Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Chicago Training School as harbinger of the future of US theological education

I had the pleasure of talking yesterday to Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, an admissions representative of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary who was visiting my college. During a lunch meeting and a class discussion, he, a current Garrett student, my colleague in the religion department, students from my college, and I were talking about the changing nature of seminary education in the US.

In particular, we were discussing how seminary education is no longer just for those who want to become pastors. Instead, there are an increasing number of seminary programs for those who want to go into nonprofit work, community organizing, or other forms of non-congregational ministry.

In part, this shift reflects the demographic trends of mainline ministers and the institutional needs of seminaries. Especially in the UMC, there are fewer ordained elders and more licensed local pastors, who have not necessarily attended seminary, than there were 25 years ago. In order to preserve institutional viability, seminaries have had to find new pools of students outside those considering ordained church ministry in mainline congregations.

Yet I was also reflecting on how this broadened sense of what it means to prepare students for ministry does demonstrate a profitable rethinking of what it means to be in Christian ministry. And in this regard, today's seminaries are not forging new ground but rather re-learning lessons from a century ago.

In particular, I was thinking about the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions. This school, actually one of the predecessors of Garrett-Evangelical, was founded by Lucy Rider Meyer and her husband to train women for Christian ministry and service. Since women were at the time not allowed to be ordained in most denominations, it was by necessity Christian ministry that took place outside the context of leading a congregation.

The Chicago Training School was a huge force in preparing Methodist and other Christian women for a whole range of important and effective ministries that helped transform the church's relationship with societies around the world. It produced the founders of the deaconess movement, many significant women missionaries with the WFMS, and leaders who were active in developing a host of church-run social and religious programs.

While the early 21st century is, of course, a different time than the early 20th, it is a useful exercise to look back at the good work done by the Chicago Training School as a model for seminaries that seek to develop new programs to train Christian leaders. Our mission-minded foremothers understood ministry broadly, and they also understood the importance of theological and other training to prepare themselves for that ministry. We can hope for no less for the theological leaders of today.

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