to learn how to assess seminary programs
Assessing Seminary Programs
A Resource for Committees on the Ministry
The Ministry Issues Pronouncement affirmed that the church partners with seminaries in the education and formation of individuals for authorized ministry. Especially when a seminary is the central educational program in a Member in Discernment’s plan, a Committee on Ministry should be able to assess that seminary’s program. The COM’s work in assessing the quality, ethos and resources of seminaries is important to its ability to guide its MIDs in making wise choices about where to attend, what courses to take in the curriculum, and what extra-curricular experiences to participate in. Familiarity with what seminaries can and cannot provide also helps a COM plan supplemental experiences for its MIDs. In short, when a COM knows the profiles of various seminary programs, and knows what it is the particular programs are equipped to provide, it becomes better able to help its Members in Discernment.
This resource is designed as a piece to be read in preparation for a COM’s work.
I. ATS Accreditation
The first and essential step in assessing the quality of a seminary program is checking to be sure that the school is accredited by the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS). ATS is “a membership organization of more than 250 graduate schools that conduct post-baccalaureate professional and academic degree programs to educate persons for the practice of ministry and for teaching and research in the theological disciplines. The Commission on Accrediting of ATS accredits the schools and approves the degree programs they offer” (www.ats.edu). This accreditation is essential since it ensures a baseline of quality that will make the rest of your assessment work more manageable.
There are two ways to check on ATS accreditation:
1. Look in the seminary’s catalog or website. If the school is accredited by ATS, it is obliged to identify not only the ATS name but also its address, telephone, and other contact information.
2. The second way to check accreditation is perhaps preferable because it will yield additional information. On the ATS website (www.ats.edu) you will find a complete list of “Member Schools.” Clicking on a school’s name in that list will take you to a page that shows essential accrediting information, including:
- the school’s status, i.e., whether it is accredited, a candidate for accreditation, or an associated institution (you want “accredited”);
- the specific degrees approved for that school (you want to see that the school has been approved for the degree your MID aims to pursue);
- any notation the school has on its accreditation status. The listing of notations informs you of significant departures from accrediting standards found in the school’s operations (you want to pay special attention to any notation about the quality of the school’s educational programs);
- multiple locations of the school, if any, where degrees are granted (you want to see that the location has been approved for the degree your MID aims to pursue);
- additional information such as the names of chief officers, denominational affiliation, and enrollment statistics.
If you want to go the extra mile with respect to ATS accreditation, you might contact the seminary’s president or academic dean and ask for their self-assessment report. All ATS schools are required to conduct ongoing self-assessments of the effectiveness of their educational programs. In addition, many schools collect data using a vehicle created by ATS called the Graduating Student Questionnaire, which a school might be willing to share. This data is generated by the school’s own students, judging the adequacy of their education upon graduation. ATS collates data from all schools submitting it and publishes all-ATS results by year (“Archived GSQ Total School Profiles”) through their website. This gives you a frame of reference for judging the data from a particular school in a particular year.
The ATS website is also the place to go to look for member schools offering distance education courses on an ongoing basis (see “ATS Institutions Offering Distance Education Courses” under “Member Schools”). This ATS listing simply tells you that the school is approved to do this; in other words, if the online courses confer credit toward a degree at the school, you may trust that the courses had to pass the same quality standards as face-to-face, real-time courses. (We might note, however, that as the ATS website makes clear, their degree standards include minimum residency requirements and so currently “it is not possible to earn a degree in an accredited institution solely by distance education courses.”) In order to find out what particular courses a school offers online, and whether these courses will serve your MID, you will have to research the school’s own course information.
II. Marks of Effective Seminary Programs
The importance of seminary education in the formation of leaders for the United Church of Christ is so significant that it is worth keeping in mind what makes for an effective seminary educational program, beyond accreditation. Although seminaries will differ, and none is perfect, the following represent a set of “marks of effective seminary programs” that have been developed out of representative reflection from across the denomination.
You should note that it is the Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) that both the UCC and the ATS have long recognized as the professional degree most suitable for the preparation of authorized ministers, especially ordained ministers. Many, if not most, seminaries and divinity schools offer multiple degrees, as well as various certificates and other non-degree programs. Indeed, some do not offer the MDiv. Other degree and non-degree programs may contribute to effective preparation for certain specialized ministries and for those not seeking authorization but rather a course of theological study to inform their vocations in the world.
