The Changing Nature of Theological Education, Part 2

digital seminary

[Editorial Note: Chris Ruddell is a member of the Board of Trustees for Saint Paul School of Theology]

A few months back I posted an article on the Changing Nature of Theological Education, in which I talked about the move of seminaries to be more technologically relevant in the 21st Century. It’s time for part 2.

One of the seminaries I featured in that article, Saint Paul School of Theology, recently announced a bold move that could altar the landscape of theological education. It will begin with a move in geographic location across town, but will lead to a new way of training pastors and ministry leaders with a focus on both academic growth and practical development.

The Move

The move, in its simplest form, is to move from the traditional campus setting with a multi-building campus to be housed within the confines of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (Otherwise known as “Resurrection”). With over 12,000 members, Resurrection is the largest church in the denomination and was listed as the most influential mainline church in America in a 2005 survey of American pastors.

For the seminary, this move will open up new forms of education. Traditionally, seminary education has focused on developing pastors that can pontificate about the nuances of theological doctrine well over the heads of the majority of Americans. Yet for all the education, most churches in America have been on the decline for decades. Churches have changed; expectations of worshipers have changed; yet the way we train our pastors has remained under a model hundreds of years old. Until now.

A New Model

Already, the professors at Saint Paul School of Theology have developed a new model of education to coincide with the move. It will include lectures on theology, church history, Bible, etc., just as before. But it will also include practical experience in the ministries of Resurrection, including observation of how ministry is done in a church that has learned many lessons along the way, and critical reflection by teachers and students upon those ministries.

Imagine taking a class that on leading weddings and funerals. In a typical seminary, that may look at basic formats to follow, standard prayers to repeat, and brief discussion about some of the things you might want to say to a family. But when students enter pastoral ministry and are faced with their first wedding or funeral, it can be a nerve-wracking experience for both the pastor and the family. Now imagine that your class has you participate in a wedding and funeral at a church that has been doing many of them for a long time, and then reflects as a class on that shared experience. Take it a step further – imagine being able to see how a funeral might be done for someone who committed suicide – something that is not uncommon at a large church, but may only happen once or twice during the career of many pastors. Do you see how much sharper those skills will be with the hands-on experience?

The ways this new model will benefit pastors and local churches goes on. Churches are involved in many ministries and administrative nuances that are never covered in most seminary education. But the move to align Saint Paul School of Theology with Resurrection could push seminaries around the country to rethink theological education. But this wouldn’t be much of a blog without talking about … technology! This is one facet of the move that is generating much excitement. Already, Saint Paul has been operating on two campuses via video-linked classes.

But with the technological backbone of Resurrection, the services will be greatly expanded. Laity participation in seminary classes is sure to increase. Plans exist for a 21st Century library with digitized collections. With any luck, such a library will be open to wide audiences, including alumni and members of Resurrection.  To take it a step further, dream with me for a moment and imagine a seminary that could teach every one of its pastors how to do media production, such as producing high-quality videos for worship or web ministries, turning sermons into audio or video podcasts, or even starting cyber-campuses of the church.  The worldwide Church is only beginning to explore what it means to do ministry in our connected world, and seminaries like Saint Paul School of Theology will stand out as training grounds for the best and brightest pastors for the modern world.

If you’re a pastor, what hands-on skills do you wish your seminary would have taught you? If you’re not a pastor or you haven’t been to seminary, how would having a seminary focused on both academic development and practical experience benefit your local church? Leave us a comment and let us know!

20 SHARES

Chris Ruddell

I'm an Associate Pastor in the United Methodist Church and I serve as a trustee for Saint Paul School of Theology, with campuses in Kansas City, MO and Oklahoma City, OK. I'm also the author and creator of Church Tech Blog, at www.churchtechblog.org and the founder of Church Phone Apps at www.churchphoneapps.com

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  1. says

    In general I think this is a good idea. Using the tools and resources of a mega-church to facilitate a seminary is a great idea. Using seminary students at a mega-church as interns also seems like a good idea.

    My only significant concern is that this is preparing seminary students to work as associate pastors of a mega-church. And there are not all that many UMC megachurches for these seminary students to go to once they graduate.

    Many UMC churches, and the vast majority of all US churches are still single staff with less than 200 regular attenders. I envision a lot of seminarians graduating and being unprepared to work as a sigle staff pastor in a small rural or urban church.

  2. says

    Thanks for the commend Adam. Actually, the goal is not to train students to be Associate Pastors, but rather to train them to be effective pastors in any setting. Saint Paul currently has the highest percentage of student pastors – almost all of which are serving rural congregations. (I served 3 churches at the same time while going to school there). That dimension won’t change with the new model – but the goal is to help students learn from highly effective ministry leaders. Think of it more as a place to learn ‘best practices’ in ministry, with a critical eye toward the theological implications.

    The classroom setting will bring forth conversations from students regarding their experiences in the rural church, and how ministries at Resurrection might or might not work well for them. I suspect that will lead to some interesting discussions and generate some really creative thinking. At least, that’s the vision.

  3. says

    Maybe “altar” is a Freudian slip. :)

    This is a wonderful idea. Wasn’t training for and sending out to ministry always supposed to be done by the Church? This is a new idea to us because we left it centuries ago.

  4. Theoldmandave says

    I am surprised that you think this is new! Many schools in Canada have been taking this praxis approach to ministry training for many years. Tying the classroom to the church has been necessary for a long time.

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