May 23 2017

An Invitation to a Road Less Traveled: Theological Faculty and the Future of Theological Education

by Fernando A. Cascante-Gómez, Association for Hispanic Theological Education

Image: Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century (illuminated manuscript page)

Theological education, as it has been conceived and implemented in the North Atlantic (i.e., Europe and United States), is undergoing a series of crises that calls for urgent and radical changes. These are changes necessary not merely to secure the permanence of institutions but, more importantly, to ensure that theological education will be pertinent to the church and society in the 21st century.

My own sense is that the road most traveled by faculty in the midst of so many changes has been found in looking primarily outside themselves for the causes of the crises as well as their possible solutions. Thus, the solutions they find look a lot like these external models. They seem concerned only with controlled budgets, more efficient recruitment methods, a smarter use of facilities, the incorporation of new communication technologies, more creative fundraising campaigns, reduction of staff and faculty, or a few curricular revisions and adaptations to make programs look a little more relevant to some ecclesial and societal models. As valid and necessary as many of these proposals may be, finding solutions to the crises in theological education must extend beyond a survival mentality animated by the structures of the world.

Rooted in the conviction that more is needed in the present moment than practical tweaks to existing structures, I propose a road less traveled—one that theological faculty might take to discern and implement solutions that ensure a vital future for theological education. The changes needed in theological education demand a revision of how we conceive the nature, purpose, content, and method of theological education. And theological faculties are crucial to this work. Institutions don’t really change until those who lead them or have power within them are willing to change. Therefore, traveling this road requires faculty to identify the role they play—whether as catalyzers or deterrents—to moving forward in a direction in which fundamental changes will be necessary.

To assume our role as agents of change and to acknowledge the need to change ourselves, those of us who are faculty and policymakers in theological education need to do something alien to academic culture. In the words of Parker Palmer, “we must talk to each other about our inner lives—risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”1 This requires consciously reflecting on our own personal journeys into the profession of theological education, the sources of our own theological formation, and the visions and commitments that have resulted from them. For in remembering anew our own theological journeys, we can rediscover insights that might help us reimagine the purpose and nature of theological education. And in light of present trials, we may discover that some of our visions and commitments need to be revisited, renewed, or even transformed.

In what follows, I attempt to model what taking this road less traveled looks like by narrating my own personal journey into the profession of theological education, reflecting on the sources of my theological formation, and by summarizing the visions and commitments that have resulted from them in the form of a personal creed about the nature and purpose of theological education.

My Journey as a Theological Educator

On January 3, 2000, I moved from my native country of Costa Rica to the United States to take the position of assistant professor of Christian education in one of the oldest mainline theological seminaries in this country. For most of the first decade of the 21st century, I had the unique opportunity to work as a full-time theological educator in the North American socio-cultural-ecclesial context as the only Hispanic and one of only a few racial/ethnic minority faculty members. For ten years, I was part of regular faculty meetings and served on a variety of faculty committees. I participated in multiple seminars and consultations: for new faculty, for racial/ethnic minority faculty, for Hispanic/Latino/a faculty, and for faculty within my discipline. These gatherings gave me a larger picture of the different traits, realities, expectations, commitments and, yes, concerns and frustrations of theological faculty and students from seminaries of various denominations across the country. I regularly participated in my seminary’s community events throughout the academic year, including chapel services. I also accepted invitations to serve the church at large and became involved in meaningful activities to serve the community where I lived. I organized these countless events and experiences in printed form to apply for tenure. I eventually applied for tenure. But I did not receive it.

I believe I did not receive tenure due to a combination of at least three factors. First, a personal factor: I did not accomplish everything stipulated in the faculty manual to be granted tenure. Second, an institutional factor: the seminary’s unspoken culture of white privilege and its lack of awareness of the social and cultural realities affecting the broader church and society impeded my ability to advance within it. And third, a societal-economic factor: the gloomy financial reality that the seminary—like many theological institutions at the time—was forced to face as a result of the downturn of the economy in 2008; the years that followed resulted in less tenured faculty. Thus, my career as a theological educator at the seminary level ended in June 2009.

From the start of the second decade of the new century until today, I have served a non-seminary organization (Association for Hispanic Theological Education, AETH), which has as its mission promoting pertinent and excellent theological formation of Hispanic leaders in their service to the church and society. My role and vocation as a theological educator did not end. It just shifted. 

The Sources of My Theological Formation

My formation as a theological educator has had three main sources: home, church, and seminary. I was almost born in a pew. The earliest bible stories, bible verses, and Christian songs I remember are ones I learned from my parents during meals, at bedtime, and at church. I saw my father, a baker by trade, move from the position of part-time janitor of the only Protestant church in my neighborhood to becoming its full-time pastor immediately following his ordination by our small denomination. While he never finished high school, he did complete a Bible Institute Diploma. Following in the footsteps of my parents, I took on every possible ministry within the church: Sunday school teacher, youth leader, deacon, and elder. The opportunity to attend seminary eventually came while I was still finishing my first university degree in science and education and working part-time as a physics teacher at a high school. And through it all, I remained heavily committed to ministry in my home church.