You should further note that since seminaries educate a diverse constituency, they will have both optional and required courses. Just because a course is not required does not mean that the school considers it unimportant. It simply means the school is attempting to meet the needs of many different kinds of students. So long as a course is made available at the school, you can require that your MID take it.
An effective MDiv program will ideally do all of the following:
1. enable its students to acquire the bodies of knowledge identified or implied by the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers;
2. enable its students to acquire the skills of ministry described in the Marks;
3. cultivate in its students awareness of the ministerial role as reflected in the Marks;
4. consistently provide its students opportunities to learn from experienced UCC ministers in the supervised practice of ministry;
5. regularly offer two semesters of instruction in UCC history, theology and polity, and support the course instructor’s attendance at the UCC History and Polity Teachers Gathering (typically held annually in Cleveland);
6. inform and train its students in issues vital to a united and uniting, multiracial, multicultural, open and affirming, accessible to all, just peace church;
7. support the ordination of women to ministerial office, and welcome their distinctive contribution to theological discourse;
8. attend to the particular needs and expectations of racial-ethnic churches and develop culturally specific strategies for ministerial formation and nurture to meet those needs;
9. maintain an open dialogue around LGBT concerns being guided by UCC General Synod Resolutions and policy;
10. intentionally include, support, and provide accommodation for students with disabilities, being guided by UCC General Synod Resolutions and policy as well as the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990;
11. provide its students a comprehensive exploration of the Just Peace movement in the UCC.
III. Assessing how a program relates to the Marks of Faithful and Effective Ministry
Taken together, knowing whether a program reflects the above marks will enable you to help your MIDs choose where to study. In addition, you will want to assess both the quality of the particular educational resources and the general ethos of the school, for this will enable you to help MIDs build additional educational and formational experiences into their plans beyond what the school offers. The following suggestions will help you further assess a program. They are grouped according to the sections of the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers developed by the Ministry Issues Pronouncement.
For your assessment in all of these areas there are three major sources of information:
the seminary’s catalog and website;
direct conversations with seminary officers, especially the academic dean, registrar, dean of students, director of field education, and instructors of specific courses;
experiential knowledge and course materials that your MID can provide.
Knowledge and Skills
Here is a set of steps to follow to check how thoroughly the seminary’s curriculum covers the knowledge and skills specific to ministry:
1. Go through the requirements for the MDiv degree at the seminary (these will be on the website or in the catalog), and correlate them with the knowledge and skills Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers.
2. Go through the specific course descriptions of courses required for the MDiv degree and correlate them with the Marks. Ideally, all the knowledge and skills Marks will be addressed in courses required for the degree. But there will likely be knowledge and skills that are not addressed by required courses, and your MID will want to take appropriate elective courses, or courses offered elsewhere. (See note on schools and requirements, above.)
3. If your association has an MID already enrolled at the seminary, or a recent graduate, contact them to verify this information about degree requirements and courses, based on their experience.
4. It is also entirely appropriate to contact the school to ask how particular knowledge and skills are taught or covered in the curriculum. Usually the best person with whom to begin this conversation is the academic dean. If she or he does not know the answer to your questions, she or he ought to be able to refer you to the person who does.
Spiritual Formation and Personal and Professional Formation for Ministry
In this area seminaries are frankly quite uneven in what they require, and differ quite widely in the degree to which they support the spiritual, personal, and
professional formation of their students. This means that you must pay special attention here, as this is one area where you may most need to supplement a seminary education with other experiences.
Using the sections of the Marks for Personal and Professional Formation for Ministry and Spiritual Formation for Ministry, respectively, you will want to look to see that the seminary provides the following:
Personal and Professional Formation:
relevant courses (typically such courses are found in a part of the curriculum devoted to the teaching of ministry practices—preaching, Christian education, pastoral care, etc.);
supervised ministry/field education/contextual education (schools use various names for this part of their curriculum). In particular, you will want to research the criteria for assessment used in these programs, and see how well they correlate with the Marks in professional formation;
Clinical Pastoral Education;
spiritual formation groups;
regular chapel worship;
the presence of a chaplain or pastor to students;
opportunities to learn spiritual disciplines;
In each case, you will want to find out what is required, what is optional, and the extent or frequency with which a resource or opportunity is available at the school. Once again, alongside the testimony of current students and recent graduates, the academic dean may be a helpful resource, but also the director of field education/supervised ministry, the chaplain, dean of students, or director of spiritual formation (these persons have various titles).
