Seminary for the Rest of Us: Theological Education Isn’t Just for Pastors

Written by Josh Sweeden, Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Church and Society at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

“Seminary” has long been synonymous with clergy preparation. Now in addition to the task of preparing professional clergy, seminaries (schools of theology and ministry, divinity schools) are extending their role, rediscovering the work of theological education for the broader church and society. We should expect to see seminaries develop new patterns of direct engagement with persons of faith, stretching beyond their long-standing indirect relationship—namely “trickle-down” influence from seminary to clergy to ministry context or lay person.

Not a Reinvention, but a Recovery of Historic Purpose

Some argue this broadened work of seminaries is born out of crisis, citing necessity as the mother of invention. Theological education is certainly experiencing a period of disruptive innovation. Changes in technology, new economic realities, and shifting demographics of students and constituencies are forces contributing to various innovations in programs, delivery models, and course instruction.

Students engage in discussion at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Yet, at a deeper level, this broadened work of seminaries is reflective of a rediscovery of a historic purpose of theological education: to provide a lens (worldview) for engagement with God’s world. Rather than merely adapting to a crisis, seminaries are revisiting their mission and indelible partnership with churches and contexts.

As unprecedented as today’s changing landscape seems, theological education has always been adapting and innovating. Much of what we imagine as a traditional seminary, for example, has a short history. It was only in the last two hundred years that seminaries began to emerge, and it was primarily Protestant seminaries that helped standardize what became the professional model of clergy preparation. Prior to that time, most formal theological education took place within a broader educational curriculum and was engaged by lay persons as well as those preparing to be professional clergy. Clergy often engaged in heightened forms of education and professional preparation, but a robust engagement with Scripture, Christian history, and theology was foundational for all persons and professions.

In this sense, Christian theological education was never intended to be relegated to an indirect relationship with the church and its ministries.

Exemplary of the recovery of the historic purpose of theological education is the way seminaries are coming alongside churches to address the “Sunday to Monday gap.” That phrase refers to the disconnect persons experience between the workaday world and Sunday worship, an issue of increasing importance in an era of rapid social and economic change. Resources to address the gap have focused on various interdependent themes: the role of the church in addressing relevant questions of person’s daily lives, import of faith into one’s work or workplace, and examination of the formative role of work in Christian theology and witness. New resources exploring vocation and calling often parallel or even overlap these themes.

For the most part, local churches have had to carry out the bridge work alone. Pastors and local clergy bear the responsibility in assisting members of their community to make sense of faith and everyday life. Given the immensity of the demand, clergy often feel like all they can offer is a stopgap, rather than an actual bridge. While seminaries have been valuable partners for local churches, they have largely played an indirect role by providing contributions through critical research, conscious-raising, and professional training of clergy. This linear approach reflects the church-seminary symbiosis of the twentieth century, but it is insufficient in an increasingly complex world.

Theological Training for the Real World

Now seminaries are beginning to ask how they might play a more direct role. Can seminaries better partner with churches in the work of theological integration for the workaday world? What does it mean to resource the church beyond just the clergy?

For many seminaries, this entails a significant shift from the paradigms that have long-marked their curriculum, faculty, and learning communities. Such shifts take time. Yet, many theological schools are already reflecting new postures by developing programs and other opportunities to support the theological and ministerial formation of non-clergy persons without betraying their commitment to professional clergy education.

Not surprisingly, part of the impetus for this shift is coming from lay persons who want to explore the intersections of theology and their professions. In my own context (Nazarene Theological Seminary) for example, the faculty have worked with pastors and lay leaders to establish a unique Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership program which enables persons to tailor an area of specialization—including areas outside traditional theological disciplines—to integrate with theological and ministerial foundations. We are partnering with clergy, lay professionals, and educators in various fields to provide a direct resource to help bridge the Sunday to Monday gap.

The MA in Transformational Leadership at NTS integrates the theological disciplines, contextual leadership, and specialized courses to help students become an intentionally Christian leader in their chosen field.

We are also embracing the task of theological education for a church on the move, recognizing the power of the Spirit at work in and through the various professionals in any given congregation—social workers, counselors, educators, business persons, etc. We are striving to take seriously their desire to make an impact, increase the power of their witness in the world, and imagine with them how their work is an expression of the calling and the gifts and abilities God has given them. Indeed, the church’s ministry includes those who articulate a missional calling as well as professional clergy who have received a direct calling. Wondering how to integrate your faith into your vocation? Check out Nazarene Theological Seminary's new program, the Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership. Click To Tweet

The Influence of the Seminary Beyond Sunday

Seminaries will always be a primary place for the formation of professional clergy. But it’s time to look beyond Sunday. Theological education is developing new patterns to help address the critical issues of our time through various forms of civil and ecclesial leadership. This is not new work for theological education, but a recovery of direct engagement with the church and support of the long-held conviction that “faith seeking understanding” is an ongoing task for all Christians. Faith seeking understanding is an ongoing task, not just for Christian clergy, but for all Christians. Click To Tweet

Nazarene Theological Seminary is one of our many incredible sponsors for Missio Alliance’s national gathering this March, Awakenings: the Life of the Church for the Sake of the World.  Join us at Awakenings and discover a community devoted to thoughtful theological engagement with the cultural trends of our day.

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