The title of Ted Smith’s new book, “The End of Theological Education,” might sound a bit final, coming as it does late in the series by a dozen scholars engaged in the Theological Education Between the Times project.
But for Smith, “end” isn’t simply terminal. Neither is it only a goal. It is rather the kind of end defined in Christian eschatology, one in which the reign of God is both already present and still to be fulfilled.
“I have tried to frame this book in ways that hold it open to talk about the end,” he writes. “What is all this for? Why are we doing it? What are the ultimate ends of theological education?”
In the book, Smith acknowledges the value of good management for theological schools as they continue to navigate times of crisis, but his emphasis is on the transformational power of knowing and being known by God. In combination, knowing and being known help us reach our best goals but also reorient our lives. The resulting transformation extends beyond those who are engaged in theology professionally.
“Whatever the end of theological education involves, it is not just expert knowledge for a select group of leaders,” Smith writes. “It is saving knowledge for all.”
He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership’s Micah Edwards and Aleta Payne about the Theological Education Between the Times project and the book he wrote for it. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: You first wrote for Faith & Leadership about the vision for Theological Education Between the Times almost three years ago. In total, you have been working on this project for nine years.
Ted Smith: The project started with a first phase where there was a broad set of meetings. We had five meetings in five different places that involved about 65, 75 different theological educators from four continents.
The places we met were intentionally diverse. Our first meeting was at Saddleback Church in Orange County [California]. We met then at Howard University Divinity School, then at Esperanza College, which is an associate [degree]-granting institution focused on the Hispanic community, growing out of a community organization in Philadelphia and affiliated with Eastern University.
Next we met at Candler, and then we met at Mundelein Seminary, which is one of the largest diocesan seminaries in the U.S. So those are five really different contexts. The contexts mattered for the kinds of conversations we could have, who felt authorized to speak, even what we could know. The people were similarly diverse. About a quarter of them were doing theological education not at an [Association of Theological Schools] school.
That was a really important part of the vision from the start.
A majority of the participants were from historically minoritized communities. That was important too. It was majority women. We were really just trying to think about where theological education is going with these committed folks.
That was phase one, and then came the group that wrote the books. Now we’re in a third phase. It’s trying to share some of what we’ve learned and then also spark reflections by people that are in their contexts and for their contexts. We’re in the homestretch now.
F&L: When you wrote for us in October 2020, we were still in the earlier days of COVID. You said, “Even before the virus, the crises in theological education felt existential. The conditions that produced those crises have not paused as we wait for a vaccine.” Any thoughts now?
TS: I don’t feel glad to have been right about that. The cost of this existential crisis — the human cost, the institutional cost — has been profound. We’ve seen it kind of rolling through different institutions, but it’s almost as if every week brings news of some dramatic shift for some school, usually in terms of some kind of conversion of physical assets — land or a library or something — into funds that can help them survive in their mission.
There’s been a real cost to these changes. There has also been, I think, some dynamism, and some new experiments. But it’s not going to happen immediately.
F&L: I went back and looked at the Theological Education Between the Times authors we’ve had the chance to speak with and who have already written for us. Would you talk a bit about what this collection of books represents?
TS: My colleagues in this work are remarkable people, and they are working from some really different contexts and different stages of their lives. I think that mattered a lot, too. We have some folks who have recently retired who are looking back and kind of assessing the changes. We have other folks who are near the beginning of careers or now in the middle of careers who are at a really different vantage point.
There are multiple layers of diversity in this group. I wouldn’t say the group is exhaustive; it’s not the whole of theological education. It really is a series from particular contexts. We know it’s not everybody, and it’s not everywhere. Our hope, though, is that people can work analogously from these books to things that they care about and to their places.
F&L: Why start your book with Lyman Beecher and Lane Theological Seminary?
TS: The book opens with Lyman Beecher and with Lane in part because I think Lyman Beecher saw and gave voice to the original vision of the seminary form that we have today with unusual clarity. There weren’t other layers that were interfering with it. He wasn’t hedging. He could just announce it very directly. He was one of the great entrepreneurs of this form. Part of it is his clarity in naming this.
