Do mainline churches find traditional seminary education an obstacle to thriving? “As churches shrink and pastors retire, creative workarounds are redefining ministry,” reported Elizabeth E. Evans recently in Religion News Service. A workaround, by definition, is an alternate path used when the main path is not longer serviceable. Workarounds are required when existing structures no longer meet the needs of the people involved. As someone who works in and around seminary education, I see a disconnect between the traditional Master of Divinity program and the creativity needed for mainline churches to thrive.
Scarcities of money and time are forcing a redefinition of ministry in the mainline. Congregations are smaller, attendance is sparser, and budgets are shrinking. The old model of a fully-compensated, professional theologian in the pulpit is no longer viable for the majority of congregations. Financial and demographic realities have foisted many congregations into the realm of bivocational and multivocational ministry.
Multivocational ministry is an existing and emerging need of the church. To fully embrace multivocational ministry as a strategic priority in their educational programming, seminaries would need to explore and identify various changes and initiatives required to reform their curriculum, extracurricular offerings, programs, structure, and ethos around this priority. However, many schools of theology cling to traditional curricula, becoming the obstacle around which churches must creatively navigate.
What if North American seminaries were to risk reinventing themselves by adopting a multivocational mindset? I explore the this question in my open-access book, Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. Theological educators will be especially interested in my concluding chapter, in which I reimagine theological education in conversation with the work of Justo González on the history of theological education and Daniel Aleshire on the future of theological education. If you have read any of the books in the series “Theological Education between the Times,” you will find this discussion an important addition to the conversation.
Mainline seminaries must determine how they will contribute to the thriving of mainline congregations. In the meantime, churches will continue to find creative workarounds.