Friday, June 27, 2008

Earthen Vessels

I'm going to stop referring to my original summer reading book list after this, because it is clear that I have no self-discipline when it comes to reading the books on that list! As another example, this morning I finished the new book by Dan Aleshire, Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools.

Aleshire is the executive director for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), Covenant Seminary's main professional accreditor (ATS accredits over 250 theological schools which serve Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and evangelical Protestantism). While this book was a give-away at the ATS meeting this past weekend, I was glad to have it. For me, at least, the highlight of every ATS event is Aleshire's "state of the union" address, which typically closes each event; I have used his talks for faculty meeting or other smaller faculty development events. And so, it was with great anticipation that I started reading Earthen Vessels after I got home Monday night.

And I was not disappointed. In five readable and brief chapters, Aleshire offers nothing less than a primer on theological education, one that will immediately find its place on the Covenant Seminary faculty mentoring plan and its way into countless faculty, board, and administration hands. At its broadest, Earthen Vessels makes a case for theological education as vitally necessary for the spiritual formation necessary for religious vocation; but along the way, the book serves as a virtual commentary on the heart of key ATS accrediting standards.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say, "Wow, Sean; that's real exciting," it is important to recognize that accrediting standards are not merely rules, something like canon law or the rulebook for Major League Baseball or the United States Golf Association ("You violated rule 1.3.6a.8z; you are penalized two strokes"). Rather, at their best, accrediting standards embody educational aspirations; and at the heart of the ATS standards is this "overarching goal": "the development of theological understanding, that is, an aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith." In other words, the overarching goal of theological education is discipleship.

And the means for accomplishing the goal of discipleship are teaching, learning, and research. Seminaries serve as teaching and learning centers, in which faculty and students work together to gain the habits, attitudes, skills necessary for theological reflection and wisdom. So, while I may teach Ancient and Medieval Church History, what I'm really doing is partnering together with my students to learn habits of thought, attitudes and skills, which will ultimately produce wisdom and insight. As I typically say at the beginning of class, the basic questions I'm trying to answer are who are we and what has God called us to do in this world; history serves as a venue for asking and answering those questions. One could say that I'm engaged in historically-informed discipling.

In order to provide the necessary structures and processes for such discipleship, good governance and administration are required. As someone who spends far more of his time administrating than teaching or researching, I was particularly encouraged by this section. I think Aleshire is right when he observed that "leadership in the context of theological education guides the school in identifying the vision it should pursue and orchestrates the multiple tasks necessary to implement it" (p. 119). It is always striking to me how much of my own work as academic dean is incremental and process oriented; there are a huge number of tasks necessary to implement a single curricular or program change, hire a single faculty member, or produce the class schedule for the next year. But what I'm trying to do is to facilitate the growth and flourishing of others in appropriate ways; hence, administrative leadership is important for a Seminary (or any organization) to flourish.

Still, if this was all theological schools did--discipling students in order to provide them with wisdom and insight--it still might be hard to justify their existence. The fact is that theological schools, and their work of discipleship, exist for the church. It is easy for both the schools and the church to forget that reality; and yet, as Aleshire pointed out, "The church is necessary for the seminary, but the seminary is not necessary for the church" (p. 129). If the church were to stop sending students or hiring our graduates, Covenant Seminary would cease to exist. Hence, theological schools must see themselves as partners, and ultimately servants, of the church.

That is why I believe it such a blessing for Covenant Seminary to be the church's (as in the PCA's) seminary. It provides us with such a clear sense of mission; our sixth core value puts it this way: "We believe that, as the seminary of the PCA, it is our responsibility to provide intellectual training and ministry models that are true to the Westminster Standards and the historic distinctives of Presbyterian orthodoxy, while equipping the next generation of Christian servants for effective church leadership in a changing world. At the same time, because we recognize that a seminary alone can never fully equip students for these tasks, we seek to work in partnership with local churches to accomplish our purpose."

Not only does this provide a sense of mission, there is also a real accountability. Each General Assembly, key administrative staff meet with the Committee of Commissioners who review our work; our president gives a report to the entire body; and the Assembly elects teaching and ruling elders who make up our board. The entire church holds our school accountable to teach, learn, and research in ways that our consonant with our approved mission and core values. What a wonderful blessing this is! And how vital, as Aleshire points out, for the future, not only of our school, but of all theological schools--to remember that seminaries exist for the church and its mission of Gospel proclamation. We are discipling future ministers who will in turn disciple others for the extension of the church and its Gospel around the world.

And so, I found Earthen Vessels to be both an excellent summary and hopeful case for theological education. It will find a place in our key administrators' hands over the next school year and will serve to orient our faculty to this unique ministry in the years to come.


Anonymous said...

Sean, does Aleshire address the problem of the fragmentation of theological disciplines vis a vis the Enlightenment, and the problems this creates in seminary education?

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Lane: Aleshire does not address that specifically. However, in the last chapter, he talked about how theological education has moved (should move?) through the stages of abbey, academy, and apostlate--this gets toward a sense of putting the esteem of the academy in its proper place within theological education.

That said, there is a growing literature on the need to provide an integral approach to theological education and pastoral leadership. A great deal of the work coming out of Lilly's Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program points that direction (as Scharen's Faith as a Way of Life models). Likewise, Duke's Pulpit and Pew program has argued toward a more integral approach for forming future ministers.

Hope that helps, sml

David A Booth said...


Does Aleshire address the challenge caused by the fact that most non-denominational seminaries have their own numerical growth as one of their goals? Related to this is the fact that new seminaries are being created (e.g. Moody) and likely to continue being created (by mega-churches), while the number of people pursuing academic training for pastoral ministry seems to be leveling off.

In simple terms, some schools are going to either have fewer students or they are going to have to change their programs/standards. Wouldn't it be wiser to focus on improving seminary education rather than expanding the number of student slots?