Directions in Theological Education

(part of the Baptist Heritage in the 21st Century Pamphlet Series)

by Pamela R. Durso

In September 1991, Baptists in the South began a new journey in theological education when the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR) opened its doors to thirty-two students and began a partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Fourteen years later, over 2,000 Baptist students are enrolled in the thirteen CBF-affiliated seminaries, divinity schools, and Baptist studies programs.[1] Some of these institutions, like BTSR, are newly founded; other schools have long histories but have recently partnered with CBF.

The presence of these schools has changed Baptist theological education in the South. In 1983, when I began looking at various seminaries, the Southern Baptist seminaries seemed to be the only Baptist options in the South. Students today have numerous options when deciding which seminary to attend.

The increased number of Baptist schools has also affected the student population. Most of the new schools have fewer than 300 students, with the exception of Truett Theological Seminary, which has approximately 390 students. As a result, class sizes are smaller, making the professor-student ratios smaller. At Central Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest classes have no more than twenty-eight students. Some of the other new schools have up to fifty or sixty students enrolled in their introductory courses, but even these large classes are much smaller than some of the extremely large classes that I had while in seminary. One wonderful benefit of attending a smaller seminary and participating in smaller classes is that students have an increased opportunity to form meaningful and lasting relationships with professors and with other students.

In addition to smaller class sizes, many of the new schools offer block schedules; that is, the school day has been restructured and classes, rather than meeting three times a week for fifty minutes each day, meet once a week for three hours. The block schedule allows students to enroll in three to six courses, but only attend class one or two days a week. The widespread geographic locations of the new schools also allow many Baptists who feel called to ministry to enroll in classes without relocating. These factors have resulted in a higher number of commuting students in Baptist theological education institutions.

Another trend in Baptist schools, and one that is true for all theological education institutions, Baptist and non-Baptist, is that the median age of students has risen dramatically. Most seminaries in the United States have experienced an increase in the number of second-career students. People in their forties and fifties are enrolling in these new Baptist schools. Many of these students felt called to ministry as young adults, but delayed their theological training; others experienced a call to ministry later in their lives.

The student population not only is older; there are more women students. The 2005 spring enrollment at BTSR and McAfee School of Theology reflected a female population of at least 50 percent. Most of the other CBF-affiliated schools have 30 to 40 percent female populations, with several of these schools at 46 to 48 percent.

Increasing reliance on the Internet has also changed the look of Baptist theological education. Some Baptist seminaries now offer on-line courses, which allows more people to enroll in classes. While the merit of web-based courses is a hot debate among educators, the fact is that all twenty-first-century education, including theological education, is being influenced by the Internet. Even in schools not offering on-line courses, an increasing number of professors use the Internet in teaching and are posting their class outlines or notes on-line, generating discussion in chatrooms, and communicating with students via e-mail. This growing use of the Internet in theological education will undoubtedly continue.

Several curriculum changes are apparent in the new Baptists schools. Most of them offer courses on spiritual formation, which focus on the personal spiritual development of the students. Small group settings are provided so that students and professors can work together on incorporating into their lives the classic spiritual disciplines, including prayer, meditation, Bible study, and service.

While these spiritual formation classes are an excellent addition to the class schedules of newer Baptist schools, one significant subject seems to have been dropped from the requirements: ethics. Many of the new Baptist seminaries and divinity schools do not have a full-time professor of Christian ethics. Several schools do have a full-time faculty member who, in addition to teaching theology or leadership courses, teaches an introductory course on Christian Ethics. Much needed upper-level ethics courses, however, are absent from the catalogs of moderate Baptist schools.

This absence reveals another difficulty faced by these new smaller schools. With only a handful of faculty members, these schools are able to offer only a limited number of electives in any field of study. Thus, while the small size results in better community building, it also results in a curriculum that is not as deep or as diverse as the curriculum at larger seminaries.

Despite such drawbacks, it is truly a great time to be a Baptist seminary student. More options are available from which to choose, and if Baptist students enroll in one of the new moderate seminaries, they soon discover a diverse student population, smaller classes, an emphasis on their own spiritual development, and a faculty that is more accessible and more involved in the lives of students.

[1]The thirteen schools are Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (KY), Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (VA), Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University (TX), Campbell University Divinity School  (NC), Candler School of Theology at Emory University (GA), Central Baptist Theological Seminary (KS), Duke University Divinity School (NC), Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity (NC), International Baptist Theological Seminary (Prague), Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University (TX), McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University (GA), Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University (TX), and Wake Forest Divinity School (NC).

Pamela R. Durso is Associate Executive Director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta, Georgia