Beyond Profession

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I am here at the Association of Theological Schools Biennial Meeting, which has been great so far–great things to learn and good colleagues to meet. It seems like a good time to share a brief review of a great new book I just read, which is about theological education.

Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education, by Daniel O. Aleshire, is part of a series of books on theological education titled “Theological Education Between the Times,” edited by Ted. A. Smith.  The entire series is worth reading (particularly After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, by Willie James Jennings), and this specific volume is a worthy addition to this series. Daniel Aleshire is as competent as anyone to speak on theological education, having attended seminary as a student, taught as a seminary professor, and worked for the Association of Theological Schools from 1989 to 2017. He was the Executive Director of ATS from 1998 until his retirement.  This wide range of experiences makes him uniquely qualified to write a book that attempts to answer the question, “What should theological education become?”

The book is very brief—it has only four chapters, and Aleshire himself calls it an “extended essay,” (1) that is “one long airplane ride of reading” (3).  Basically, the book spends the first two chapters reflecting on the character and history of theological education in the United States up to this point, and then takes the last two chapters to describe the model of theological education Aleshire believes awaits us in the future, and the practices that can support it.  It is tightly argued, well-written, and compelling.

The first chapter is autobiographical in nature, describing Aleshire’s own experiences with theological education—the kind of education he received as a student in the 1970s, the kind he delivered as a seminary professor in the 1980s, and then the kind he shepherded in his long career with ATS, beginning in the 1990s.  This chapter starts with a quote that is particularly relevant now, as the COVID pandemic becomes endemic and most of us are seeking a restart, a reframing that will help us begin again.  He quotes Julian Barnes:

       We live in time—it holds us and molds us—

but I never felt I understood it very well.

And I’m not referring to theories about how

it bends and doubles back, or may exist

elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean

ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and

watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock,

click-clock. Is there anything more plausible

than a second hand? And yet it takes only the

smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s

malleability. Some emotions speed it up, oth-

ers slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go

missing—until the eventual point when it

really does go missing, never to return. (5)

Who can’t relate to feeling like that at some point in the past two years?

It is these two forces of “time” and “change” that Aleshire focuses on in chapter one, arguing that in the complex context we are in now, these two forces are entwined and equally influential on the ways we have experienced theological education in our recent past. 

He spends some time talking about “learning,” and some of the complex ways that study and education have had an ambivalent role in the Christian faith.  He argues that while “Learning is intrinsic to the Christian faith” (12), it is also true that there will always be seminary students who are warned that seminary will ruin their faith (anyone who has taught at a seminary can confirm Aleshire’s statement), and that the intellectual complexities a theological education engenders are not always welcome. His point in this discussion is ultimately to argue for the continued necessity of theological education—it is not going away, and there is no replacement for it. From this foundation, Aleshire then goes on to describe “the particular expression of theological education” that forms the subject of his book:

  • postbaccalaureate education for religious leaders and others pursuing theological studies that offers a theological curriculum including a range of theological disciplines, is oriented to educational goals of knowledge and competence, and is characterized by educational practices of degree-granting schools and accountable to standard of quality in higher education. (italics original, 16)

The rest of the chapters describe the historical development of and current challenges to this expression, including its cost, the time required, the content of the curriculum, changing pedagogies, etc., as well as what the future holds (in Aleshire’s view) for this expression.

The second chapter is the longest chapter in the book; it is a historical look at the three primary influences on theological education since the colonial period in the United States: the cultural moment, practices in higher education, and religious structures and practices (30). The chapter is organized around the history of three different groups of theological schools: Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Protestant. It also gives attention to Historically Black institutions.

Of particular interest is an observation he makes about Mainline Protestant institutions—he notes characteristics that were considered strengths in the 19th century and much of the 20th century, but which Aleshire argues have become threats in the 21st-century:

First, special purpose higher education institutions have

a narrow educational bandwidth. While they are ideally

suited to educate religious leaders, the declining number

of these potential leaders threatens their educational purpose

and institutional stability. Second, degree-granting graduate

schools in this century require significant financial resources,

which constitutes a harsh reality for financially strapped

schools. The result is that many freestanding seminaries are

forced to consider merging with other seminaries or

larger educational institutions (39).

Another interesting observation Aleshire makes, this time about the history of Roman Catholic seminaries, is the adoption of the program of priestly formation in the 1990s, which grounds the formation of priests on four pillars: spiritual, pastoral, human, and intellectual (50).  Often, faculty and staff in seminaries argue that it is impossible to either define or assess spiritual formation (let alone “human formation”). There is something to be learned from the way Roman Catholics seminaries engage in this formation, and those who are involved in this work (a “human formator” and a “spiritual director” [51]). Aleshire concludes, “These tasks of giving substantive and sustained attention to personal and spiritual issues, funded by the seminary, for all four years of study for the ministerial priesthood, make this kind of theological education formational in a way not characteristic in Protestant theological education” (51). Furthermore, Aleshire cites the numbers of priests accused of clerical sexual abuse of minors, and notes that “something has reduced the number of offenses since the early 1990s…It is possible…that the significant changes in the way candidates for the ministerial priesthood have been educated since the early 1990s, especially with its focus on human formation, have played a role in decreasing the number of incidents of clerical abuse” (52).

