay ministry). These students are focused on the goal of entering clearly defined professions staked out within the institutional parameters of their church or ecclesiastical tradition. While seminaries might struggle over a student's preconceived notions about the seminary experience, and might very well encounter a student's resistance to the school's educational ethos, most seminaries have the available resources to meet the educational needs of these students.
The majority of church seminarians carry what I call a checklist mentality. They are very concerned not only with meeting the guidelines of the curriculum, but also are cognizant of the required courses their ecclesiastical tradition requires them to take for ordination (or a comparable form of professional ministry). The common theme among students who fit this model from different racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds is that they envision a clear end waiting for them at graduation. Overwhelmingly theirs is a road leading to professional ministry within mainline churches and denominations.
The not-so-good news is that many of the students in this category fall into an aging and (perhaps) a shrinking constituency. Although recent statistics indicate that the median student age within North American seminaries is falling, the average ministerial age in mainline churches continues to rise. What's more, the number of ordained ministers within these traditions is shrinking (Weems 2006). If these trends continue, it raises the question of not only what will happen to mainline churches, but also what will happen to the seminaries that have served as essential partners with these churches in preparing men and women for ministry.
The New Paradigm Seminarian
In the 1980s and 1990s, scores of books appeared that challenged many taken-for-granted assumptions about mainline churches. They accentuated a dire note of crisis and warned readers about an impending collapse of these old-guard religious institutions. These works frequently used the language of postmodernism to define the state of affairs in the culture and called for faith communities to revision and reshape their understanding and definition of ministry. This movement has had tremendous impact upon contemporary religious identity, not least of all in the emphasis placed on church growth as the means to develop so-called new paradigm churches in the face of a decaying and dying mainline. I encountered what I call the new paradigm seminarian in my early years of seminary teaching when I served as the faculty representative on the all-school worship committee. Repeatedly, I had to mediate the disputes between church and new paradigm seminarians. While the former planned chapel services attentive to the parameters of their ecclesiastical traditions, the latter sought relevance outside these traditions. Heated discussions often erupted over the use of contemporary music, alternative liturgies, and utilizing nontraditional space outside of the seminary chapel to hold worship. The issues raised by this second group of seminarians have had and will continue to have a major impact on theological education.
Many students coming out of the second model might eventually serve in ministry within one of the denominational traditions that students in the first group seek to serve, yet they tend to see mainline churches as chronically ill patients on their deathbeds. Armed with church growth literature in one hand and the Bible in the other, these students approach seminary with the hope that their education might help build new models of the church. Representing a cross section of baby boomers and “generation x-ers,” new paradigm students are most sensitive to the so-called “seeker” culture of contemporary religion. Like the first group of seminarians, this group varies tremendously in its theological orientation and perspectives on sociopolitical issues. However, they converge on the theme that preexistent religious institutions cannot operate with a business-as-usual mindset.
For a variety of reasons, these new paradigm seminarians are often the most difficult to teach. In seminaries with traditional church curriculums that stress development of pastoral leadership for preexistent faith traditions, new paradigm students can be highly resistant. Unlike church seminarians, these students are active in contesting the institutional mission of the seminary. Seminaries may be seen as representing an extension of the mainline church culture that is sorely in need of reform. My earlier example of the all-school worship committee accentuates this point. No single issue was more hotly contested among students than the determination of appropriate music for chapel services. While church students were pretty adamant about using more traditional hymnody and classical music for services, new paradigm students wanted contemporary music (usually rock, pop, or rap). For the first group, the issue was how to lift a congregation up to what they felt were the norms for worship. Like the classroom itself, worship was a means to learn about a particular tradition and its lasting relevance to the church and its ministry. While some in the second group could empathize with this perspective, the majority saw it as an obstacle to reaching those in the wider culture who were “unchurched.” For the second group, the purpose of worship was to invoke a spiritual experience, not to form congregants within a given tradition.
New paradigm students can come across as iconoclastic and push seminary faculty to confront a range of topics that can directly challenge the validity of their disciplines. Indeed, the inherited culture of theological education is not very well prepared to handle the numerous demands of this cohort. Some students have embraced the information technologies that have emerged over the past fifteen years as a critical component to restructure churches, in the twenty-first century. In some ways, these students possess a cultural savvy that exceeds that of many seminary faculties. This fact alone makes them somewhat alien to the often low-tech world of liberal mainline seminaries (and by the same token, corroborates a sense among some of these students that the seminary itself is irrelevant in addressing the postmodern context).
