The Future of Seminary Education

ECF spoke with 1990 Fellow, Mark Richardson, President and Dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific to learn his views on leadership training and the church today.

The Very Reverend Mark Richardson, President and Dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), takes pride in being an ECF Fellow. “I regard it not as a grant,” he says, “but as a fellowship, so it has continuing life.”

His 1990 fellowship helped support his graduate work in philosophical theology at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California. He completed his Ph.D. in 1991 and taught theology at GTU until 1999. Deeply interested in the intersection of faith and science, he established the Science and Spiritual Quest Project at GTU’s Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in 1996.

In 1999, he joined the faculty at General Theological Seminary in New York, where he also served as an advisor to the Trinity Institute and Chair of the Editorial Committee for the Anglican Theological Review. In 2014, he was given the Genesis Award by the Episcopal Network on Science, Technology & Faith (ENSTF) for his decades of scholarship, teaching, and leadership.

Richardson returned to Berkeley in 2010 to begin work as President and Dean at CDSP. Today, the seminary is experiencing a turnaround, with a dramatic increase in enrollment, four new faculty, and restored financial stability. He brings a wealth of wisdom and experience to the issue of leadership development in today’s church.

A new model for seminary training
Significant transitions in the church have shifted Richardson’s thinking on seminary training. “Seminaries in earlier generations taught in the old wissenschaft model,” he explains, “treating the education of theology as objective science—critical theory—without passing along sufficiently the skills of ministry.”

He has come to regard that model as a failure for students enrolled in Master of Divinity and Master of Theological Studies programs. “In a professional degree program, you’re training people for leadership in congregations,” says Richardson. “They have to be emotionally and spiritually prepared for it, so formation becomes very serious.”

After formation, the second, critical piece is to include strategic goals connected to classical themes of the church in every course in the curriculum, so that the study of theology is mission-oriented. Those two elements—formation in community and classical training with a mission orientation—provide a model for seminary training that fits this more secular age.

“Today’s leaders,” he says, “need to encourage and equip those they lead to find ways to be intelligent players at the interface of our faith and public life.” Richardson is convinced that in order to be heard and taken seriously, the classical markers of our faith—mission, discipleship and evangelism—need to be articulated in new ways that fit our context.

The challenge for the leaders of today’s congregations, in his view, is to lead people to an understanding of the mission of the church that can be enacted in the community. “And it’s not going to be the same top down model that we’ve all applied,” he says. But he’s convinced that the leaders coming out of our seminaries have a particular role to play, to teach the sacramental life by modeling it in their own lives and to draw the congregation toward the mission God has set before it.

The future of seminary education
“We’re in a transition just now,” says Richardson, “that has left us all thinking that the future is a little bit unpredictable.” There is talk in the church about new models for training people for ministry—closing the seminaries, developing local diocesan programs, reading for orders, and other possibilities. Seminary leaders are responding. “At CDSP we have developed robust and diversified models for delivering theological education.”

He thinks the key in all this uncertainty is to stay resilient. “We need to find out what our local gifts are and develop those as well as we can.”

Recognizing that giving up homes and jobs and moving their families to a three-year residential school carries too much risk for some seminary candidates, CDSP has offered an accredited, low-residency Master of Divinity program for the past several years. In that program, students come to the school for a two-week intensive during the summer. As they live, worship and study together over the two weeks, they form community. In January, they return for another two-week intensive. During the fall and the spring, they take courses online with the in-resident community.

Students in the low-residency program came from 13 dioceses last year, and this year, they have 22 new students in the entering class in this program, with an equal number of new students in the in-residence program. That’s more than 40 new students divided neatly between the two programs. “This is obviously meeting a need,” he says.

Being the church in a post-Christian era
CDSP is the only seminary that dwells within an active ecumenical and interreligious context—including Catholic and Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu—where students are a five-minute walk from classrooms across the spectrum. “An Episcopal Church student has to learn his or her tradition well to know how to contribute to a conversation that includes many traditions,” says Richardson. “We cannot assume that we’re in a Christian culture.”

He suggests that a sacramental model, where the life of the church points to a reality larger than itself, fits today’s more fluid and diverse cultural climate. That model calls us to be clear about who we are in our worship and our mission. “I think we are strongest when we hold onto our incarnational core and present that to the world, living it out as best we can,” says Richardson. He believes that our faith in a transcendent source of being, our belief in God as a gracious presence in the world, are “what the world actually wants and doesn’t know how to get.” And he’s convinced that we won’t meet this wider world’s need by giving up our core belief and mission.

That place, where the church meets the wider world’s need, brings us back to the interface of faith and public life mentioned earlier, the place where who we are and what we believe encounters the rich, often perplexing, diversity of our culture today. At that interface, Richardson says, “You cannot lose if you have honesty and integrity and you’re open to the conversation with the other.”

Cause for hope
Current demographics for religion and our own denomination may not be particularly encouraging, but Richardson is hopeful about our church’s future. “I think people of good faith and with passion are trying a variety of things,” he says. He sees a renewed focus on “the recovery of the parish context, where the congregation is the center of a wider community that it serves.” With this reclaimed understanding of their role, churches are finding creative, new ways to use their buildings and to serve their communities.

Richardson sees a number of places where our interface with culture can make a difference to people. He suggests the sciences, a subject dear to his heart, as an example. While we want young people to stay involved in church in middle and high school, the sciences are taught as “sort of alien,” he says, “from religious faith.” He sees another example in our silence in the face of the arguments against evolution by some faith groups.

And he asks, “When did you last go to an adult education forum on that topic, on spirituality and the natural sciences? It’s just this quirky little topic on the side.”

Truth is, if you worship at All Soul’s in Berkeley you might answer that question “just a month or so ago.” The speaker for the church’s recent Formation Forum series, “Science and the Spiritual Quest,” was Dr. Mark Richardson, leading by example and building confidence at the interface of faith and public life.