YDS and BDS boards grapple with theological education amid mainline decline

On May 5, members of the Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School leadership boards gathered together to engage a topic of huge significance for schools of theological education in the mainline Protestant tradition: the broad changes affecting churches and theological education at a time when mainline U.S. Protestantism is in steep decline.

NiemanKeynoting the discussion was James Nieman, professor of practical theology and soon-to-be academic dean at Hartford Seminary, who confirmed the dramatic weakening of mainline Protestantism in the U.S. but concluded his talk be saying, “Yet this is not a story of decline.”

“We are instead at a decisive moment for rethinking,” declared Nieman, who has written about and lectured on a wide range of subjects related to preaching and denominational life.

During the course of his talk, Nieman described what he termed “four of the most dramatic, pervasive, longstanding, and interacting changes in church life that dare not be ignored in trying to prepare church leaders” for service in mainline churches.

Those four elements, in Nieman’s judgment, are: the growing economic distress in congregations; the distinctive conflict unsettling churches; the shifting forms of religious commitment; and the muted voice of theology.

Responding to Nieman’s remarks were Sharon Watkins ’84 M.Div., general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Emilie Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology and associate dean of academic affairs at Yale Divinity School, both of whom acknowledged the mainline Protestant difficulties but, like Nieman, saw possibilities within the turmoil.

Townes described the current state of the church as one of “transformation” that will benefit by incorporating “integrity, vision, courage, and passion” into the work it needs to do.  And Watson spoke of a 21st century “landscape for mission” marked by a “borderland” that she said offers “a welcome opportunity to reconnect with God” and forces Christians to “rely on God, our redeemer and hope.”

The presentations by Nieman, Watkins, and Townes were part of a May 4-6 series of meetings that included joint sessions of four YDS-related leadership boards— the YDS Alumni Board, the YDS Board of Advisors, the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and the Board of Advisors of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.  Nieman’s address and the responses were particularly relevant to YDS and its leadership at a time when YDS is in the midst of a long-range planning process that will guide the school over the course of the next decade and more.

ChapelIn unpacking his four major elements of church change—and, by extension, the challenges to contemporary theological education—Nieman made a number of critical observations:

  • Only a decade ago, not even a third of congregations said they were in excellent financial health.  Today, that proportion has been cut in half to only 14 percent.
  • At any one moment, about one-fifth of all congregations are actively involved in internal conflict, many reported as serious and sometimes involving deep personal attacks.
  • Compared to the early 1970s, the share of the population claiming mainline Protestant identity has fallen by over one-half and now stands at only 13 percent.
  • Some 20-30 percent of Americans who entered adulthood since 2000 say they have no religious commitment, due in large measure to negative views of what church involvement means.
  • “Exclusive humanism,” the idea that human well-being is now an end in itself apart from any reference to divine purposes, is making religious belief entirely a matter of choice, calling into question what the church still means and whether it has anything left to say.


Given the realities of the shifting religious landscapes, Nieman called on divinity schools to take advantage of “a decisive moment for rethinking” and to avoid being “inflexible, comfortable with what they’ve always done” or falling back on “received heritage or acclaimed prestige, reassured that all is fine as it stands.”

“Could churches and seminaries envision layered ensembles of leadership like those in other fields, less uniformly costly for congregations but better suited for their actual needs?” said Nieman in a concluding set of suggestions.  “Could we promote a theologically rich, plural sense of human identity resistant to the narrowing that leads to conflict? Could we treat our students as resources in imagining new forms of mission and ministry with people who want to believe but find church troubling?  Could we reinvigorate the nurture and growth of the faithful so they can be ever more articulate public theologians?”

GroupIn her response, centered on the concept of a “borderland” religious landscape filled with new opportunities, Watkins lifted up the need for pastors who are deeply spiritual, who can name the understandings of God that underlie a congregation’s decisions and fights, and who are theologically and culturally “multi-lingual.”

“Seminary and church together need to form clergy who can help the congregation go deep spiritually, learn the stories of faith, artfully lead in building and equipping community that is appropriate for its 21st century context, and focus outwardly with ministries of hope and wholeness,” said Watkins.

Pointing to a “church in transformation,” Townes said, “I think about the ways in which integrity, vision, courage, and passion can be integrated and how can they be integrated into the work that we do here in this place.  How can we use these four things to help churches, nonprofits, communities engage in the work their souls must have . . . and be faithful to God’s call to us for justice, kindness, humility, love—in a pluralizing world, an ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, with an informed faith in a world gone global, and a fearless gospel, regardless.

The session with Nieman, along with a celebration of the Divinity Tomorrow capital campaign (see accompanying story), were the highlights of the three days of meetings. But significant elements of the meetings of the Alumni Board included:

  • An interactive conversation, led by Alumni Board President Jerry Henry, about the best ways to help alumni feel engaged
  • Lunch with student leaders: Sean McAvoy ’11 M.A.R.; Shakira Sanchez-Collins ’11, M.Div; Kaz Bem ’11 S.T.M.; Greg Griffin ’11 M.Div;  Matt Laferty ’11, M.Div.; Hannah Peck ’11 M.Div.;  Craig Robinson ’11 M.Div., and Shannon Santangelo ’11 M.A.R.  Students had ample time to visit with Board members and shared much about their experiences as students and their plans after graduation. Additionally, each of the students is involved in efforts to bring in the 2011 Class Gift, which by the time of Commencement had a participation rate of over 72% and totaled in excess of $10,000.
  • An update on YDS’s Long-Range Planning with Dean Attridge and Associate Dean Townes
  • A dinner with Harry and Jan Attridge at the dean’s residence, where the dean shared photos from his recent trip to Barcelona and told his favorite stories about being dean.

View videos of the presentations by Nieman, Watkins, and Townes.

Posted: 06/03/2011