This is not to suggest that this group is disinterested in ministry study, or formation for ministry. It does suggest an alienation from the denominational cultures that are usually endemic within the ethos of mainline seminaries. Yet this second culture pushes seminaries to think creatively about how we prepare students for ministry. Part of the challenge for seminaries will be how to harness the cultural and theological perspectives of this second culture, while staying grounded within a seminary's own unique missional ethos. One means already employed by many seminaries is to engage in a serious study of theology and popular culture. Over the past twenty years, popular culture studies have made significant inroads within seminary curriculums, and many schools are catching on to the realization that there is a critical intersection between theology and culture that can enable students to wrestle with the ambiguities confronted by religious communities in the early twenty-first century. Despite the somewhat dated constructs of their era, the typologies of faith and culture used by H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich speak to many students restless with what they perceive to be the passé cultural suppositions of mainline churches, yet hungry to engage in sustained biblical, theological, and historical analysis (Beaudoin 1998). Popular culture resources like film, television, and the arts represent significant pedagogical tools that will continue to be an important component in many seminary curriculums.
Both church and new paradigm seminarians can display a certain rigidity in their thinking. One of the biggest problems with new paradigm students is an uncritical appropriation of the whole concept of postmodernism. As a historian, I am very critical of the often repeated assertion made by many who embrace a postmodern rhetoric that sees our time as an unprecedented era, in which all past measures of religious meaning are rendered invalid. Part of the excitement I find in teaching new paradigm students is when they recognize that religious institutions, in one form or another, have always had to deal with theological and cultural crises. Discerning how historical voices creatively confronted the challenges of the past can offer students fresh perspectives on how church leaders today can address our own era.
To get students to see the value of ancient and modern traditions represents one of the major challenges facing seminary faculty. It may not dispel these students' anxieties about studying religious traditions. But it may convince some of them that these traditions have a way of surviving and changing, in ways that are transformative for individuals and faith communities.
The Vocational Seminarian
Students who make up the first two paradigms tend to be baby boomers and so-called generation x-ers (today's thirtysomethings). The third culture that I have observed is made up mostly (but not exclusively) of younger students, primarily in their mid to late twenties, who over the past half decade have begun to lower the median age within North American seminaries. Like many new paradigm students, this third group displays a certain postmodern worldview related to their orientation toward institutional religious groups. However, unlike the former group, these students are more receptive to learning about the traditions reflected by the seminary's historical-theological ethos. While this may sound similar to the orientation of the first group of seminarians, students coming out of the third model often have no clear vocational goals after graduation. They enter seminary not necessarily interested in being formed for ministry in preexistent churches, or to create new models for the church. Rather, they see seminary as a means of gaining their bearings in life, while at the same time displaying a profound desire to one day make a difference in the world. The traditions and values of the seminary are a way to help them achieve this task. This is a group that I have labeled “vocational seminarians.” If we continue to see the age drop within North American theological seminaries, then I believe it will be because of this emerging paradigm of student learner. The students in this model convey an intriguing paradox. They share with many of the new paradigm students a profound theology of journey, and their spiritual quest makes it evident that they are not tied down to one particular tradition. Yet they approach the educational task not with a hermeneutics of suspicion toward tradition, but with a desire, perhaps even a longing, to discover how the values of the seminary (and the faith traditions that the school represents) can help them discern issues of personal and vocational direction. Many vocational seminarians do see themselves heading into some form of ministry. However, they display a greater openness about where God is leading them. For many this is expressed as a desire to pursue a ministry that is not defined as service just to the church, but to the world.
Within this third student culture, I see what Jane Shaw has called an “incarnational theology” in their discernment (Shaw 2004). These students are profoundly interested in using their Christian beliefs in ways that are integrated into their lives, vocationally and personally. For the first two student cultures, seminary largely revolves around accumulating the resources needed to “do” ministry, in which a seminary degree is a means to an end (e.g., ordination). For the final group, seminary education grounds them in distinctive intellectual resources that will undergird their future journey – a journey that is characterized by an ongoing discernment of what God is calling them to do with their lives. For some of these students this discernment will lead into various forms of ministry in churches and other religious institutions. For others, their theological studies are part of a larger life sojourn that will carry them in vocational directions that move beyond traditional ministry venues.
