Responding to the Challenges and Opportunities Facing Theological Education Today
July 13, 2022
An Interview with D. Scott Ostlund, Vice President for Enrollment Management
Last summer, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary welcomed Reverend D. Scott Ostlund as vice president for enrollment management. A provisional elder in the Oregon-Idaho Conference of The United Methodist Church, Ostlund came to Garrett-Evangelical from Drew Theological School, where he served as associate director of theological admissions.
An advocate for those who have been underserved by traditional approaches to theological education, Ostlund worked with key administrators and faculty in his first year at Garrett-Evangelical to expand the accessibility and adaptability of the seminary’s programs for a broader range of prospective students.
Theological education is changing. What is Garrett-Evangelical doing to recruit new students?
I think in the past, mainline seminaries embraced a dominant enrollment model that was almost entirely focused on remaining in close proximity to the networks and communities associated with their founding denomination. The thinking went something like this: If we continue to lean into our United Methodist roots, United Methodist students will continue to attend our seminaries in large enough numbers to sustain us moving forward. As many of us are aware, this is no longer true, no matter the denomination your institution is affiliated with. Beyond that fact, such an approach fails to reflect the ecumenical or interfaith commitments that many ministers and practitioners are feeling called to.
Now having said that, Garrett-Evangelical is unique in that it has an incredibly rich relationship with The United Methodist Church that continues to be a source not just of incoming students, but also of shared ministry across a diversity of contexts. Moving forward, our plan is to build on this relationship while investing in other non-UMC denominational partners. This includes thinking more broadly about our Methodist heritage by connecting deeply with Pan-Methodist partners, inclusive of alums, faculty, and thought leaders from the AME, AMEZ, and the CME traditions, among others.
What about partnerships outside the church?
A higher percentage of students who are applying to seminaries are interested in vocational tracks that do not place them within traditional institutional or denominational spaces. In response to this, we are intentionally collaborating with communities who form leaders to serve in some of these new innovative pathways, whether they are community organizers, community development practitioners, non-profit managers, counselors, or chaplains to name a few.
We are also increasing our partnerships with organizations that are creating new communities and networks for historically marginalized populations. Whether this is due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or histories of colonialism, it is no secret that traditional institutional Christian spaces are not always generative or safe for marginalized people, and so Garrett-Evangelical’s commitment to partnering outside of those traditional spaces is key to developing an equitable approach to enrollment. One example would be our continued work with Faith in Place, an environmental justice organization that draws together people from a diversity of lived experiences and religious traditions to fight for those most impacted by environmental injustice.
I would also say that we expect to see an increase in our partnerships and collaborations across the board thanks to the exciting work that is being led by Reverend Becky Eberhart and the Office of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships.
Have we developed any new programs?
Yes! This past fall, Garrett-Evangelical announced two new tracks within current degree programs that we are very excited about. The first is our new “Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care” track within our master of arts in pastoral care and counseling program, and the other is our “Leadership for Social Transformation” cohort within the doctor of ministry program that started this summer. Both tracks create space for students who feel called to a diversity of vocational ministry contexts to be in the same classroom together.
It will be common for pastors to find themselves next to chaplains, counselors next to organizers.
But the biggest news to come out of our faculty’s work around program development is the launch of new hybrid master’s degrees. Starting in the fall of 2022, Garrett-Evangelical will enroll hybrid students into our master of divinity degree, as well as any of our master of arts programs. This will allow students to participate in Garrett-Evangelical degree programs without being forced to move full-time to the Evanston/Chicago area.
This news of our increased hybrid offerings is exciting for multiple reasons. The average student enters seminary amidst a multiplicity of life commitments and complexities that include health, family, professional commitments, and of course issues of equity and injustice that have a disproportionate impact on people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ students. By creating avenues for students to remain in their community, our hope is that Garrett-Evangelical’s programs are becoming more accessible and affordable, removing material barriers that consistently block students from seminary and theological study.
Many of our incoming students have also already noted how these hybrid programs will allow them to fully embrace the place-based values of the Garrett-Evangelical curriculum. Like our faculty, these students recognize that one cannot be equipped as a minister, scholar, activist, or theologian unless the tools and insights that they are introduced to through their degree programs are able to speak back to their distinct context, while accounting for local histories and traditions, as well as the power dynamics that have structured their communities. These hybrid options will strengthen this approach to theological education even more.
How is Garrett-Evangelical’s faculty preparing for the future?
Garrett-Evangelical’s faculty is doing incredible work to prepare for the changing landscape within ministry and theological studies. One thing I really appreciate is how they are approaching the future inter-disciplinarily. They recognize that students and leaders don’t encounter theological questions or obstacles within a disciplinary vacuum, and so they are creating experiences that encourage this kind of innovative reflection and practice.
I am also excited about some of the place-based work that I mentioned above. Specifically, the new direction that our Office of Field Education is taking, led by Dr. Sara Williams. Field Education from this new perspective means more than dropping a student into a ministry role, where they can learn abstract skills as if they will apply the same across any distinct ministry context. Instead, students will be expected to reflect on the historical, socio-political, and contextual realities of the place and communities they are serving within. They will be asked to consider how the ministry skills or theological knowledges they have learned throughout their courses help (or don’t help) within the ministry context where they find themselves.
Williams could speak to this much more eloquently, but you can trust me that this is an incredibly innovative approach to thinking about internships and ministry placement experiences within theological education.
What are the challenges and opportunities facing theological education today?
As cliché as this sounds, I think the challenges that theological institutions like Garrett-Evangelical face are also some of our key opportunities. The fact that denominational affiliation can no longer be a school’s only or primary missional signifier or source of enrollment means that seminaries must reflect more deeply on what it is that makes us distinctive as we do the work of the Gospel throughout the world. It also encourages offices like mine to invest deeply in networks and partnerships that are being built amongst faith leaders both within and beyond traditional institutional forms.
I think the other challenge for theological education has to do with this issue of access and the increasing precarity of many of our students that I’ve already mentioned. I was raised by community college educators. In that higher education context, it was always expected that the average learner had to balance family, jobs (or multiple jobs), issues of systemic injustice and economic inequality, health, life, and more. While growing up, I felt like those concerns were unique to the terrain of community colleges and that most of higher education failed to take those students and their systemic realities seriously.
From my perspective, theological education could learn a thing or two from the community college world. When we look first at who our students are and second at what our mission is as a Wesleyan institution committed to holiness and justice, it becomes clear that we need to have a sense of urgency around removing obstacles that keep individuals and communities from living into their call in the world.
The last thing I will mention is a challenge that I think faces both theological institutions and mainline denominations more generally and that has to do with the changing role of ordination throughout the institutional Church. Ordination is still the goal for many students who attend Garrett-Evangelical, but increasingly, students on those credentialing pathways are pursuing different outcomes than previous ordinands. Maybe they are finding themselves called into a bi-vocational direction, or maybe they are asking their tradition to ordain them to forms of ministry that have previously gone unexplored. I know that as a United Methodist, my annual conference in Oregon-Idaho has been taking these questions seriously. In turn, they have created space for gifted clergy who may not have been empowered by their church in the same way 5, 10, or 20 years ago.
Clearly theological education is in a time of transition, but there is much to be excited about. I am incredibly grateful to be doing this work within the Garrett-Evangelical community.