The other reason, though, is that Lyman Beecher was himself a church leader who was between the times. He grew up and was educated in the old way. He was educated in the “Standing Order” [the ruling economic, civic and ecclesial elite] of Connecticut, which means that he didn’t go to seminary. He just went to Yale College, and he did a little topping up with the pastor who happened to be the president of Yale College.
That’s the way theological education of ministers happened then. He was a success in the old model. And he thought that it was all going to fall to pieces when the church was disestablished, when the church couldn’t rely on taxes anymore. He was not a fan of the new model of theological education.
Then within a decade or so, this new model emerged. He figured it out, got really good at it and then became a leader of it. I think he’s an interesting figure for our times as someone who was trained in one system and then had to adapt. I think we’re at a cusp time like the one that Beecher navigated.
It also mattered that he was part of Lane. Lane was a seminary designed to be, as Beecher said, the Princeton of the West or the Andover of the West. Then it ceased to exist.
They were a concern for a long time, but the story of how Lane came to dissolve, I think, is really powerful. [Its decline began with opposition to the pro-abolition efforts of some students and faculty.] I want to mine that story, because it shows the deep collusion between the seminary form as a structure and the project of white Protestant settlement of the continent. That’s part of the history we have to grapple with. And Lane brings that to the fore.
I’m also trying to write this from my own space, from my own biography, and it matters that Lane flowed into the seminary where the pastor of the church where I grew up was trained. In a way, I feel, as I say in the book, “downstream from Lane.” Downstream from that Midwestern shoot of post-Puritanism that Beecher incarnated.
F&L: Could you explain what you write about forecasts, timeless norms and affordance later in the book?
TS: When I get introduced, people often say that TEBT is about the future of theological education. I do think we care about the future of theological education, but we’re not about predicting the future. We’re not engaged in forecasting. One reason I’m really worried about forecasting is that it misses all the contingencies that might be involved.
The resurrection is not something you would’ve forecast. I just don’t think that’s the way God works in the world. We do move in the world as it actually exists. But for this project to get subsumed under forecasting, I think, would be a kind of category mistake. I don’t want to engage in that.
The book is structured with a kind of inbreaking of the word of God in the middle that is meant to disrupt the timeline's passage to the future. But even with this inbreaking, this interruption and transforming of time, practical reasoning has to proceed. After that inbreaking, the book offers a series of renunciations and then some affordances. By renunciations, I mean those things we need to let go of in order to grab hold of the new things God is doing. And by affordances I mean the handholds we can see in a world illumined by divine hope, illumined by the promise of redemption.
Then different kinds of things become visible, and they become visible to us in different ways. It’s not the same thing as a cost-benefit opportunity analysis. Affordances aren’t opportunities. They’re not necessarily good in themselves, but they are the contours of history in our time that we can grab hold of as we work toward a faithful response.
To speak more concretely, I think one of the main affordances of our time is the deep desire that people have to piece together an authentic life. I think there’s a lot of ideology in the notion of authenticity. I would not celebrate the processes of neoliberalism that have broken up the communities and that leave people needing to put together an identity and a way of life. But that is where we are, and I think theological education that is attuned to that need can thrive in many ways and can serve a really deep need in our times.
This is why so many [students] come to us. They’re not necessarily coming to be trained for professional leadership. That might be a byproduct. It might happen, but the urgent thing to them is to put together a life that has integrity and authenticity and to make sense of themselves before God.
F&L: Your vision of what theological education can be is not a professional undertaking but what lay people would call a formational endeavor. You say, “My hope is not to predict the next new model but to invite attention to the school as an affordance for something more than vending credentials to individuals investing in themselves.” There’s so much possibility in that.
TS: One thing that’s ending for us is a model of theological education that is focused on vending credentials to people who will then become professional leaders of more-or-less religious, nongovernmental organizations.
That model was around for a couple of hundred years. But as you look all across America, the only way that is sustainable is with massive inputs from other sources, whether it’s an endowment, or adjunct-ified faculty labor that is really an extraction of surplus from the faculty, or student debt.
All of those are unsustainable ways to keep this model going. I think the better response is to think about what kinds of models of theological study are sustainable in our times. And if they’re sustainable, it means that there’s a deep way in which they fit the times, and in a way that this professional model does not.
