Reconceiving Seminary

Ever since Fuller announced they are closing their Sacramento campus, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of seminary education.

The stated reason for the closing was financial, but in financial decisions there are also philosophical and strategic assumptions.  We were the fastest growing campus. Recently given approval to offer the MDiv degree from our site (in fact this long process of approval concluded almost the same time they decided to close us down).  But, with a need to refocus the budget changes were made based on perceived future value.

Events suggest our perceived value.  Colorado Springs campus was similarly assessed.  Houston, Menlo Park, Seattle, Phoenix, Orange County have experienced varying levels of reduction in budget, course offerings, marketing assistance, and uncertainty. Even the main campus at Pasadena has seen a drop in classroom numbers, even as the overall student body continues to grow (albeit not as full-time students)

Online is the growth area in higher education. Regional campuses are not seen the same way.

I taught both online and at Sacramento this past year. My online courses would fill up and have waiting lists within a few days of open registration.  This is not uncommon.  My Sac classes would never fill and would take a while to get to a satisfying number.  Indeed, theology classes were often cancelled because of low enrollment prior to my arriving here and getting a favorable reputation.

Students take online classes in abundance.  Regional campuses were created prior to the internet, to offer students the ability to attend classes within a reasonable distance from their home and work. With online classes, students can attend classes within their home or work.  Convenience reigns.  Classes fill.  Education advances into the Information Age.

And yet…

In the recent commencement at Menlo Park, I read this in the program:
“Fuller’s mission is to equip men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.”

That’s a paraphrase. The official mission statement:

“Fuller Theological Seminary, embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church. Under the authority of Scripture we seek to fulfill our commitment to ministry through graduate education, professional development, and spiritual formation. In all of our activities, including instruction, nurture, worship, service, research, and publication, Fuller Theological Seminary strives for excellence in the service of Jesus Christ, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.”

Thoughtful, purposeful, and powerful concepts.  These orient the practical directions of seminary: about what we should cut, where we should focus, what we should do.

More than that, however, I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education.

What is the place of seminary education in a coherent Christian systematic theology?

Not what theology should a seminary teach, or how many theology classes a seminary should offer.  Rather, is there a “theology of seminary”?

I think yes, and I think this is a part of a broader ecclesiology (the study of the church). How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by our understanding of Christian community. How we understand seminary shapes and is shaped by how we understand the role of education in and for the church, in and for this world.

Rather than try to plead the cause of the Sacramento campus, or regional campuses in general, or otherwise argue for a way to help navigate severe budget crises, I think it more helpful to explore this potential theology of seminary.  A seminary is part of higher education but should operate according to a unique narrative, the Way of Christ.  We cannot jettison our theological mooring even if we are facing a financial crisis in the midst of a massive ecclesial transition.

I argue that a stronger theological mooring in light of our mission statement is precisely what will contribute to Fuller’s continued creative approach to mission, theology and ministry.  In this, we will participate more fully with the work of the Spirit, who is already raising up men and women for service in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways.

I’m not saying this isn’t happening or that I’m a lone voice crying out in the wilderness on this topic. There’s a lot of people thinking about these issues.  Because of my indeterminate circumstances, however, I want to dig deeper into it myself. I’m not an expert on higher education. But I am a good teacher (so I’ve been told) and I am an expert on ecclesiology.  I have experience in various campuses and have recently had a wonderful experience in Sacramento come to a rather abrupt and disappointing conclusion (albeit a very abruptly slow conclusion).

Again, over the rest of this summer, I want to consider a “theology of seminary.”  This isn’t devoid of practical suggestions, but just won’t start there.

After thinking about this a while, I wanted to start with that most basic of questions: what is the purpose of seminary.  And I invite anyone who is interested to muse along with me.

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