My Call to Academia and Hope for Theological Education

I had a few careers before fully embracing my vocation within theological education. However, as I look back on the path of my professional life, I can see how all of the pieces fit together to prepare me for my calling as a theological educator. I started my teaching career as a high school English teacher. I was drawn to teaching by a desire to work with youth. From the beginning, high school teaching felt too constricting for me. This was partially due to the fact that I was trying to adapt to a structure of teaching that was not a pedagogical fit and partially due to the subject I was teaching. I liked English, but I had no passion for it.  So, I sensed that high school teaching wasn’t quite the right fit for me, but I did not know what would be. Then, I began to volunteer with the youth group at my local church. That made sense to me since, growing up, my youth group had been the first place I felt a passion for working with youth. That is where I was empowered to claim my voice and work in service to Christ and claim my duty to serve the world. It was there that I found myself wanting to be a person to walk alongside youth and nurture them as they claim their power.

As the volunteer position turned into a part-time job, I wanted more theological resources in order to serve the youth in my congregation better. I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary intending to earn an MA in Youth Ministry. While I left the high school classroom, I began teaching more Christian education classes at my local congregation. On arriving at seminary, I realized that my two-year program did not require the theological rigor I sought, so I switched to the M.Div. program. But even in the M.Div. program, I still found myself wanting. I served a small, urban, predominately Black and working class congregation. Most of the youth ministry texts presented themselves as universal, but gave examples I could not relate to, as they focused on White suburban and upper middle class contexts. I asked my professor of youth ministry, Kenda Creasy Dean, for a list of books that spoke to my context. She told me, “I think you will have to write those.” I thought she was joking, but the more time I spent in the Christian education and youth ministry section of the library, the more I realized that she spoke the truth. I spent so much time adapting curriculum so it would work with my youth, I soon discovered that it was easier to write my own. I was still in search of theological resources in order to serve the youth in my congregation better.

I returned to the local congregation and worked with youth, but I also began to teach more and more adult classes. The teacher in me had been given new life and I began to see myself not solely as a youth minister, but as a Christian educator who concentrated on youth. As I worked with more adults, I began to see youth ministry in a broader way. I realized that an essential part of youth ministry is training adults to work with youth, to make sure that youth ministry is embraced by the church as a whole and not just by a trained few. As I looked at youth ministry more broadly, I began training adults on youth ministry and teaching other adult Christian education classes. Yet, as they asked for resources that spoke to their contexts—ones that were similar to mine—I still found such resources lacking. This drew me into the PhD program and the journey to becoming a theological educator in higher education.

While I entered Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in order to get scholarly training that help me produce resources, at Garrett a greater resource was developed and that was my own teaching identity and my identity as a religious educator. I was able to take my teaching to new level. As I read and researched the scholarly work of religious educators, I also reflected on my own identity as a teacher and embraced emancipatory pedagogy. I truly believe that connection to one’s Creator is how one finds one’s true self. Religious education is a means by which people are freed to know themselves in a way that they can only be known when they see themselves through God’s eyes. I view the task of Religious Education as aiding people to see their Divine potential. If done poorly, Religious Education experiences could be yet another place where people learn what they cannot or should not be and what they should not do. They may try to force themselves into a mold they were not made to fit. But if done well, Religious education is an emancipating practice that frees people to live a life they might never have thought that they could have. Therefore, that is the guiding principle of my teaching and research.

When I think about the challenge of theological education in the 21st century, I think about it on two levels: the local church and theological institutions. First, I think about it on the church level and as a United Methodist, I think about the mainline Protestant church in the United States. Much has been written in the past decade about our decline. Some of it is credited to the changing demographics as the average age of a congregation gets older. Pastors talk about having few or no youth in their congregations. When I ask youth why they don’t attend church with their parents, they often tell me that they don’t get anything out of it. For many of these youth the old formulas, of youth groups that are meant to be their social circles, no longer work. They have a plethora of options in which they can find meaning. Churches must compete for attention and resources in a way not seen before.

This is not a new problem. This problem was talked about ten years ago and therefore is now being talked about on a young adult level. This impacts theological education as seminaries see smaller pools. Fewer churches are able to afford full-time pastors let alone multiple pastors. As a result, seminaries face an increasing challenge in a world with many educational options. The traditional view – that graduate professors focus on training the next generation of researchers – is undercut by the dearth of available academic jobs.

The historical justification for seminaries – to prepare an educated clergy able to ground their pastoral and evangelical work in solid theological principles – must be transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century church. Different forms of teaching must also be embraced. Millennials and members of Generation Z expect non-traditional forms of education and engagement, as opposed to top-down instruction. At all levels there is growing distrust of elites and organized authority.

The answer is not fully apparent but will have to include the sort of one-to-one relationships and trust implicit in mentoring. The challenges facing theological education at the seminary level will be met by addressing the challenges faced at the pastoral/church level. Helping craft tools and resources to revitalize youth ministry will revitalize theological education. I hope to help address the problems and challenges of theological education in the 21st century not only as a scholar, but as a teacher. I know many colleagues that refer to themselves as scholars that teach. I am a teacher and preacher that writes. The linchpin of my entire career is my identity as a teacher. Whether it has been in the classroom at a high school, college or grad school, in a church, Sunday School classroom or youth group, teaching has been and remains central to my call and it is through my teaching, augmented by my scholarly work that I hope to train Christian educators who will walk besides youth and everyone else in their congregation as they claim their God-given power.