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The seminary revolution

Radical new approaches at San Francisco Theological Seminary respond to financial struggles and the changing needs of the church.

By Jerry L. Van Marter

Jana Childers remembers the last time San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) “redesigned” its master of divinity curriculum. “It was 2004, and after two years of study, all we did was tweak a couple of courses here and there,” the SFTS dean says. “One faculty member, Antoinette Wire, looked at her colleagues,” Childers recalls, “and said with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘I think we can do this.’ ”

Ten years later—with the world and the church rapidly changing—the 10 theological seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are all embarking on bold initiatives to attract a new generation of students to a church that demands outside-the-box thinking. And in the face of decreasing enrollment—particularly among Presbyterian students—rising student debt, and the new demands of ministry (from technology to church planting to working part-time jobs), these changes could not come at a better time.

San Francisco Theological Seminary’s 2013 commencement ceremony

San Francisco Theological Seminary’s 2013 commencement ceremony

The new landscape
Because more and more people can’t afford to drop everything, including their jobs, and relocate for three years of theological education, PC(USA) seminaries are increasingly looking to technology to widen their doors. Leading the charge is the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, whose distance-learning program offers a full online MDiv and Christian Leadership Program. Students don’t just take classes online; they hold discussions, share reference materials, and pray and support each other through family crises, financial challenges, academic difficulties, and vocational discernment—all online.

“As my seminary days come to a close, I know that my seminary community will come with me, because we have already learned how to sustain community from a distance,” says Frances Fischer, a graduate of the online MDiv program.

But technology is only one area where seminaries are evolving.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s new MDiv curriculum includes an emphasis in church planting (see Christopher Brown’s article in Spotlight).

In Chicago, McCormick Theological Seminary is fortifying its Center for Faith and Service, meant to connect with young people who are not involved in the church but want to change the world through service.

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is raising funds for its Covenant for the Future, which will offer students tuition-free theological education. By 2021, Louisville Seminary hopes even to cover all living expenses.

Princeton Theological Seminary is currently implementing Navigating the Waters, a cultural proficiency and diversity competency initiative, to better prepare students for ministry in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Finally, many seminaries have begun to focus on preparing pastors to meet what may be the greatest need and challenge for the church of the 21st century: community engagement. In Richmond, Virginia, for instance, Union Presbyterian Seminary and its students are encouraging a hospital chain to create job training for low-
employment neighborhoods. In Atlanta, students at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary are tackling HIV/AIDS ministry, while Columbia Theological Seminary students are supporting local food banks and learning urban agriculture through its Outreach Community Garden. And in Texas, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is supporting students as they minister with and advocate alongside undocumented immigrants, all while hosting the AYAVA House, a Young Adult Volunteer and AmeriCorps intentional community.

Associate dean of student life and chaplain Scott Clark leads the SFTS community in afternoon worship.

Associate dean of student life and chaplain Scott Clark leads the SFTS community in afternoon worship.

A radical approach in San Francisco
But nowhere have the changes in the way students are prepared for ministry in the 21st century been more dramatic than at SFTS. In the space of seven months, the seminary’s faculty developed and the SFTS board of trustees approved a new MDiv curriculum that

  • incorporates the “Oxford-Cambridge” tutorial model of teaching, in which students either individually or in small groups meet regularly with a professor, usually outside the classroom, to master a subject through a mentorship-like experience;
  • includes a weekly campus-wide interdisciplinary lecture in which all students and faculty gather to participate in a conversation led by a different professor each week on a common theme;
  • adopts an “externship” model of practical experience offering students paid, ordainable, yearlong positions after completing MDiv classroom requirements;
  • reduces the required credit hours for an MDiv from 81 to 72 but includes a requirement in spirituality; and
  • raises the number of MDiv courses that will be offered online to four.

“We invited as many proposals [for the new curriculum] as possible,” says SFTS president of three years Jim McDonald. “We received five or so, but this one really caught on.”

