Is seminary relevant?
Will it help me serve God effectively?
Any student who is pursuing a call to ministrywith all of the hard work and sacrifice it entailswants answers to these questions. Additionally, as student lives grow more complicated, pursuing a graduate degree can make a delicate balancing act even more challenging.
Beyond taking advantage of technological innovations, seminaries and graduate schools are finding ways to meet the particular challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. "The landscape of graduate theological education has changed significantly in the past two decades," says John VerBerkmoes, dean of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Rather than enrolling in a master of divinity program, "many students are opting for a master of arts degree, which is typically shorter and more specialized. Schools are also seeing greater numbers of female and second career students." These trends, he notes, are documented by data from the Association of Theological Schools.
Reaching a new student
One way seminaries have met these trends is with more accessible course offerings. Block scheduling, in which a class meets once a week, additional intensive courses, and increased evening and weekend classes are designed to make the completion of a seminary program feasible for working professionals.
Some schools have established full-scale programs specifically for this constituency. Grand Rapids offers a program exclusively for students who work full-time. In addition to the above features, the Theological Education for Professionals program pairs each student with an academic advisor and is taught by full-time faculty.
The Advancement in Ministry track at Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions combines one-week intensive courses and independent study to provide degree programs for students who live at a distance. Says Robert Ferris, Associate Provost, "This program packages intensive, online and internet-enhanced courses to provide entire M.A. and M.Div. curricula, including the spiritual formation and ministry engagement aspects of Columbia's campus programs."
In recent decades, as church activities have expanded beyond what one pastor can reasonably lead, laypersons have taken increased ownership of their churches' ministries and are looking to seminaries for training. Many schools now offer specialized diplomas and certificates in addition to welcoming lay leaders into their masters programs. Besides offering graduate diplomas in such concentrations as Biblical studies, Christian ethics, Christian counseling and intercultural studies, Phoenix Seminary offers parachurch and lay leaders a two-year M.A. in Biblical Leadership.
"Many people view seminary as something that is only necessary for senior pastors or missionaries, but we disagree," says enrollment counselor Lee Richards. "All people can benefit from solid instruction in the Word of God. All people can develop their ministry skills while learning alongside other believers who are pursuing various types of lay and vocational ministry."
Reaching a new culture
While working to meet the logistical and educational needs of students, seminaries also strive to equip them for relevant and effective ministry. As many who are on the front lines of ministry recognize, the gospel is unchanging but cultural currents demand engagement in ways that weren't prevalent 20 or 30 years ago.
In 2000, Multnomah Biblical Seminary established The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins as a forum for contemporary issues. "Students still seek to know and understand the text of the Bible so that they may have a relationship with Jesus and bring others into that relationship," says admissions counselor Clive Cowell. "Within this, there is a trend toward new ways of bringing Christ to culture."