Dear Friends of MTS,
What is the future of theological education in preparation for ministry? How is Memphis Theological Seminary envisioning that future and preparing for it? In the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, MTS has displayed significant institutional flexibility. We pivoted from primarily on campus instruction to exclusively online instruction. Now we are offering a variety of ways of instruction to meet the needs of our students with hyflex, synchronous, and asynchronous courses. But within and beyond these instructional options is the deeper challenge of how to fulfill our mission to “educate and sustain men and women for ordained and lay Christian ministry in the church and the world through shaping and inspiring lives devoted to scholarship, piety, and Justice.”
And within that challenge is the question we now face, along with the church and other organizations in which our students and graduates serve, what comes next? I am not capable, and I rather doubt anyone is capable at this juncture, of predicting exactly what the church and the broader society are going to require of those in ministry in the years to come. However, I am certain that the practices of scholarship, piety, and justice emphasized in our mission provide a paradigm for ministry for that future. Whatever form ministry may take and in whatever context, these three practices need to form people in the ministry and inform the character of their ministry. With that in mind, it is crucial for MTS to ensure that its students develop the habits of scholarship, piety, and justice through their classes and other experiences at MTS.
This requires a shift from a curriculum oriented primarily to obtaining a set of knowledge and skills, to a curriculum that continues to value knowledge and skills but is organized around what the former longtime executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, Daniel Aleshire, calls, “formational theological education.” This recognizes that ministry does not occur in disciplinary units such as Bible, Theology, Church History, Preaching, and Pastoral Care. Rather, ministry occurs in contexts that call for the integration of those academic disciplines. Ministry requires scholarly knowledge of such disciplines, while it also requires their integration with lives of faith (piety) and the seeking of human good consistent with the Reign of God (justice).
We seek to cultivate in our students not only growth in knowledge, but also moral, spiritual, and relational growth. The more we help our students practice this work of integration and growth around scholarship, piety, and justice, the better they are prepared for ministry both within and outside of traditional ministerial contexts. This is the challenge we face. We are in a time that demands flexibility in the way we offer courses. Yet we are also in a time that calls for “formational theological education.” MTS has shown institutional nimbleness in responding to that first demand. As we prepare students for ministry in a variety of contexts in an ever-changing church and world, we must also continue to find creative ways to emphasize in our courses, our program of formation, and our practicum experiences, integration of scholarship, piety, and justice.
In this way, whether our graduates serve as a minister in a congregation, a chaplain, or a leader of a non-profit (to name just a few possibilities for ministry), they will have the theological imagination and faith maturity necessary to serve in ways that make for human flourishing consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Institutional nimbleness and faithfulness to formation: these have guided us through the pandemic, and they provide a good foundation for our future work.
Dr. Peter R. Gathje
Vice President of Academic Affairs/Dean
Memphis Theological Seminary