Three things prompted me to go to seminary. First, I began to share with other pastors and leaders a growing dissatisfaction with the limited way in which our denomination understood the mission of the church in the world, especially in light of the harsh socioeconomic and political realities people were facing in my country and in neighboring countries. Our community became increasingly aware of the need for a kind of theological education that could help us answer urgent questions without uprooting us from our ecclesial contexts and personal family and job situations. Thus, like many other church leaders of my generation, I went to seminary not to become an ordained minister, but to find ways to become a more faithful and relevant church leader for the community in which I was living.

Second, the ability to attend a seminary in my own city, intentionally committed to dealing with the kinds of urgent questions we were raising, was critical in shaping my choice to pursue a seminary education. This commitment was made visible in the curriculum, in chapel services, in the active participation of faculty in local congregations and community projects, and in the problem-posing and dialogical nature of the teaching-learning process for which most professors advocated. All core foundational courses in theology, bible, and practical theology were offered in the evenings so that bivocational pastors and church leaders like me could study with the same professors as residential students. In a time when computers were unknown to most faculty and students alike, and the Internet was not even conceived as a possibility in our minds, the seminary implemented a modular theological program that could reach out to people who could not come to the classes at the seminary.

Finally, the fact that there were substantial scholarships available to individuals already involved in pastoral ministry made it financially feasible for me to go to seminary. Tuition costs and funds for books were all I needed to start and eventually complete my formal theological studies. My local congregation provided some additional help with transportation costs. And I covered the expenses related to food and school supplies out of my own pocket. This ecology of financial support was critical for me to complete my first theology degree.

The seminary was truly there for me: to help me answer theological questions evoked by my service to the church; to help me connect the life of the church with its mission in the midst of the social and economic realities in which we were living; and to help me complete my studies in the midst of my personal economic and bi-vocational circumstances. I can honestly say that my seminary saved me from leaving the church altogether or from reducing my Christian faith to personal piety or to church-centered activities.

The Nature and Purpose of Theological Education: A Personal Creed

This “creed” emerges out of my experience as a theological educator and out of my understanding of the collective realities and changing times we as theological educators are facing. It aims at being illustrative of the kind of reflection I believe we all need to do. Ultimately, it is my way of inviting colleagues to a critically personal reflection and a much-required collective conversation.

I believe that…

  • The ultimate purpose of theological education (whether at home, church, bible institute, or seminary) is to promote transformative acts of love for God, for neighbor, and for all creation.
     
  • The primary work of theological schools is teaching, learning, and research for the sake of the church and the transformation of the world according to Jesus’s greatest commandment and the values of God’s reign he preached in deeds and words.
     
  • The most critical role of the theological educator is that of being an “organic intellectual,” one who keeps a productive tension between theory and practice, and between the commitment to advance his/her theological academic discipline and the work of advancing the values of God’s reign.
     
  • The most urgent programmatic and pedagogical strategies for theological schools today require finding creative, collaborative, and effective ways to extend and expand meaningful theological education to individuals and groups wanting and needing theological education where they live and serve.

A Call to Conversion

The different crises theological institutions now face represent concrete opportunities to bring about the changes for which the signs of the times call. If theological institutions are truly going to thrive in the new millennium as a means of transforming church and society for the sake of God’s reign in the world, the why, what, and how of theological education in North America need to be reconstructed. Nevertheless, radical changes in theological education result not so much from changes in institutional administrative and programmatic structures but rather from changes in the individual and collective visions and commitments of those who teach in them. I argue for a road less traveled to review our visions and commitments as theological educators and to think about how they affect the ways in which we understand and implement the nature and purpose of teaching, learning, and research in theological schools.

Do we dare reconstruct theological education centered on the values of God’s reign for the 21st century? My prayer is that we will. Even if that reconstruction means reviewing our personal theological journeys and taking the risk to share our stories with others; even if that reconstruction means acknowledging the cultural and institutional captivity under which we may have fallen; even if that reconstruction means confessing that we have been seduced and dominated by the social status and financial perks that come with a profession that, in most cases, sets us apart from the majority of people in church and society. But all of this will require more than an exercise of the mind. It will require a conversion of the heart.

 

Notes

1 Parker J. Palmer, 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers), 12. 


Fernando A. Cascante Gómez is the executive director of the Association for Hispanic Theological Education (AETH.org). He holds degrees from the University of Costa Rica and the Latin American Biblical Seminary and completed his EdD at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. He has taught courses in the areas of multicultural religious education, theology and education, and the educational ministry of the church. He has written articles for a variety of journals and books, among them: “Pluralist Latin American Theology: Theological Themes and Educational Challenges” in Teaching Religion, Teaching Truth: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, edited by Jeff Astley and others, and “A Decade of Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Theological Education: The Continuous challenge of Inclusion with Justice,” in the Journal of Race and Ethnicity in Religion. He also has a book in Spanish, La Planificación Eficaz de la Educación Cristiana.

 

Header image: Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century