Switching to the Oxford-Cambridge model of teaching “is a pedagogical change,” McDonald says, adding that SFTS is the only seminary in the country to fully adopt it. “The millennial generation is demanding education that meets individual needs and responses to God’s call to ministry.”

A new campus master plan that will result in all students and faculty living on campus helps, Childers says. “All required classes will be taught in small formats in professors’ homes or offices. Not everyone can do this, but we can because we have one of the last residential faculties.”

The weekly interdisciplinary lecture will bring the entire SFTS community together. A common theme will be chosen each semester, with spirituality slated for this fall. “Everyone was quick to agree on that topic,” Childers says.

Each faculty member will address the theme from his or her academic discipline. First up in September will be professor Elizabeth Liebert, whose field is spirituality. “We have to do this well,” Childers says, “so the pressure’s on, beginning with Beth.”

The goal of the externship program, McDonald says, is to provide “real on-the-job training, a transition from seminary to ministry.” Traditional internship or field-work placements occur within the MDiv curriculum; externships, he says, “are paid, ordainable, first-call positions. It is the idea of an apprenticeship—with seasoned pastors and church professionals who can mentor and teach on the job.”

Childers believes the externship model will be of benefit to both students and the church. “These are firm, good, immediate ministry opportunities. We all know that first calls sometimes are iffy and frequently involve a lengthy wait.”

Students she has talked to “love this,” she says, adding that Clinical Pastoral Education opportunities (in hospitals and the like) “are coming into place quickly, but other first placements will take longer to line up.”

One-third of the SFTS curriculum is currently electives, which is where “the pinch is going to be” with the overall reduction in credit hours required to attain an MDiv degree, McDonald says. “The capstone to our new curriculum will be finding out whether students have really integrated the curriculum into their lives of Christian vocation.”

Online learning “is growing everywhere,” Childers says. “It’s the right moment to do this because students want it, and we’re in the right position to do it.”

But many students “still want residential course work,” McDonald adds. “Online course work is not a market-share decision for us but a response to a new kind of student to whom this model appeals. It also gives the opportunity to learn based on interest in a particular subject, not in pursuit of a degree,” he says.

SFTS trustees are excited about the new curriculum, says board member Steve Wirth of Long Beach, California. “We said, ‘Wow! This is really creative and doable,’ ” he says. “The [Oxford-Cambridge] model takes in the reality that we’re going to be smaller—at least for a while—and takes advantage of that reality and students’ desires.”

Wirth, who just retired from pastoral ministry and now serves as a regional representative for the Presbyterian Foundation, says: “The PC(USA) has a need for high-quality pastors who are flexible, creative, and innovative. SFTS is embodying that now. What a great learning laboratory!”

Jerry L. Van Marter is the coordinator of Presbyterian News Service. Additional reporting by Rachel Shussett.


  • For more about PC(USA) seminaries and the changes they are initiating:
  • For more about San Francisco Theological Seminary:

May 2014 cover

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  • Janna, I remember getting into a rather intense argument with Lew Mudge in '89/'90 over "practical theology" which was my phrase for "if it cannot be applied to the each and every day lives of church members, friends, the community then we might have M.Divs but we were not pastors." In other words, we were "theoretical" and not "practical"... irrelevant. Needless to say, he didn't like that one bit. I have spent my entire pastoral career turning "theoretical" into "practical" and "irrelevant" into "relevant". My thanks go out to you, Jim, the faculty/staff and the board for getting out of the box. I just hope it's not too late. If I can help in any way, don't hesitate to contact me. Since we're talking creative here, how about "beer and bbq communion" and for large crowds for communion, bread shot out of a potato canon and wine/juice shot out in a stream with a supersoaker. Elizabeth Liebert often said that I had a weird sense of humor. Perhaps she's right. by Rev. Skip Johnson on 08/18/2014 at 5:39 p.m.

  • How may an active retired person like me help in this. I feel wrestles, for I feel I have something to offer but have no outlet. Since I have no car, I do have some transportation challenges. Do let me know if and where I might fit in. Thank you -- JGE by J G Emerson on 08/07/2014 at 2:43 p.m.

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