Opinion  |  

Have we got too many Bible colleges?

Is theological education in crisis?

Friends of mine from a variety of theological education providers around Australia have reported there’s been a sharp downturn in enrolments in recent years.

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And here’s the bottom line for what that means: not all Australian theological colleges are viable long term. There are too many colleges serving too small a market.

Denominational loyalty amongst younger evangelicals is almost completely absent.

In addition, online and part-time options, which means that you can sign up for a college in another state and at your convenience, are putting a lot of pressure on smaller colleges. Some colleges serve denominations that are too small, or represent theological positions that are too narrow, and will not survive unless they can amalgamate or adapt.

Why has this downturn occurred?

It’s a very hard thing to measure, because asking people why they didn’t choose to start a theological degree is a difficult thing to do. But in talking to a cross-section of people working in theological education as administrators and educators, a number of themes have emerged.

The first is that we are seeing the end of the “Fee-Help” bubble. About fifteen years ago, the government introduced a very generous scheme of fee assistance for students in private sector education. You could access Fee-Help even if you’d already done another higher education degree under HECS. Since most theological education is a second degree, this was a boon. You could study very cheaply for your theological degree – and this meant lots of people decided to do a theological degree who perhaps wouldn’t have before.

Before Fee-Help, the denominational college I used to teach in would charge independent students a significant fee, while the denominational candidates were heavily subsidised by the Anglican Church. Under Fee-Help, this subsidy was not necessary. This had the effect, by the way, of reducing denominational candidates, because there was no financial incentive to yoke yourself to the denomination during your studies – since they would probably take you at the end anyway. Also, it has exposed the colleges to the vagaries of government, because changes in the Fee-Help arrangements will pull the rug out from under their feet. And those changes will come.

And this relates to a second theme that has emerged in my conversations. Denominational loyalty amongst younger evangelicals is almost completely absent. They don’t see theological education as a path to a life-long calling in a single denomination. So they won’t be corralled into a particular college by compulsory ordination paths. On the contrary, if they can stay with their home church while studying, they will – particularly if it is a successful church with an attractive culture. Which means that they are seeking distance models of learning, including online degrees, rather than hoping to move to an expensive large city to learn in community.

Thirdly: rightly or wrongly, there is a sense that many churches are losing confidence that their seminaries are actually providing adequate training for the job as a ministry worker. More theological students are going to get higher degrees (in fact, that sector seems to be booming), and fewer seem prepared by their colleges for the nitty-gritty task of shepherding God’s people. Some people say that the colleges have drifted away from ministry formation towards pure academia. Tied to this is the fact that many of the colleges have faculty who have not worked a ministry job and are not even particularly suited to it. What kind of models are they for theological students? Is it any wonder that people can’t wait to leave the daily grind of local churches to get back into the rarefied atmosphere of academia?

Fourthly, in the desire to get more students, the colleges have attempted to be all things to all people – and it hasn’t really worked. An example: in order to make a part-time offering more flexible, colleges have timetabled subjects in blocks rather than in single hours on different days. But they’ve not put effort into managing the pedagogical shift that that entails. It is still a 1950s model of learning: a bloke (yes, definitely a bloke) up the front reading out information to students who are desperately trying to write it down. And the experience for full-time students is much diminished by this.

The reality is, the educational needs of (say) a woman in her forties retraining for a part-time ministry role in her local church are very different from that of a person in their twenties heading for an ordination role in a denomination. These are two very different though equally important markets for theological education. But it is very hard to accommodate both in the same institution.

And this is the problem with offering education more flexibly. As soon as you offer a more flexible path to enable more people to access your product, you will find students who could or should be studying full time taking up the online or part-time offering.

Online learning is not at all the same as the face-to-face experience.

Fifthly, there’s the issue of women in theological education. People have reported that younger women are not encouraged that there are viable ministry jobs available for them at the end of their theological education. This is not just the case in avowedly complementarian circles. But certainly, for complementarians, there’s been a vision of women in ministry which has been confined to ministry to women (and possibly children), which means that the likelihood of attaining a full-time job at the end of a theological degree is not great. On the other hand, older women are studying at least at diploma level in greater numbers than before.

And sixthly, there’s the vexed issue of online education. This is a complicated issue. Australia is a large and busy place. Online education helps people overcome distance and time, and to engage in theological study while remaining in paid work or in the middle of busy family life. But there’s a number of questions to be asked here. Online learning is not at all the same as the face-to-face experience. Unless it is done very well, it is no substitute for other models. By making learning more accessible via online delivery, have students who would otherwise have come to a college not done this? How can spiritual formation be a part of an online degree? That’s not to say it can’t, but rather to say that it is not obvious how it happens.

What’s the way forward?

I think the first thing is for the churches in Australia to realise that this is a problem to which we all need to respond. Humanly speaking, the church will not grow with ill-educated leadership. If we cannot inspire a generation into theological education, our capacity to do mission will be diminished. This is not just a problem for the colleges. If you are a Christian in Australia reading this, then it is your problem. The first thing is to be on our knees in prayer to God about it.

For the denominations and the colleges, there is a need to tread a careful path between pragmatism and intellectualism. One great mistake would be to see theological education as unnecessary or no good (pragmatism). The other great mistake would be to make theological education an end in itself, rather than the servant of God’s church (intellectualism). We will not grow as a church with an ill-educated pastorate, who cannot teach us the whole counsel of God. We will not grow by having more ministers with doctorates who would rather be lecturers. There are too many colleges that have watered-down their requirements. Likewise, there are too many colleges who have made their offering unreachably intellectualist.

Theological education is an essentially spiritual business.

What is needed, I believe, is a new vision for gospel ministry that does not see it as a vocation for Christians that is superior to secular work, but one that is compelling none the less. In the churches, we need to ensure that those people who come forward for ministry training are as well looked after as they can be – so that their years investing in theological education are an investment that is honoured by those who benefit from it. The stories of the bad treatment of young men and women in ministry roles are too many, and do immense damage to the mission of the church in our nation.

Alongside this, there needs to be a new vision (which is not, in fact, new!) for theological education which sees it as a preparation for service of God’s people in his church. Theological education is an essentially spiritual business. It cannot be done without the nurturing of the spiritual life.

Within this, there is room for a number of models: offering part-time and online modes alongside full-time residential. It may be hard for the same institution to offer both. What cannot be permitted is complacency in the classroom – lecturers who read in a monotone from prepared scripts to a somnolent class, who are probably facebooking their friends. There’s far too much of that going on, I hate to say. Let it not be so!

There’s far too much at stake with theological education for our colleges to be wedded to ineffective practices of teaching and learning. And far too much at stake for us to be unconcerned about a lack of students – particularly younger students – seeking training for ministry.

Now is the time for our church leaders and theological colleges to stop wringing their hands and instead engage in some Spirit-led and courageous investigation of how God’s mission may best be served into the future.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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St Mark's Darling Point, Sydney

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