Reflections on 40 years in theological education

The plan is that I will be retiring from Houston Baptist University in a few weeks. This is not retirement to a rocking chair, but more like retirement to church ministry: I plan to be very involved in church ministry, including formation programs for clergy, I will do some limited teaching for theological institutions, and, of course, I have writing and editing project, but with respect to HBU and with respect to funding it will be retirement. I am already quite excited about this new phase of life, this new adventure. Ordination 236 Recessional starting DSC_0236

However, this shift of focus gives me a chance to reflect on the changes that I have seen in university-level theological education over the 40+ years that such education has been my major focus. Please note that none of what I write is specifically about Houston Baptist University; I have made my own observations in many institutions and also read a number of articles in such publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education. These changes are far bigger than one institution in Houston, Texas.
TSM Campus
First, there has been a shift from the collegial model to the business model. When I entered theological education the ideal of the college had not yet faded. Faculty of whatever rank were mostly full time. The faculty meeting was where the business of the theological institution got done, often with faculty also serving various official capacities such as dean, registrar, and the like (at least in smaller institutions). In the larger institutions, of course, it was the senior faculty, members of a faculty senate, who had the real authority. Now the model has, for the most part, changed. To a large extent theological institutions or departments of institutions are in the education business. There is a board who holds a CEO accountable for reaching the agreed-upon goals of the institution. The CEO directs the business through various officers. Faculty committees exist, but usually to advise those who run the business or to implement their policies.

Second, there is a shift towards what might be called a free market business model, in that his shift from college to business is in part driven by economics. Unlike what I often saw, especially at the seminary level, in the past, the modern theological educational institution is less likely to be the educational arm of a denomination, a movement within a denomination, or a government (more common in Europe), although in many cases there are often still some denominational ties. Rather, first and foremost it must compete in the marketplace.
This economic competition has had three effects. The first effect is that students are the most important sources of income; they have become the customers. Part of the competition in the marketplace, then, is for students and the income that they bring. This contrasts with students being sent to an institution by a church authority or coming to an institution because that institution fit their inner call to serve. In this latter scenario the institution existed to form the student intellectually and spiritually, whether the student liked or did not like the process. The institution also served to weed out students who might be called to something, but were not called to service in the denominational constituency it served. Pleasing the students and student retention were not big issues. The second effect is that faculty loads have risen. When I started teaching a standard masters level load was 3 courses per term; if one had several guided studies or a theses, they counted as one of the courses. Now faculty routinely teach 4 courses per term, guided studies and theses are often not counted as part of the load, and yet the expectations for writing, service to the constituent churches, and committee work have not been lessened. The result is that faculty have less time for reflection, informal interaction with students, and cultivating the spirituality of the institution. The third effect is that along with the rising faculty loads is the fact that increasingly educational businesses rely upon adjunct faculty. They are far cheaper per course and often have qualifications equal to the full-time faculty. Such faculty are the new wage slaves of the higher education system. They can be hired when needed, and dropped when not needed.There is no loyalty to them on the part of the educational institution. And because they work without benefits and for low pay, they may work at several institutions (or in theological education, be a full-time pastor as well as adjunct faculty). Yet they are also expected to keep up their scholarly credentials through publishing and involvement in scholarly organizations. The pressures on them mean that they have little or no time for students outside of class, but while academic advising is usually picked up by the full-time faculty, personal relationships with students suffer.
Third, the curriculum is fuller than it was, although recently I have noted a trend to drop the number of credit hours needed for some degrees. Originally, one studied theology in the institution of higher learning and, if a seminary, received some basic formation, but training in ministry came through apprenticeship in a church under the tutelage of a senior pastor. That shifted as counseling, homiletics, pastoral duties, liturgics, and the like were all brought into the seminary curriculum. This in turn gave way to teaching those things together with a concurrent internship, but one supervised by the theological institution. At the same time, degrees became more specialized. Some of this has been good, but some has not. It has put more pressure on the student and the institution with predictable effects.
Fourth, the computer as a blessing and a curse. I can write faster and more easily now than when my books and lectures were handwritten and then, in the case of books, typed. I have thousands of books on my computer in searchable form, so I have materials even when I am not near a library. And via online education students can study part time without leaving their place of employment or the church in which they are serving. But all of this comes at the cost of reflection. Psychological studies have shown that one remembers and processes better when one writes by hand. Speed often means that one knows a lot and has processed little. Online education is a cash cow for many institutions and there is a rush into it, but (1) quality varies widely and (2) even the best online education cannot supply the wisdom that I received from informal interaction with my professors nor what I received from observing them in a church setting. People receive degrees, but do not have the reflection that is needed for maturity. Furthermore, it is true what I was told when I went to university and then to seminary: the most important part of my education would be relationships with faculty, sometimes with faculty who were “the administration”. The personal is fast fading.
Fifth, what was assumed to be of value may no longer be of value. When I helped start an institution, before we could grant our first degrees we had to jump through state hoops that insisted that serious endowment (for those days) be in place, that faculty were fully qualified, that the library had sufficient books, and so forth. In fact, after qualifying to grant degrees in that state Association of Theological Schools accreditation was not that difficult. Now in many states any mom and pop institution can grant degrees, so the degree in itself is not necessarily meaningful. Furthermore, there has clearly been grade and degree inflation. To retain students there is pressure to pass more of them or give them better grades so that can stay on track, in part because they are coming in with weaker qualifications. At the degree level, D.Min. programs have sprung up like weeds in a lawn. Many pastors are now “doctor.” Yet many D.Min. programs and the like are rather thin in quality, so “doctor” comes to mean little. What is important is whether the school or program is accredited. Now academics love to hate SACS (as it used to be called), ATS, and other such accrediting agencies (and there are also some for “lower level” institutions, so watch which agency does the accrediting), but they do impose standards. Sometimes this comes at the cost of having to identify and quantify goals and objectives that resist such quantification. Personal relationships are not quantifiable and often one learns something most important from a course or from interaction with a professor that was not a course objective. Furthermore, I suspect that accrediting associations are also complicit in grade and degree inflation.
All of these things are mixed. I have taught at institutions that are no more (at least in the form that they were when I taught at them) because of a poor business model. I realize that a large church needs many trained in theology and that means bigger and less personal education. I value good goals and objectives – if you shoot at nothing you are sure to hit it. But at the same time I realize that whether in pastoral life or in the university, it was personal contact from which I benefitted the most. And the personal is what is more and more being sacrificed to the efficient, the economical, and the “necessary.” It may be that I am myopic and cannot see what is really going on (although some of what I say is clearly documented in articles on education); it may be that I am just getting old and do not have the energy to keep up with the trends; it may be that what I value is only to be found in the church (not the lower touch church with many campuses linked by video feeds, but the high touch church in which the sheep really know the shepherd – furthermore you cannot celebrate the Eucharist with any integrity via video hookup). Maybe retiring to the church is not a bad idea at all, at least not for me.
But I do not have a lot of time to reflect upon this, since I have tests to give and grade, writing to do (on my computer), and a video conference to attend. I am not retired yet.
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