Seminaries cannot do everything. But the Ministry Issues Pronouncement has affirmed that the formation of persons for ministry does not happen only through the offerings of academic degree programs but also through the local church, the association, and other organizations. Ideally you will be able to obtain a realistic assessment of what schools do and do not provide when it comes to formation, and discover how you can supplement their offerings with additional experiences.
UCC Identity for Ministry
You can, and should, approach the assessment of a seminary’s program in regard to UCC Identity for Ministry in the same way as for the previous areas. It should be noted, however, that especially for non-UCC seminaries, support for development of these Marks will tend to be concentrated in two areas: UCC courses, and field education.
You will want to see that a seminary assists in UCC identity formation by:
providing field education experiences in UCC contexts and under the supervision of experienced UCC clergy;
providing instruction in UCC history, theology, and polity;
providing instruction in other issues central to UCC identity, such as covenant, contextual analysis; congregational studies;
offering courses (whether those in UCC history and polity courses or other courses) that address issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and justice and peace;
integrating the above-mentioned issues into its required courses throughout the curriculum in, e.g., Bible, theology, ethics, history, arts, and the practice of ministry;
demonstrating and continually striving toward diversity in its faculty, staff, trustees, and student body.
It is also helpful to know whether there is a faculty, staff person, or pastor from the community serving as an advisor to UCC students and whether there is a formal or informal UCC community for programming, worship, and fellowship.
See also the first section, above, on “Marks of Effective Seminary Programs.” Remember to solicit the feedback of any MIDs enrolled at the seminary and any recent graduates.
IV. Assessing Ethos
In considering any particular seminary it is always important to ask how the ethos or climate of the school relates to the essential commitments of the United Church of Christ. Your answer to this question will always be a judgment call, of course, but it is essential that you ask it, since the intellectual climate (or implicit curriculum) of a school exerts as much influence upon students who pass through it as does the explicit curriculum.
You can find useful information about ethos and climate in a seminary’s catalog and website. In particular, you will want to look for statements about:
its mission and vision;
the kinds of students it seeks for admission;
the kinds of graduates it turns out;
the educational climate it seeks to create in its classroom and on campus;
its commitment to freedom of inquiry;
its curricular requirements and elective courses;
the diversity of its faculty, staff, and student body in terms of gender, race, age, denominational background, etc.
adherence to any doctrines defining character and morality, and who is expected to adhere to them—trustees? faculty? staff? students?
For anything about which you have questions, feel free to call the school (especially academic dean or presidents, both of whom are often charged with responding to just such questions about their seminary from the churches) and ask for clarification. And remember, once again, to solicit the feedback of any students you know enrolled at the seminary and any recent graduates. Their perspective can be important even while limited to their own experience at the school.
V. Working with Seminaries for Improvement
In the course of your work with Members in Discernment attending seminaries, you may discover over time that there is a seminary attracting a number of them for good reasons, but that also displays some significant limitation in terms of providing the kind of preparation you believe is best for your MIDs. As mentioned throughout this resource, you can take the approach of arranging individual supplementary experiences for those students to make up for the deficits you uncover in the seminary education.
You can also take the approach of addressing your concerns with the seminary, in search of a more permanent improvement in the education it offers your members. On the whole, seminaries are interested in improving the preparation of their students for ministry, and so will actually welcome conversation with those responsible for the discernment and authorization process in a denomination they wish to serve. (If they do not welcome such an approach and potential partnership, that in itself is a significant sign for you.) Therefore, if you have concerns that you would like to see addressed by a particular seminary, you are encouraged to take the initiative and seek out appropriate people for conversation. It will certainly help if you enter such conversations with specific and detailed knowledge about the problems you perceive. It will also help if you and your association/conference are willing to be, as possible and appropriate, part of the solution.