A School that Learns: The Changing Landscape of Theological Education
July 13, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Mai-Anh Le Tran
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean
“Theological education is local, but the local isn’t local anymore,” a senior scholar opined in a faculty conversation on the changing landscape of theological education in my early years of teaching in the 2000’s. The comment has stayed with me since, rising to mind each time I wrestle with how theological teaching and learning is simultaneously local, global, and translocal—or, put simply, both defined by place and not confined to a particular place.
On March 8, 2022, Garrett-Evangelical announced the expansion of hybrid offerings to increase the accessibility and affordability of four of our master’s degree programs. The tongue-in-cheek reference is that this was a “4.0 upgrade” to our curriculum, a nod to the evolutionary developments of the World Wide Web toward more symbiotic interconnections between human and machine. If Web 4.0 is understood to be “Web meets world,” then so must our theological education be better at meeting the real needs of the real world. The faculty has always understood this principle: theological study best occurs in situ, in which learners explore the real needs and questions of concrete communities, situations, places, settings, and contexts of ministry and leadership. The challenge remains: how do we make that kind of theological education more accessible and affordable in a time when multiple pandemics have exacerbated our ability to connect across time and space, while revealing the complicated symbiosis of human and planetary ecosystems?
The curricular updates that we have made are modest, yet they are inside the energy of our missional commitment to making Garrett-Evangelical’s education more accessible to and affordable for individuals and communities who need it most. Far from chasing after market-driven strategies to deliver “fast and cheap” options for theological learning and far from the colonial hubris of assuming that what we possess is a “gift” to the world, we are reminded that engrained in the seminary’s institutional DNA is the concern that the theological school exists to equip leaders to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst. As stated in the catalog of one of Garrett-Evangelical’s three founding institutions, the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions (circa 1913-1926), “A Christian training school should be in the heart of a great city for the same reason that a medical school needs to be near a hospital” (Hilah E. Thomas and Rosemary Skinner Keller, eds., Women in New Worlds, 191). Or, as a staff colleague recently asked, how is our education accessible and affordable to those who are often told, “We don’t have anything for you”?
“Increasing access” is more than cosmetic retrofitting of our current norms and standards to accommodate a few individuals so that they could fit in, literally and figuratively. Rather, it requires nothing short of an overhaul of our theological and educational design and a deep exploration of the material, financial, technological, social, contextual, and lifestyle barriers that impede learners’ success and thriving. To expand “access” is to query our assumptions about what needs to be taught and learned, how it is taught and learned, and who does the teaching and learning. It begs the hard question of whether our pedagogies (theological, digital, or otherwise) reflect divergent human abilities and the many ways of knowing across cultures and contexts. It also invites us to examine whether we have, with requisite humility, learned to seek out God’s re-creative power within communities that are still unknown and unfamiliar to our dominant frame of reference—communities in our own city, in this country, and in other parts of the world. What if, in becoming more accessible, Garrett-Evangelical understands itself as “a school that learns” rather than a place that teaches?
Making our education “more affordable” is more than reducing a few financial barriers or increasing some material incentive. It requires recognition of the comprehensive cost of attendance, cumulative burden of debt, intangible taxation, and unspoken sacrifices made by individuals and communities for a seminary experience. Increasing affordability requires a comprehensive, holistic investment in each student and the communities which send them. In doing so, Garrett-Evangelical is likely to discover that there is an abundance of resources and partners. Communities that struggle with resource gaps are also the communities that know best the miracles of resource pooling. Ironically, the training schools like that of Chicago’s—designed for biblically grounded, missionally driven, communally centered, locally sourced, practice-oriented, all-together “accessible and affordable” preparation of lay and women leaders who were often told, “we don’t have anything for you”—eventually succumbed to the formidable establishment of the colleges and universities, and, by extension, divinity schools. When we speak of “access” and “affordability,” we must begin with the fundamental questions, for whom? And for what purpose?
For decades now, institutional researchers have portended seismic shifts in the contours of the theological landscape. We have heard that the pie is shrinking, the pipeline is rusting, the cost is skyrocketing, jobs are disappearing, ecclesiastical establishments are crumbling, religious leadership is losing civic credibility, and student debt will continue to be inhibiting for anyone seeking a quality graduate theological degree amid mounting barriers and opportunity costs. And yet, each time we cast our vision a little broader and draw our horizons a little wider, we see that the desire and curiosity for deeper theological study has not gone away. On the contrary, it has only multiplied alongside growing human yearnings for healing and renewal in the omnipresence of pain and suffering. As Poet Adrienne Rich put it, age after age, there are those who are perversely reconstituting this world, through powers humanly ordinary (The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977). To strive for more “accessible” and “affordable” theological education is to cast our lot with such work, or, more theologically speaking, to follow Jesus to the margins, believing that it is where the Spirit of God is doing radical transformative work. In this paradigm, Garrett-Evangelical would not be a place which one simply passes through for some institutional branding for authorized leadership. Nor would it necessarily be a destination center, as if theological study requires a transplantation of self from the “terroir” of one’s of rootedness. Rather, an invitation to Garrett-Evangelical would be an invitation to a journey of multiple origins and destinations, in which every learner is embraced in “a new belonging that this world longs to inhabit” (Willie Jennings, After Whiteness, 10), and therein discovers “themselves as possessing the grace of power, especially the power of re-creation, not only of themselves, but of the world in which they live” (Maria Harris, Teaching and Religious Imagination, xv).
I have witnessed such grace of power in Garrett-Evangelical’s students. I see it in the students who chose to join the seminary from rural Illinois, from the Pacific Northwest, from South Side Chicago, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Mainland China, from Mexico by way of California. I saw it in the band of students who traveled to the Special General Conference of The United Methodist Church in 2019, who stood vigil while the denomination’s legislative body debated the limits of inclusion, who broke bread together and reminded each other of God’s calling upon their lives. I see it in the students who hold each other through grief. I see it in the tired yet determined eyes of those who just finished difficult shifts at challenging clinical sites. I see it in the entrepreneurial persistence of those who are multilocal and multi-vocational. Surely, other theological schools can boast of being able to provide accessible and affordable education to bright students like these. As for Garrett-Evangelical, we would have done our part if we have made conditions possible for each of these leaders to realize their new belonging in God’s re-creative power, which is defined but never confined by place.
*Special thanks to Daniel Smith, Research, Instruction, and Digital Services Librarian, for invaluable research information on the Chicago Training School.