Changing the curriculum for a changing world

Last year, my seminary made some curriculum changes to its Master’s degree programs. The new approach aims to teach students to think in a more relational way by connecting distinct subjects and classes to one another.

I’m part of the last year of students to complete the previous program. Once my class graduates, our curriculum will be completely phased out. These are new horizons for my school, but my seminary is by no means the only one to switch up its style of educating lately.

Seminaries and divinity schools across the country are beginning to respond to the shifting cultural landscape when it comes to faith and religion. The old styles of teaching and learning just don’t work like they have in the past. We’re adapting.

Right now, as you may know, I’m in this strange in-between phase where I’m spending a year as an intern pastor in a congregation, but I’m also still a student. I have one foot in both worlds. And it’s given me an interesting vantage point as my school goes through these changes.

As I’m just beginning to take my first steps away from the classroom and into the parish, I’m starting to see what skills and knowledge have been most helpful and relevant for me so far. I’m figuring out where seminary has given me the tools I need, and where I need to learn on my own and fill in the gaps.

I can say confidently that I am grateful for my seminary education, especially its focus on social issues and current events. For my school and many others, social justice is a huge part of what it means to be theologically competent and an active voice in the world around us. For not only Christians but people of all faiths, quiet piety must be coupled with an engagement with the cultures and societies that we live in. We want to be part of the divine work toward justice.

I feel like I got a strong education at my seminary, but of course, no curriculum can be all things to all people. When something goes wrong on the job post-graduation (like a leaky roof or a sick Sunday School-er), it’s a running joke among clergy I know to shake their heads and say, “Things they didn’t teach us in seminary…”

Now that I’m able to look back on what I learned and what I wish I knew, I have a few items on my dream class wish list. The first would definitely be a course on business management. (This one would be more geared toward those of us who hope to be clergy-people in the parish—sorry, doctoral candidates and chaplains-to-be.)

Here’s why: It’s not uncommon for clergy to be one of the only full-time staff members in a congregation. Though a council of laypeople typically oversees budgetary decisions, it is commonly the clergy’s responsibility to lead those meetings and oversee the process. Those of us with limited experience in accounting and financial management would really benefit from learning more about this. I know I would.

In a similar vein, I would love to see more seminaries and divinity schools devoting further class time to issues like domestic violence, mental health, and poverty in all its forms.

People who are facing these concerns sometimes go to their communities of faith for help because they don’t know where else to turn. Pastors and other clergy-people risk actually doing their parishioners (and non-parishioners) a disservice if they don’t know how to respond in a way that is helpful and healthy. Generally, I think theology schools are getting better at this, but we can do more as a whole.

Lastly, the part of theological education that I would never want to diminish is biblical studies (or more generally, scripture studies). With a current upswing in retooled curricula, I always hate to see when this subject is turned into an elective or scaled down. While it tends to remain a required subject, it is becoming less emphasized with time.

As a Christian, the Bible is the foundation of the way that I and other faithful people learn about God. It is unchanging. At the same time, it is a living book that always provides new insight into the relationship that we share with God.

Though some schools are decreasing language class requirements (typically Hebrew and Greek, but occasionally Latin and others), biblical studies as a subject can also keep these languages alive for theological students. Scriptural studies matters and affects everything else that we do as theologians, caretakers, teachers and ministers.

These are the subjects that I believe don’t get as much attention as they deserve. Others will no doubt disagree. As more seminaries and divinity schools change their curricula, they need to make difficult choices that balance student needs, the latest theological ideas, and logistics. If you’re looking at attending a new school, make sure to check out the curriculum—it’ll tell you a lot about its programs and goals.