People are very much interested in adding letters behind their names. One of the things I worry about is that theological schools seem to be in a race to the bottom to let them do that as easily as possible. I don’t think that’s the way forward. It doesn’t meet the deeper needs. I think that’s especially true because those letters then don’t convert to real professional status or professional income. They don’t fulfill what people want them for. That’s why we need to — we’ve got to — build the school toward another set of goals.
F&L: What do you mean when you talk about the work as leaderfull?
TS: That’s another one of the affordances that I see right now — leaderfull movements. I’m borrowing the term there from Patrisse Cullors, who is drawing on the legacy of Ella Baker. Like Baker, Cullors has been critical of some of the ways in which individual leaders can be exalted above and out of the wider movement. But she insists this does not make the movement leaderless. Instead, it is leaderfull.
The movement for Black lives has really embraced that leaderfull model. They’re not the only ones, but we’ve seen it brought to consciousness in that movement. In the older model, if you wanted to be chair of the SCLC, for instance, you needed to go get that seminary degree. And then that credential helped you become a leader of the movement. The leaderfull movements of today don’t work that way. If anything, the credential might be something that makes you more suspect.
What is a requirement — it’s not the credential, but there’s a need within the movements for safe space to come back to and reflect on what’s happening. I quote Killer Mike in the book, who talks about the need for something like a safe house in which people can step back and reflect.
Here’s the key: The people are all already leaders before they go to theological education for reflection and study. They don’t need a credential from the school in order to be that leader. It’s a really different model. That means that we as theological schools, if we want to stay connected to these movements for justice, we’ve got to change our relationship to them. We’re not going to be credentialing leaders. We’re going to be meeting people who are already leaders and opening up spaces and offering resources as they reflect on the struggles in which they’re engaged.
I think that’s true of the movement for Black lives, but it could be true of all kinds of movements. And if you look at the Hispanic Bible institutes that Elizabeth Conde-Frazier has been so significant in leading, the people who go to those schools are already leaders, and they’re not becoming leaders because they got their credentials.
They’re enmeshed in leadership already. What they need is time, space and resources to reflect on that practice, deepen it, work out the questions that arise in it. I think there’s a lot of room for the theological school that does that, but it’s going to have to be configured differently.
F&L: You paint a vision for theological education that I take as being hopeful.
TS: I’m utterly hopeful. I do think that the deep and hard work of joining with other people to study the ways of God and who God is for us — this is infinitely valuable. This is what we’re made for. It’s study as doxology. It’s the meaning of life. It’s not an instrumental means to something else, to some other product or end.
I’m hopeful on one level because I see the innovations already happening, and I see some of these signs of life. But in the deepest sense, I’m hopeful because, as the book concludes, I think theological education will continue because God longs to be known. God longs to be known, because knowing and being known are part of love. A loving God will be known and will know us. That project of theological education conceived in the broadest sense of knowing and being known by God — that will continue.
F&L: Near the very end of the book, you say, “Wisdom seeks us out.”
TS: That’s Proverbs 8. I think especially when you talk to theological educators and you talk to students and you can get to a space of freedom where people are talking on a different level and where we’re not consumed by the daily concerns, people will describe that experience of wisdom seeking us out. Of God already teaching us. Maybe in the classroom, maybe in spite of the classroom, or maybe in places beyond the classroom.
All that we do flows from God seeking us out and teaching us. It’s why we do this. For me, a lot of the work right now is like scraping off the corrosion on a battery, getting rid of the things that prevent people from connecting directly to the charge that they’ve already experienced. There is some positive work, some building, but there’s also some negative work, some renunciations. Trying to give up things that get in the way.
F&L: Is there anything more you want to share?
TS: In writing this book, I became convinced that we can’t think about theological education apart from a much bigger story about what’s happening in religion, society, politics and the economy in the U.S. I try to consider theological education within a larger historical narrative about this move from a standing order to voluntary associations to an age of authentic individuals. And I think that story matters not just for theological education but for ministry, for all of us who are trying to provide leadership in these times. I hope it’ll open other conversations, too.