Walter and Kersten: The Future of NPTS

From Gary Walter’s “I Believe in the Future of North Park Theological Seminary”:

All seminaries, including our own, are navigating precarious times. The three-year, full-time residential model of seminary preparation that has been the standard for decades is under pressure at schools of all stripes. In the meantime, some schools are closing and others are consolidating. When I gather with leaders of other denominations, conversations about the future of theological education are common. No one is confident they have “figured it out.”
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In previous generations, the general consensus held that a seminary degree was the threshold for entering the ministerial vocation appropriately prepared. If you wanted to be in ministry, you went to seminary, just as you went to law school to be a lawyer or medical school to be a doctor. While this is still broadly true, increasingly churches are calling ministry staff based on observed rather than “projected” effectiveness. In some quarters a seminary education is viewed more like an MBA—a value-added degree to enhance the efficacy of those already in ministry rather than the necessary gateway to ensure readiness prior to ministry. This is particularly true for special focus positions such as youth, children, worship, and others, which comprise more than half of all ministry positions in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The percentage of seminary students already in ministry positions is higher than it has ever been.
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Schools will need to see students as multi-dimensional and not merely consumers of biblical and theological content…. Intellectual preparation is only one dimension of seminary training. It is never less, but it is always more… a comprehensive view of student preparation for ministry must integrate spiritual, character, and skill development… Seminaries will need to be multi-lateral. Effective seminaries of the future will provide instruction by partnering scholars and expert practitioners…

Finally, seminaries will need to be authentically engaged in multi-ethnic realities and opportunities.
From David Kersten’s “Strategic Initiatives: Planning for the Future”:
Nyvall Hall, approximately 1950 (image credit: CAHL 4869)

Nyvall Hall, approximately 1950 (image credit: CAHL 4869)

In the past decade, the seminary classroom has been changing. No longer

are seminary courses filled primarily with those in pursuit of a senior pastor role… In meeting the needs of the changing demographics of the church, we have embarked on a vigorous strategy of “right-sizing” and “right-timing” our master of divinity degree, launching a revised degree in the fall of 2015. This degree requires fewer credit hours, decreasing its cost by 14 percent, with a strengthened and simplified core curriculum and a renewed emphasis on preaching, intercultural studies, and pastoral leadership. While we have reduced the number of credits needed to earn a degree, we anticipate the number of courses taken over a graduate’s
lifetime to increase as the interest in and demand for lifelong learning opportunities grow.
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In addition to denominational partnerships, we are pursuing further opportunities for collaboration with our university colleagues. These include joint teaching between the seminary and the university’s Biblical and Theological Studies (BTS) Department, providing students with a broader spectrum of professors. Also in collaboration with the BTS Department, we envision developing a “fast-track” undergraduate to seminary degree. The seminary currently cross-lists its courses, allowing undergraduates to take seminary classes for undergraduate credit. We hope to expand this partnership, providing undergraduates advance standing toward a seminary degree and making it possible to complete both a bachelor degree and an MDiv degree within five to six years.
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Next spring, in collaboration with Serve Globally and Start and Strengthen Churches, we will begin offering the church planting certificate to the Covenant Church in Taiwan. We also hope to offer our certificates and potentially degree programs to our partner churches in the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches. These partnerships strengthen the cross-cultural competency of NPTS students and Covenant pastors. As the ECC becomes more reflective of all of God’s people, NPTS intends to be at the forefront of engagement with the world.
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We are researching the viability of a plan that would supply all of our students with a modest interest-free loan to cover their tuition costs. Such loans would come from major initial gifts from donors that will be invested and will also secure a larger credit facility. This would form a captive loan pool to cover seminary tuition, allowing students to defer all payment until graduation. Students would make a modest monthly payment for seven years following graduation. These payments will go back into the loan pool to help replenish funds. Through investment and program management provided by affiliates of the ECC, there is also a significant tuition discount built into the program, and the interest-free nature of the loan reduces the overall costs of seminary further. Students will also be encouraged to form a team of ministry partners to help support a portion of their education, financially and in prayer. These ministry partners can help reduce costs even further while bringing a sense of support and community to the students. Students will be held to minimum standards of performance in order to continue to qualify.
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A highlight for North Park in the area of ecumenical partnerships has been the development of a course taught by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom at Stateville Correctional Facility in Chicago. This course involves both seminary students and Stateville students learning together. Some Stateville students have expressed the desire to continue their education at North Park after their release. This endeavor shines light on the type of restorative justice we as a community of believers can bring about in our city and world.
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Mackenzie Mahon