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Theological Education Should Connect With Churches, Seminary President Says

About 25 years ago the typical seminary student was a white male in his 20s, with a working wife putting him through school. Today she is increasingly likely to be female, older and for ministry to be a second career.

“One of the questions we have been asking is what does the vocation of theological education need to look like in the 21st century,” Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, said Saturday in a breakout session at the 2006 Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Marshall said one need brought about by changing demographics is “lack of geographical displacement.”
 
“It is only to those schools with very, very deep pockets and endowments that students can afford to make that kind of geographical dislocation,” she said.
 
Compared to seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, Marshall said schools supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. “are rather fragile.”
 
Support for six SBC seminaries has grown in recent years from about 20 percent to nearly 25 percent of the millions of dollars collected through the denomination’s unified budget called the Cooperative Program.
 
“That is phenomenal institutional support,” Marshall said. CBF and ABC/USA schools “do not have that kind of net under us.”
 
As a result, she said, CBF schools have to “be more efficient, so that we produce congregational leaders that will populate and plant churches that will set us in a new direction.”
 
Marshall, who assumed presidency of the financially struggling seminary in Kansas City, Kan., 15 months ago, said one of the things taking place in theological education in the last 25 years is there are more and more second-career lay persons seeking theological education.
 
One of her favorite students is an FBI agent who doesn’t expect to be ordained but wants to minister to people in prison, because that is “who he knows.”
 
“Several years ago our seminary decided our primary task is to train vocational ministers,” Marshall said. “But close behind is to equip the community of faith. That is why we are offering theological education in churches as well as at the factory.”
 
“One of the central concerns over the last several years, with the changing demographics, theological training needs to be more accessible to congregational life,” Marshall said. That prompted “a grand experiment that we are calling the teaching-church initiative.”
 
Marshall credited Ircel Harrison, coordinator of Tennessee CBF and a member of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, with talking “to a number of schools” about the idea of basing satellite campuses in churches before, “We said yes.”
 
Along with Murfreesboro, Central Seminary branched out into other centers in Milwaukee, Omaha and Oklahoma City.
 
“What we are finding is this is really a good way to do theological education,” Marshall said. While the model raises issues for accredited seminaries, which must meet requirements like access to an adequate library, she said, “Those are addressable, because it places learners in the context of a teaching, worshipping congregation’s life, and some really transforming things are starting to occur.”
 
“I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to be much more how theological education will be taking place in the future,” she said.
 
“Southern Baptist seminaries have always been an anomaly in theological schools in terms of size and scope,” Marshall said. Seminaries of the future, she predicted, will be “smaller, more intimate—where professors grade their students’ work themselves–and much closer to congregational life.”
 
Marshall, who taught theology at Central Seminary 10 years before being named president last year, was the first woman to be elected president of an accredited Baptist seminary in North America. Another woman has since been named to lead a Baptist seminary in Asia. “That’s about all Baptists can handle, one per hemisphere,” she quipped earlier while accepting an award for achievement by Baptist women in ministry.
 
In the breakout session, Marshall reflected on recent trends in theological education: “I think perhaps maybe along the way some of our schools were more faced toward the guild than maybe toward the congregation. I think perhaps seminaries have not always remembered that we are not just training future professors, that we are training, hopefully, reliable guides for the life of the church.”

“Maybe we need to return to looking at congregations as the primary partner for us in theological education.”
 
The first woman to teach theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Marshall left over differences with a new fundamentalist president. One adjustment moving to Central, an American Baptist school that in the 1990s also reached out to the CBF, was that students there did not “know her story.”
 
Looking back on the tumultuous years at Southern Seminary between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Marshall said, “I think of what awful things were asked of students at that time.
 
“We lost some good folk along the way,” she said. “And we made a lot of good Methodist women pastors.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.