As I have argued in parts I and II of this series, Southern Baptists are currently enjoying a golden era in theological education. This does not guarantee an extended golden era, but it does it not preclude one either. Continuing our golden era won’t just happen—but it can if we are strategic and faithful.
Predicting the future of theological education—and higher education in general—is daunting. Theological education, if anything, is fluid. In fact, a recent study on theological education recommended an institution’s master plan should be no more than a three-year projection that will likely need updating after 18 months.
General Dwight Eisenhower once mused on the unpredictability of warfare: the plan is nothing, but planning is everything. That aphorism holds true for seminaries as well: the less predictable we know theological education to be, the more we must work to predict it.
From what we know of ourselves, our past, and in as much as we can predict the future, Southern Baptist seminaries must exhibit five marks of health to flourish in the 21st century.
A Sustainable Business Model
The escalating costs of higher education, a shrinking offering-plate dollar, tapering national demographics, diminishing confidence in the value of higher education, and a weakened Cooperative Program all coalesce to undermine the business model of the past. At the same time, affordability remains a pressing concern for prospective students.
These challenges, and more, create a consumerist and competitive context in higher education. More and more institutions are spending more and more money to recruit fewer and fewer students. These dynamics explain why a recent survey of “turn around institutions” revealed that entrepreneurial leadership is a consistent trait of successful turn-around schools.
Southern Baptist seminaries are not immune to these challenges. Will Southern Baptists renew our collaborative ministry efforts and strengthen our giving through the Cooperative Program, or will it continue to soften? Though recent indicators are encouraging, this is an open question with significant consequences.
The mission of Southern Baptist seminaries is clear: to train pastors, missionaries, and ministers for Southern Baptist churches and for the mission field. However, financial challenges tempt institutions to mission compromise, and seminaries often succumb that temptation.
In fact, many seminaries structure their curricular offerings like a shopping mall, offering nearly every program imaginable in order to cobble together a sufficient enrollment to pay the bills. In so doing, they compromise their mission and dilute their institutional emphasis. The seminary that focuses on everything focuses on nothing.
Funding challenges have been a primary—if not the primary—propeller of mission compromise. Just as plants grow towards light, so institutions bend toward their sources of funding. Herein is an added reason for strong Cooperative Program support, for the most assured way to maintain ownership and influence is to hold the purse strings.
Southern Baptist seminaries are more theologically conservative than they’ve been in nearly a century, with the Baptist Faith & Message 2000—the most conservative and comprehensive statement of faith ever adopted by the SBC—serving as the primary instrument of accountability. Theological trust was hard earned, but can be lost easily. SBC seminaries, and the SBC as a whole, must maintain doctrinal vigilance.
Public agitation will only intensify on the great social issues of the day, with same-sex marriage being the focal point. Accrediting agencies, the federal government, and other belligerents will likely continue to increase pressure on evangelical institutions.
Deeper into the 21st century, if acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage gains momentum within SBC churches, the seminaries could find themselves out of theological alignment with the churches—being more conservative than the churches for the first time in the SBC’s history.
This scenario would present its own, unique challenges. Nonetheless, our charge is faithfulness to our confessional expectations regardless of from where—and from whom—the agitation to compromise may come.
Agile & Adaptable
Modern delivery systems have upended traditional models of higher education. Online, modular, and hybrid delivery formats have all become conduits to distribute theological education. When these delivery means supplement residential education—forward deploying theological education for those who cannot travel to seminary—it is healthy and praiseworthy.
However, residential education will always be primary and preferred, and should always be most incentivized by the SBC, the seminaries, and our funding models. This prioritization is in the best interest of the students, the seminaries, the church, and the entire SBC. That being said, innovation is a wave to be ridden, not a curse to be avoided, for it can greatly extend a seminary’s reach.
Serving the Churches
Southern Baptist seminaries exist to serve Southern Baptist churches. As long as Southern Baptist churches exist they will need prepared ministers. Therefore, the mandate for theological education will persist as long there is a Southern Baptist Convention.
The seminary most conscious of the New Testament understands it has a right to exist inasmuch as it serves the local church. Out of mission, opportunity, and necessity, now is the time for theological education to be wedded to local churches. The decades ahead should be a season of great partnership between the seminaries and the church.
Theological education, at its core, is timeless. In many ways, theological education in the 21st century should resemble theological education in any century—transmitting the classic disciplines to pastors, ministers, and evangelists for the church.
Are Southern Baptists enjoying a golden era in theological education? Absolutely. But present health does not guarantee future health. The 21st century demands seminaries be strategic with resources, intentional in serving their constituency, and unquestionably faithful to the Word of God and the classic disciplines of theological education.
As we are strategic and faithful, our churches will be strengthened and our golden era will be extended.topicsHigher Education, Southern Baptist Convention, theological education