Over the past decade, numerous undergraduate colleges have instituted a service learning component as part of their curriculums, in which students are required to integrate classroom experiences with volunteer work in non-profit agencies (Devine 2002). This values-oriented model of higher education will certainly have an impact on seminaries over the next several years. Many vocational seminarians will arrive on our campuses with experiences and worldviews not necessarily shared by peers situated in the other student cultures, who may see “service” and “ministry” as separate and distinctive concepts. It is possible that the intellectual yearnings of vocational seminarians, and the ways these students integrate their faith outside of the parameters of religious institutions, might set the stage for a time of creative synthesis in theological education.
In the early 1990s, Loren Mead observed that signs of a so-called post-Christendom church were reflected by congregations that saw ministry as beginning at the church's front door (Mead 1991). In other words, a church's mission field to the larger culture and world began the minute a person stepped outside of the church sanctuary. Mead's assertion may speak to the impact that vocational seminarians could have on the mission of mainline seminaries. Eager to receive what the seminary has to offer, yet not simply content to be formed by traditional expectations of “doing ministry,” today's seminarians could influence how future seminaries redefine their mission to “train ministers.” The following conclusions are issues for seminary faculty to reflect upon as they discern the direction of their missions over the next decade.
- 1. If trends toward younger enrollments continue, seminaries might be at the center of a creative intellectual renaissance.
This development would be especially welcome news for more liberal, mainline seminaries that have always put a premium on academic inquiry, critical thought, and religious pluralism. Historically, these themes have been a major strength for liberal seminaries, and the fact that students appear drawn to some of these values might bode well for the future. Little data exists about the impact that information technologies will have on the future of theological education. However, within a group of students who often use these technologies as if they were second nature, the type of cultures of faith and learning that seminary communities model might be more important than the technology these schools use. Seminaries that have been struggling to meet high tech expectations might come to recognize over the next decade that their students are looking for something more than the latest innovative technologies. Indeed, the ways in which increasing numbers of North Americans are rediscovering models of so-called primitive Christianity embodied by the current popularity of the “emergent church” movement of house churches might serve as a point of departure for the seminary's mission. What these organizational models suggest is more than simply a novel way of doing church. They reflect a deep yearning of many persons who see ministry not just as a vocation embodied by ordained clergy, but as a lifestyle that undergirds all aspects of life. This integration might provide unique opportunities for theological seminaries in the years ahead, not only through traditional degree programs but also through the development of continuing education models that potentially can bring the seminary resources to a larger constituency who may not desire a formal degree, but who are starving for knowledge.
- 2. On the other hand, the aging of the baby-boomer generation will create a crisis for mainline churches that will directly impact the seminary.
Denominational judicatories and theological seminaries often live in symbiotic tension. Theological schools pride themselves on the uniqueness of their mission and intellectual heritage, yet their future often depends on an ability to produce clergy and lay leaders for a variety of denominations. Consequently, church leaders often pressure seminaries to offer courses that meet the guidelines these traditions have set for ordination or other forms of professional ministry. Seldom is either party completely happy with the other. As the current cohort of second-career seminarians passes from the scene, many denominations may be faced with the growing challenge of trying to convince a new generation of seminarians that they are worth the investment.
I am not as pessimistic as some commentators regarding the future prospects for mainline religious groups in North America. There are indications that reports of mainline religion's decline and fall have been exaggerated (Butler Bass 2004). However, one of the critical issues facing theological seminaries in the future will be how they constructively engage church and denominational constituencies concerning issues of ministry formation. For many years, seminaries were able to pursue their educational missions with minimal direct connection to demands and concerns from church judicatories about a seminarian's fitness for ministry. In recent years, that more isolated seminary culture of institutional privilege has been replaced by a willingness to engage in dialogue with church leaders over mutual responsibilities in ministerial preparation. In the future, these conversations might take on a new sense of urgency, as both seminaries and churches seek ways not only to build bridges between each other but also to show a genuine interest and willingness to be shaped by the questions and passions of those seminarians who do not see denominational fidelity as their chief priority.
