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A Bishop Goes to Seminary

How Working in Four Episcopal Seminaries Changed My Understanding of Theological Education

I have always wanted to teach in a seminary. I envisioned a life immersed in reading and study, surrounded by ivy-covered gothic buildings, no doubt wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, and puffing on my pipe.

I was fortunate after my retirement to have the privilege of spending the last few years working at four of our esteemed Episcopal seminaries: General, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Virginia Theological Seminary, and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. My time at these institutions quickly dispelled my idyllic fantasies! Nonetheless, this experience has profoundly influenced my perception of the purpose and approach to theological education within the Episcopal Church.

Medieval church history has always been my academic passion, and it was the subject I taught at each institution. In the course of four years, I served as a visiting instructor (both in person and online) for a semester at each school, except for CDSP, where I held the position of interim dean this past year. This variety allowed me to observe theological education from the perspectives of both faculty and administration, engage with a diverse student body through communal worship and fellowship, and immerse myself in the rich cultures and traditions of each institution. Being a bishop also allowed me to witness firsthand how the knowledge acquired by seminarians might or might not serve them in the field after graduation.

I observed much that instilled my confidence in the future of the church. Students from increasingly diverse backgrounds showed immense dedication and made significant personal and familial sacrifices to attend seminary. Faculty members, for the most part, have moved away from the academic mentality that prioritizes publication over teaching, focusing instead on equipping their students with practical skills for priestly and chaplaincy roles. Despite limited budgets and aging infrastructure, staff made commendable efforts to offer support.

However, while acknowledging the possibility that my perspective may be outdated and knowing that I need to speak in generalities (to protect the innocent), I need to point to several troubling trends:

  • The concept of a “core curriculum,” encompassing subjects such as Scripture, theology, and liturgics (as defined by the canons), has largely become a thing of the past. Although these subjects are taught (sort of), the real energy and enthusiasm seem to be reserved for “elective” classes that often align with the current cultural debates. For instance, during my time, three of the four seminaries did not have a full-time faculty member dedicated to teaching the New Testament. Instead, adjunct instructors, some of whom were not Episcopalians, were entrusted with this crucial task. Part of this is due to economics, since hiring non-tenured instructors from the community proves more cost-effective than supporting a full-time senior faculty member. As someone who identifies as a progressive both theologically and socially, and who supports endeavors to make our church inclusive to all racial, ethnic, and gendered groups, I nevertheless felt that the elective offerings in areas of hot-button cultural issues were disproportionately emphasized.

For electives, I would have appreciated a greater focus on classes addressing challenges faced by parishioners in the majority of congregations: the impact of science and computer technology, community organization, youth and children outreach, and practical exposure to parish administration. While there is often extensive conversation (sometimes obsessively so) about the finer points of liturgy, the same attention is not given to skills like running a successful stewardship campaign, recruiting volunteers, constructing a budget, or even how to read a spreadsheet.

Moreover, if the church is to grow, it must prioritize meeting the deep spiritual needs of its members, rather than merely tinkering with the prayer book. Additionally, I found Clinical Pastoral Education to be a time-consuming endeavor that has strayed far from its original purpose of exposing students to the ethical and emotional challenges of working in a hospital. The infrastructure surrounding it has expanded beyond measure, placing excessive demands on students and financing an organization with no accountability to either the larger church or the seminary.

  • Many individuals pursue seminary education for the wrong reasons. Seminary is not a place to “find myself,” or “get closer to God,” two common responses when I asked students why they chose to enroll. Parishes and diocesan commissions on ministry must take greater responsibility in selection. There appears to be a temptation to “promote” individuals who may not be suitable for ministry up the discernment chain, passing them along from rectors to discernment committees, then to commissions on ministry, and even to bishops, who — often against their better judgment — then send them to seminary. The seminary, often dependent on the tuition income generated by students, is for its part motivated to ensure their graduation. The crash doesn’t come until these graduates assume their first positions in parishes.
  • Online education is here to stay; embrace it. Debating the superiority of residential versus online programs is futile. The Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for seminaries (Episcopal and others), no longer distinguishes between them, and neither should we. Both types of schools have an important role. However, even the two residential institutions I was affiliated with struggled to fill all their available spaces. The number of individuals responding to the call to ministry has significantly decreased over the past generation, and many of those who do feel called cannot uproot their lives for three years and relocate to another part of the country due to familial, work, or economic reasons. On the positive side, online education provides an easier on ramp for underrepresented groups to engage in theological learning, aligning with our church’s goal of more diverse leadership. Furthermore, internet technology allows schools to incorporate teaching and discussion from anywhere in the world. One of my most cherished worship experiences involved participating in Morning Prayer online with my students during the peak of the COVID pandemic. The preacher that morning joined us live from her church in South Africa.
  • While seminaries value their intellectual freedom, they also appreciate the support provided by the larger church, alumni, and benefactors. Much is said about the significance of theological education for the church’s well-being, yet the external financial contributions remain meager. Most dioceses and parishes provide no financial underwriting to seminaries, even to their nearest school, while alumni participation hovers around a mere 15 percent, which is considerably lower than most colleges and universities. Why is this the case? Are seminary graduates not appreciative of the education they received? Or does the broader church fail to recognize the extensive training required to deliver good sermons, conduct funerals, teach effectively, or minister to the sick? Episcopalians rightfully expect a professional clergy who possess the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual readiness to serve in a rapidly changing society. This can only be achieved if bishops send their most capable individuals to seminary and the laity helps to foot the bill.

I firmly believe that theological education has a promising future, but we are only just beginning to envision what that might look like. First, it will involve a greater number of laypeople than ever before, and many of our schools even now offer robust and accessible programs for the laity both in person and online. Second, technology will play an extensive and indispensable role in education. While some may continue to pine nostalgically for lecture halls and common rooms, the rise of technology presents an opportunity for alternative and inclusive methods of learning, incorporating diverse mediums such as art, music, dance, and meditation. Last, while the traditional intellectual canon of Scripture, theology, and liturgy remains invaluable, seminary curricula need to incorporate and learn from the experiences of individuals outside academia. During my time in seminary classrooms years ago, I acquired knowledge of Greek, but I also learned profound lessons from a Navajo grandmother about valuing creation.

So I urge all of you to “go back to seminary” and to engage with seminary theological education once again — through your interest, support, and contributions. Visit a campus, enroll in an online course, send in a check. By doing so, you will help ensure a bright future for our church as we address the critical question: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Kirk Smith is the retired Bishop of Arizona where he served from 2004-2019.  He was most recently the interim Dean of CDSP.  He and his wife Laura live in Sedona, Arizona.



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