Is it time to re-imagine theological education?

The following is an excerpt from Phil Snider's blog.

If mainline theological education is broken, it's not for lack of interest from prospective students.

In the book The Hyphenateds, which will be released next week, Nadia Bolz-Weber notes that in the seven-year history of Church of the Apostles (an emerging church in Seattle that is deeply rooted in both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA), nearly thirty participants have enrolled in seminary. Thirty participants in seven years.

Nadia is an ELCA pastor at House for All in Denver, Colorado, where in just seventeen months of weekly worship they have sent three young adults to seminary.

In the congregation where I pastor (Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, MO, a Disciples of Christ congregation), we have sent seven participants to seminary since we started The Awakening in 2005, a worship gathering that combines progressive theology with alternative expressions of liturgical worship. (The number of participants that went to seminary in the previous 45 years of Brentwood's history? One).

The ratio of participants from emerging mainline communities who enroll in seminary is nothing less than astonishing, even as the number of established churches that are available to support traditional full-time ministers rapidly decrease.

What is it, I wonder, that draws so many participants from hyphenated congregations to ministry? What does this mean for the church as a whole? How do established mainline structures cultivate in-depth theological education and training in ways that constructively address the needs of hyphenateds who are likely to lead innovative ministries on the fringes of church life that will (ironically) result in even more seminary students drawn to ministry on the fringes? How do seminaries respond to the questions raised in Deacon Gus's thought provoking post "Does it make sense to go to seminary?"

By drawing on examples from United Methodist practices, Elaine Heath, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, writes the following in her contribution to The Hyphenateds:

One of the biggest obstacles at this time for United Methodists who participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing through emergence is an ordination system that no longer fits our missional context. That is, every person who is planning to be ordained as an elder and receive full membership in an annual conference (the level of ordination necessary to have full voting privileges and to enable one to rise to significant levels of leadership, including bishop) must also plan to receive his or her full-time income and benefits from the local church. People aspiring to be elders cannot plan to be bivocational, working as a pastor of small, possibly impoverished faith communities while earning a living doing something else. The only exception to this is for people like me who are already ordained as elders who, at some point after having served in local churches, are appointed beyond the local church to an extension ministry such as teaching at a seminary. Cases where persons are ordained as elders and immediately sent to extension ministries are extremely rare.

There is one more piece to this troubling puzzle. We also have qualified, gifted, called, fruitful candidates whose elder ordination is delayed because there is nowhere to send them for the required, guaranteed, full-time appointment, because so many United Methodist churches are shrinking and closing. These candidates are rarely told that the reason for their deferment is that there is no room at the inn, but it seems clear that this is what is going on. Sadly, this is one of the big reasons that young candidates leave the denomination and go elsewhere, and that some young seminarians decide not to pursue ordination in the first place. The great frustration at this time is that the more innovative and socially entrepreneurial the candidate is, the more suited to generativity, the more at home working in the margins of society, the more interested in bivocational ministry, the less likely it is that she or he will ever make it through to ordination. Without ever having planned for this outcome, then, our ordination system and our guaranteed appointment system work hand in hand to actually prohibit some of our most gifted young adults from answering their call to missional, monastic, and generative ministry within the United Methodist Church. Small wonder that we are having a hard time attracting young adults to ordained ministry in the UMC these days, and keeping the ones who are focused on emerging, missional work!

So it is that across the nation our bishops, chairs of boards of ordained ministry, seminary deans, and clergy are wrestling with how to change the systems in order to accommodate necessary movement without compromising the sanctity of ordination to word, sacrament, and order. Meanwhile, under the radar, out on the margins, and right under our collective noses increasing numbers of Methodists are answering God’s call to create new faith communities that use nontraditional leadership structures, in order to go and make disciples. Most of them don’t care if they ever get ordained. What they do care about is living the gospel in the manner of the early Methodists: faithfully, holistically, as good news in a broken world.

How might mainline communities and structures respond to these concerns? This is just one of many subjects explored in The Hyphenateds, and I look forward to the conversations and possibilities that emerge as we reflect on the future of the church together.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Springfield, MO. His books include Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations (winner of the 2011 Mayflower Award for best book in church and society) and The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.