One emerging issue is the demand that many students are expressing for seminaries to help them develop methods and practices of spirituality. While students can be vague about how they envision these models fitting into their study, the fact that so many students raise this concern for spiritual formation bespeaks a pattern that theological seminaries in the future cannot ignore. The variable that could tie future seminaries together may not be that students are coming to our schools to be trained as pastors, but rather that they are craving the intellectual and spiritual resources that we can potentially offer. The downside of this tension remains in the question of how the student craving resources on spirituality relates to the ways seminaries design their curriculums to prepare ministers for the church (especially keeping in mind that denominational traditions usually prescribe specific curriculum requirements for would-be ordinands). These tensions will require both seminaries and churches to create candid dialogue between one another, as each party discerns its role in the process of preparing religious leaders of the future.
- 3. Finally, theological seminaries will have to insure their futures by maximizing their strengths – and acknowledging their weaknesses.
Seminary communities, like churches, can be prone to embrace what J. Philip Wogaman has called the “nostalgic vision,” where all events of the past are viewed through an uncritical eye as a golden age that (supposedly) was better than the present (Wogaman 1985). I always remind students that the past was never as golden as it may appear, nor is the past ever stagnant. When prospective students at our seminaries read admission literature, they only learn one part of the school's legacy, the institution's unique place within the pantheon of theological seminaries. Students do not read about the other side of our histories, our collective failures that go hand in hand with our successes. As faculty, we need to accept that there will be many occasions when we fail our students. Yet for all their failures historically, theological seminaries have proved resilient institutions, amidst changing circumstances.
What characterizes current discussion about theological education in North America is a lack of consensus about the future. Some see the future seminary as a high tech laboratory that makes little use of bygone symbols of Christianity's institutional identity. Others see the future seminary as the primary means to raise up leaders who are deeply formed in specific spiritual practices and disciplines. Others insist that the seminary's mission needs to be predicated on its academic integrity (McLaren et al. 2006). In all likelihood, no single model will predominate; rather, the future of theological education will depend partly upon how each school maximizes its strengths. It is a mistake for seminaries to succumb solely to a market-driven philosophy of their mission, in which every impulse toward change is uncritically embraced. Every institution has a genetic code and seminaries are rich with languages that can tell students a great deal about what to expect in their years of study. As the baby-boomer population passes from the scene, seminaries will be challenged to adapt their missions to the expectations presented by the new paradigm and vocational students. Mainline religious institutions have been remarkably adept at transforming their missions to embrace the challenges of new historical and cultural realities. There is no reason to believe that theological seminaries will not be up to the challenge again.
In the current uncertainties that seminaries face in an era defined by a scarcity of financial resources and often diminishing academic resources, faculty would do well to remember the ways in which they represent not only a particular academic discipline, but also the distinctive ethos of the seminary where they teach. At my seminary we are fond of reminding one another that our mission is not defined by a desire to increase professional marketability, but to instill biblical and theological values in our students that can enable them to transform the church and the world. Some variation of this missional ethos is a part of most seminaries today, and it needs to be taken seriously. The traditions we embody might very well present future faculty with unforeseen opportunities to teach students who not only desire to take their faith into the world, but to change the world.
Any discussion of student cultures or paradigms such as the ones outlined in this essay is fraught with the danger of over-generalizing or stereotyping these patterns. Yet such typologies can provide a useful perspective on changes that may go unnoticed on a daily basis. What is clear is that current typologies of student diversity, revolving around factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, do not necessarily indicate that for the future seminarian a career in the church is in the offing. Even though seminaries may see increasing numbers of students who are not necessarily looking toward church ministries, the fact that these students are coming to seminaries as opposed to graduate schools of religion is significant. Are these students a sign that seminaries need to abandon their historical commitment to train ministers for religious institutions, or do these students, like those who preceded them into seminary, affirm the unique purpose of theological education? Today, as seminary faculty teach, lead worship in chapel, discern issues of pedagogy, and counsel students, maybe we are setting the table for new and creative ways to engage in the enterprise of theological education. For those of us called to the vocation of seminary teaching, the future should be quite a journey.