It is important not to miss the concluding section on “Historically Black Theological Schools and Racial/Ethnic Students.” Aleshire opens this section arguing, “Hoping to interrupt the hold of whiteness on what we can see, I want to pay special attention to historically black theological schools and to the experiences of African Americans and other minoritized groups in theological education” (65).  There are only six historically black theological schools in the Association of Theological Schools, but the enrollment of students from historically marginalized communities has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, even as overall enrollment has been declining. This points to an unavoidable but obvious conclusion: “The future for American Christianity in this century will be defined by persons of color, and if present trends continue, persons of color will constitute the majority of students in US theological schools within two decades” (69). For those of us who work in predominantly white schools, in predominantly white denominations, this should be a call to action.

The third chapter is, in some ways, the heart of Aleshire’s argument. In this chapter, he makes the case that “formational theological education” will be the “next dominant model” of theological education (2). The chapter opens with two graphs, documenting the declining “positive views of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy,” along with the declining confidence in “the church or organized religion” (76). These graphs point to the declining influence of both the church and church leaders; this is the social moment in which Aleshire seeks to describe what is necessary in theological education in this moment. He writes, “I think the current cultural moment calls for renewed attention to the enduring qualities enumerated in the above Scriptures [Titus 1:7-9; 1 Timothy 3:2-7]; being not violent but gentle, a lover not of money but of goodness, not quarrelsome but prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. As religion is increasingly on the defensive and many religious institutions are in decline, an invaluable response will be to ensure the fundamental Christian character of Christian leaders” (79).  This leads him to conclude that the “‘next’ theological education is ‘formational’” (79), a term Aleshire wants to apply to the entire theological curriculum, not just pieces of it.

He describes the goal of formational theological education this way:

The goal of theological education should be the development

of a wisdom of God and the ways of God, fashioned from

intellectual, affective, and behavioral understanding and

evidenced by spiritual and moral maturity, relational integrity,

knowledge of the Scripture and tradition, and the capacity to

exercise religious leadership” (82).

The rest of the chapter expands on this goal and describes it in more detail. There are many gems in this chapter that are worth noting: the importance of intellectual, affective and behavioral ways of understanding; developing “relational integrity;” and three fundamental expectations of public ministers—loving God, loving the people they serve, and the ability to do the work of ministry (92).

Aleshire closes this chapter reiterating his core argument: the current cultural moment demands the cultivation of fresh pedagogical practices that “will give preference to underdeveloped aspects of theological education” (106).  He writes:

The next future of theological education will not be

completely different from the current version; schools

will need to use the tools they have already developed,

recover some patterns of education they have allowed to

go dormant, and continue to do some of what they are doing.

But they will also need to imagine a larger arena in which

theological education does its work. The next future of

theological education will concern itself with the content of

theological studies, the skills needed for ministerial leadership,

and the spiritual, moral, and relational character of Christian

life to which religious leaders should aspire. It does not give

itself permission to exclude any of these areas” (106).

Finally, the last chapter describes educational practices that can support this formational theological education. This chapter begins with a quote from Marilynne Robinson: “I think and write about religion because I am religious. It occurred to me early in life that I wanted to align my life with things that seemed true to me” (107). The practices that support a formative theological education should foster this alignment.

Aleshire describes these practices in three overarching categories: an institution’s explicit awareness of its own mission and the “faithfulness” of its faculty, evidenced in “spiritually informed virtues” (113-114); a commitment to formational goals and assessment (117-121); and an education that privileges spiritual and moral maturity, and relational integrity (121-131). From this, he argues for institutional changes that are needed to best implement these practices, which include different modes of evaluation, greater disciplinary integration, and the development of new partners in experiential learning.

In the postlude, Aleshire summarizes and reiterates his main point: the three forces that most directly affect theological education—the role of religion in the United States, the character of higher education in general, and the character of US society itself—are all changing; and theological educational institutions are being called upon to respond, “to find the tune they need to sing in relationship to the dominant notes being sounded by influences they cannot change” (139). 

There is no quick fix or universal map that can be followed to find this tune; each institution will need to do this work for itself, in relationship with other institutions, of course. Whatever course institutions select, Aleshire suggests that, at least one aspect of the work will require us “to go to the attic and retrieve some things that were put in storage because they were too valuable to give away” (139). Change, innovation, retrieval, renewal: all of these responses are required.

For anyone involved in theological education, this book should be required reading. It offers superior food for thought, and excellent avenues of speculation that can spark the kinds of changes needed in order for theological institutions to continue to form public ministers who can lead a rapidly changing church for the sake of the gospel in the world.

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