A Reflection by the Rev. Dr. David Grafton Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor, Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations
Centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia seeks to educate and form public leaders who are committed to developing and nurturing individual believers and communities of faith for engagement in the world
I remember very vividly my first orientation session at seminary some twenty-four years ago. I sat down in the midst of an excited yet nervous cohort of incoming seminarians in the then new ELCA. It was at that point I realized I was one of the few “first career” theology students. Most of my classmates, friends, and colleagues were “second” or even “third” career students who brought with them a great deal of experience and commitment to the church, having been serving for years as lay leaders in their own congregations. I, on the other hand, had followed the “old school” regimen of doing a pre-theology program at a Lutheran university, and had hopes of continuing my Lutheran confessional seminary education at an ELCA school in preparation for my career in the Lutheran Church. I was a product similar to what Richard Lischer in Open Secrets called “the system.” After eight years of pre-seminary and seminary training, I felt pretty-well prepared for ministry in my first call, and then the boiler broke and I had no idea what to do.
This model of theological education has been the basis for training an educated clergy for quite a long time in North America. The concept of learning the “classics” of seminary education—biblical languages, early Christological debates, Lutheran confessional identity, and pastoral techniques—before heading out into the reality of parish contexts has been a wonderful model that has served the church well. Unfortunately, that model is no longer sustainable for several reasons.
My experience taught me that “book learning” was critical. And yet, I could never learn enough. While I had wonderful opportunities to fill my tool belt with the critical tools that helped me do ministry, after a total of twelve years of education (BA, MDiv, PhD), I could truly never learn enough to be a good pastor. It was clear I would need to be a life-long learner in the ministry. This is even truer today.
I was also fortunate enough to have the institutional support of the church to subsidize my education at every level. My synod provided grants for me to attend a Lutheran university, my congregation underwrote my Lutheran seminary education, and a Lutheran companion synod provided a stipend while I worked on my PhD overseas. Throughout this time, my wife worked to help support us, and still we went into debt. As we know, seminary debt is an overwhelming challenge in the church today.
Finally, my experience as a church professional was nurtured by a large program-church at the height of its institutional life, supported by a network of field education congregations that gladly received and financially subsidized its seminarians, and was welcomed by a first-call congregation that was more than willing to provide a parsonage and health care for a young pastor, spouse, and babies on the way.
In many ways, times have changed, but in most ways, things are still the same. We still need pastors and lay leaders who are thoroughly grounded in the scriptures and confessions, who are able to meet the challenges of ministry in today’s world with integrity. However, in many places, the national demographics, church culture, networks, and resources that I grew up with have changed, and will continue to change. Things are changing so fast that it is impossible to train a student once for a lifetime of effective ministry.
LTSP serves the seminary’s mission of preparing public leaders for the mission of the church in the world. The seminary takes seriously its commitments to educate and form public leaders who are able to develop and nurture ministries of the church, as well as engage the larger public square for the common good. The seminary is committed to shaping Christian leaders who are able to articulate their faith within multiple publics. To this end, the seminary has been involved in a curriculum revision to respond to the changing landscape of our church and the many different communities in which our ministries are located. This new curriculum will build upon its past traditions of a confessionally Lutheran, inherently ecumenical seminary, with a high standard of academic rigor. The mantra of this new curriculum is: flexible, affordable, and relevant.
Flexible: The most recent Lutheran model of theological education assumed a four year full time residential student who could relocate to the seminary, move to an internship site, and relocate back to the seminary before heading out to first-call assignment — four moves in four years. Statistics demonstrate that the number of full time MDiv students nation-wide is dropping at a dramatic rate. The pool of applicants and their ability or desire to engage the “system” have changed. It is clear that those discerning a seminary education require flexibility from the church that will allow them to learn, grow, and prepare themselves while either not having to leave their employment, relocate, or to take four years to move through their courses; all the while realizing that theological education is never completed, even after seminary. The seminary hopes to work hand in hand with synods, candidacy committees, and judicatories to provide opportunities for undertaking study while working in ministry.
Affordable: The church has recognized that current seminarians are bearing the bulk of the financial burden for their studies. While it is true that other professional schools have not had subsidized education, it is also true that the financial benefits of church workers rank near the bottom of all trained professions. In addition, the ability of ministries to provide housing and health care coverage for their pastors has been greatly challenged. There is no getting around the fact that theological education is a significant investment of time and money by the church. With shrinking resources from traditional sources of income, the seminary will need to continue to support its Leadership Fund, as well as find opportunities for students to engage in ministry through co-op models while they study. A new curriculum will provide avenues for students to continue working, or, if full time, move through more quickly and meet their requirements for graduation in a more affordable and timely manner.
Relevant: The traditional models of theological education that I was schooled in provided classroom theory upon which to build skills for practical ministry. This curriculum centers on experiential or case-study based methods so that theory and praxis inform each other on a continuing basis. The intent is to invert the previous paradigm and introduce students to practical ministry and theological reflection from the beginning of the program. This is a model that has been utilized by the medical and legal professions for more than thirty years. Students will be required to link particular required courses with field education sites and demonstrate how their practical ministry is affected by their theological identities, and how their “book learning” impacts their practice.
It is easy to see that the flexible, affordable, and relevant criteria are all inter-related. A new curriculum will aim to provide combinations of full and part time study, residential, commuter, distance components, and hybrid courses so that candidates for ministry can move through their education more quickly with courses that attempt to create opportunities for learning from practical ministerial experiences.
A new curriculum at LTSP will be based upon the seminary's commitments to educate and form rostered leaders for the church that are competent to meet the needs of the church in a changing church and a changing culture. Students will be required to demonstrate they can lead communities, be entrepreneurs, preach, and live the Gospel in a variety of ministerial contexts where traditional church community may no longer be the base for much of our society. In addition, whereas the previous 2004 curriculum took a major step of requiring students to take courses in global, ecumenical, and interfaith engagement, this curriculum will require students to integrate the global, multi-cultural, ecumenical, and interfaith realities of our nation within the whole of the curriculum. Finally, an initial Introduction to Public Theology and a final course in Public Theology will help students integrate their theological and confessional witness within larger social issues where the church needs to have a public voice, bearing witness to the God made manifest in the Crucified and Risen Christ. We hope this developing curriculum will form the new “system” for another generation of church leaders.