There is no good news coming from freestanding seminaries, and there hasn’t been for some time. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary closure of its campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts, is simply the latest in a string of downsizing among evangelical seminaries.
Trinity’s Divinity school (TEDS) recently downsized its faculty, and Fuller Theological Seminary consolidated its campus and programs a few years ago, shortly after Moody Bible Institute. The persistent attention to “the future of theological education” signals nothing more than the reality that whatever comes next will not be like what we once had.
There is always a temptation to market this future as a “pivot”—a courageous choice toward a brighter future. But talking about the sale of a residential campus in this way neglects the truth of what is lost. I’d like to tell you a little about what may soon be lost, with the hope that we might imagine another way forward for theological education.
Theological education is not like other forms of education. In evangelical spaces especially, it seeks to train those who are discerning a call to ministry. A “call to ministry” is a notoriously vague sense that may grow in intensity, but that may also get lost in the busyness of life. To heed this call, you must listen for it. You also must receive it from others. As a wise friend told me recently, you cannot hear someone’s call for them—but you can sometimes hear an echo.
As an adjunct instructor at Gordon-Conwell for the last seven years, I often heard these echoes.
When you teach a semester-long, in-person course, you get 30-plus hours, week after week, to form individuals into a community. It is a short-term community with clear and limited goals. Everyone in this course should meet the following learning objectives and should be able to reproduce what they have learned in some form at the end of the term.
But if you as the teacher are paying attention, you can do something else too. Beyond learning objectives and the content of systematic theology—as a teacher in a theological classroom—you get the rare opportunity to echo the vocational call of the students in your care.
To do this, you need to know who is in the room. You need to learn their names of course, but you also need to learn where they are from, why they are studying at Gordon-Conwell, and what they hope to learn. You need to observe how they sit in the classroom, who they sit with, even where they sit.
If they never spoke, you would notice. (If they always spoke, you would notice that too.) If they were late or unkempt, if they were absent or upset—all of these were cues to me as a teacher to check in, to try and draw someone out and hear a little about what they carried with them in their souls as they sought to learn with me.
My subject areas are Christology and theological anthropology. This means I’m interested in how God was a human person and how human persons relate to God. Over the years, I came to see that my teaching objectives and reading requirements were less important than my attempt to hear that echo.
I could choose any one of several patristic texts to reach these goals, or I could first listen and look for these echoes.
So I took walks with students and ate meals and drank coffee with them (so much coffee!); I hosted them at my home, sat on my porch, and played board games. Sometimes they cooked for me, or often I cooked for them.
In the classroom, I tried to create space for them to find and speak in their own voice. I traded formal written papers for projects that were open-ended; I’d receive written research papers and lyric essays, sermons, and PowerPoint presentations, and, once, a painting. My pupils were artists and musicians, scholars and preachers, teachers and poets.
When I allowed my students to speak in their own voices, I could better affirm the echoes of their respective passions. I could see how God had called them in their own particularity to speak of the risen Christ in their own ways. And once I saw it, I could honor it. I liked to think about it as taking the form of the old benediction of St. Patrick. I’d imagine my soul kneeling before the presence of Christ I saw in each one and bearing witness to what I saw.
I loved them with my whole heart.
I’ve come to see teaching as a form of hospitality—certainly one of its more rigorous forms. And as the teacher, I always retained professional boundaries that I might not have observed had I been hosting friends in my home. But for a time, I sought to host the presence of others and make God’s love tangible to them in an embodied form.
I wasn’t the only teacher who did this by any means. In fact, it was the ability of some teachers and administrators to listen for these echoes that made going to Gordon-Conwell such a valuable experience. Sure, some students might remember a particular lecture or intellectual argument during their time at the seminary. But many more remember sledding on cafeteria trays, sharing meals in the apartments, or walking up a giant hill for an 8 a.m. Greek class.
They remember barely passing a Hebrew exam and getting caught in the rain and eating at a faculty member’s home. They remember meeting a colleague who began as a sparring partner and eventually became a friend. They remember eating and worshiping with Christians from all over the world.
They remember the professor who prayed with them after getting difficult news, the one who wrote a card and left it in their mailbox, the one who brought a cake for the class. If you prayed for them, they remembered—if you prayed with them, they’ve not forgotten it. They remember, as the saying goes, not what you said but how you made them feel.
It is difficult for younger Christians like me to feel too optimistic about pivots to the “future” that don’t include our whole bodies. Sure, theological content can be put online, and I’m told you can “gather” a classroom online as well. Though I’ve taught online, I’ve never been successful at offering hospitality through the internet. If it’s possible, I can’t do it.
The only way the Christian faith can remain coherent, indeed, is if there is a body—the incarnate Christ seated at the right hand of the Father and present among us in his body of believers.
Gathering is necessarily clumsy and expensive. And love doesn’t scale—it multiplies.
Love takes the time and effort to sit in an office with a crying student, to offer an hour when you have essays to grade, to eat a meal at a long noisy table and give up on the privacy of a quieter space. It takes showing up with your whole self.
The intangible goods a residential seminary can provide do not show up on balance sheets or year-end reviews or accreditation reports. But they are written on countless hearts.
I am not naive about the financial constraints of higher education. I started teaching at Gordon-Conwell in 2014, which I am told was their “last good” financial year (no correlation, I hope). Since that year, the decline in student enrollment has been precipitous.
There are many reasons for this, but the lack of interest in formal theological education surely mimics the decline in denominational churches and the rise in the secularization of American culture. Some of this decline should have been anticipated long ago. As I like to joke, everyone was reading Charles Taylor for years, but no one was thinking about its effects on the budget.
But some of the decline did come by surprise. The coronavirus pandemic forced students to move entirely online and made a residential requirement even more difficult. The increase in inflation and costs of living make a residential community expensive, and the multiyear commitment to study almost absurd.
It is undoubtedly true that the future of theological education will not be like its past. But to give up on residential learning altogether is to give up on the good of particularity and hospitality, of difference and community. These goods are expensive, yes, but they are far too valuable to lose.
That is why I still believe in residential education, and I always will—because it was in the offices and homes of last generation’s teachers that I heard the echo of my own call. Sadly, there are few institutions of evangelical theological education to employ people like me, and there are no long-term options to replace them. If I want a seat at the table of theological education, it’s likely I’ll have to build that table myself.
Perhaps the question of the future of theological education is wrapped up in the question of the future of American religion as a whole. How can we sing the song of Zion in a foreign land?
Personally, I am both brokenhearted and tenacious. I am running my own experiments in theological education, where I bring my best courses to local churches and parachurch organizations. I host “theology dinners” in my home, where we talk about a question and share a meal together.
Most of all, I am working to replicate the space I once had—to echo the calls of young Christians seeking to follow God in a difficult world. It is hard and expensive, and it doesn’t scale. There is no money in it, but there wasn’t much money in adjuncting either. Perhaps in that way, it was good preparation.
I fear that without these dedicated spaces to learn and live together, the call of the Lord can go unheard in the lives of young believers. To hear these calls is expensive, but the cost of an unheard call is much higher.
If you are one of my students reading this, I hope you are still learning to speak the good news of the risen Lord in your own voice. And if you ever need to hear an echo reminding you of your call, you know how to reach me.
Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is a theologian and writer. You can read about her work and contact her at kirstensanders.com.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.