Teaching Vacancies: A Crisis in Practical Theology

By Long, Thomas G. | The Christian Century, February 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching Vacancies: A Crisis in Practical Theology


Long, Thomas G., The Christian Century


WHEN THE LONGTIME professor of preaching at Bethsaida Theological Seminary retired, no one at the school could have predicted the ordeal that lay ahead. A search committee was appointed, and a position description crafted. The candidate needed to have a Ph.D., an appreciation for Bethsaida's theological tradition and at least some experience as a pastor and as a teacher of preaching. The committee placed ads in all the usual journals and waited expectantly for a flood of responses. After all, a similar search for a New Testament professor the previous year had yielded over 60 applicants, many with strong publication records and proven teaching experience.

But six months later, barely a dozen applications had been received, and not a single candidate met the minimum requirements. The search committee called graduate schools, e-mailed established scholars in the field of preaching and sent personal letters inviting members of the professional academies to apply. Nothing. Finally the committee reported to Bethsaida's dean that the search had come up empty. The dean instructed the weary committee to redouble its efforts. Three years later, the committee is still looking.

Bethsaida Theological Seminary is imaginary, but its plight is not. In the aptly titled report "Hard to Find," issued in 2002, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education reported widespread distress among theological schools in filling faculty vacancies in the practical disciplines--preaching, worship, religious education, pastoral care, leadership and the other so-called arts of ministry. Auburn researchers interviewed deans and search committee chairs who consistently complained that faculty searches in the practical fields were "difficult" and presented "more complications" than searches in other fields. One school reported holding a position in homiletics open for 12 years.

Why is this so? Recently a team of theologians and religion scholars at Emory University in Atlanta set out to explore the problem. They learned that a storm had been gathering force in the practical theological fields during the past two decades. The first gale-force wind hit when a large number of professors in these fields began vacating their posts, either to retire or to take more lucrative positions in churches or other agencies. This problem will become worse: an earlier Auburn study indicated that nearly 60 percent of the faculty now teaching in the practical fields will be eligible to retire by 2006.

Then, even as vacancies increased, a second storm surge hit: theological schools gradually began to set higher standards for faculty in the ministry fields. Once seen as merely "applied theology" or "helps and hints for church leaders," the practical theological disciplines now involve critical and original thinking about theologically saturated religious practices. Today, teaching the arts of ministry requires a different kind of expertise, a different level of academic training and a different set of credentials. At one time, when a theological school needed a professor of church administration, preaching or worship, it searched the ranks of accomplished clergy. Often these seasoned practitioners did a capable job teaching the lore and wisdom of their craft. But they were sometimes less successful in conducting research, introducing innovations into their fields and participating in ongoing scholarly conversation.

As one theological educator told the Emory team, the older generation of practical theologians was often strong in the "how to" side but weak in history, hermeneutics and theology, while a new generation of practical scholars, emerging in small numbers, combines "the pragmatic with careful attention to the tasks of empirical study, historical description, multilayered interpretation and theological analysis." In a climate of global awareness, practical theology is not only deeper but also broader. There is an increasing alertness to how the church's ministries of teaching, worship, preaching, education and leadership connect to the practices of other world religions, to the practices of religious communities throughout history and to parallel practices in the wider culture.

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