By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

News of theological seminaries does not usually appear in public media unless someone who is part of one of them creates scandal — sexual or financial, since even heresy rarely gets covered in contemporary America — and cannot go unnoticed and not-covered. This week, therefore, this e-column has to take on a different character; for the first time its editors ask subscribers first to read the longish source, the Inside Higher Ed article, “The Struggling Seminaries,” whose link appears at the end of this Sightings, and then read the rest of this effort to provide context.

Why the shuffling of feet, clearing of throat, and doing this explaining? A simple reason: Sightings is devoted to the public faces of religion, and seminaries get dismissed as having effects only on private religious life in sectarian concerns. Such dismissal results from acts of overlooking or mis-defining the roles of theological and ministerial education. Because of denominational divisions, misunderstanding of who seminary graduates are and what they do and where they fit in the public life of a nation described as “pluralist” and “secular,” they can be passed by news analysts and the public.Then one thinks of this: hundreds of thousands of seminary graduates are priests, pastors, ministers, chaplains, teachers, administrators, and “lay” leaders in crucial places and spaces. As we write this week, some African-American pastors and the Roman Catholic cardinal in our town, Chicago, are forming a coalition to try to stem the tide of support by other clergy and congregations for gay marriage legislation. Other weeks it is the supporters who are central to or at the edge of pro-gay marriage moves. So it is on scores of issues. How these religious leaders are trained — most of them are seminary graduates — has something, usually very much, to do with their exercise of ministry.Now to the attached source.  If its author, Libby Nelson, writes about a “crisis in theological education,” even if it takes off from the story of one seminary, she wisely confers with and cites leaders, such as Stephen Graham, of the Association of Theological Schools. Together, they chronicle chiefly the fiscal dimensions of downturns and changes in the public ethos out of which the cohorts of seminarians traditionally have come. Name anything that hits higher and especially graduation or professional education in most fields, and you will find that it hits all this harder in theological and ministerial education.

We won’t repeat what is in the source. The single purpose here is to try to locate seminaries and graduate divinity schools in the public economy, whether this refers to notice, status, spirituality, politics, or more. Leaders, of course, are asking how to adapt and innovate. As online education increases at the expense of group-“formation” of leaders, as more and more second-career candidates turn to theological education even as the total number of aspirants to ministries decline, they are brain-storming, think-tanking, praying, planning, and hoping. They can point to many positive signs and to the need for ever-better educated and trained religious leaders, even as they have to ask whether the old model (often of denominationally-based) seminaries based on liberal-arts undergraduate training will meet the needs of ministries when science-and-religion, belief-and-unbelief, indifference and “difference,” spirituality and alternatives, are warring for allegiance and commitment among among citizens.

Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
Libby Hanson, “The Struggling Seminaries” Inside Higher Ed, March 29, 2013.

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