What is Changing?

By: Matthew Wesley Williams
October 25, 2016

“We live in a time of rapid change.”

“We live in a time of rapid change.” If I had a quarter for every time I’ve said or heard this about the state of theological education I would have enough money to pay off my student loans. Change seems to be the watchword of the day.

Demographics are changing.
Curricula are changing.
Institutions are changing.
Theological education is changing.
The church is changing.

Amid all of this change talk in the field I find myself wondering, “What really is changing?”

During a recent conversation, I heard a sobering insight that shed light on much of this change talk. Change strategist and consultant, Tim Merry observes, “It is possible to make change without really making a difference.” Tim’s observation stems from years of work on organizational initiatives that change language, mission, practices, and policies but never make a difference in the deeper issues of inequity, justice, and power that shape their work and determine their impact.

Legal scholar and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, Michelle Alexander, notes that while the so called “civil rights” movement ended Jim Crow as we knew it, American apartheid did not come to an end. In the introduction to her landmark book, The New Jim Crow, she writes,

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans…We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Prof. Alexander’s reflection on the celebrated change-making legacy of civil rights underscores the wisdom in Tim Merry’s warning. While the language and practices that govern American social life have changed, the fundamental structure and dominant worldview that animated Jim Crow remain, but in a redesigned form. Thus, Alexander notes, “there are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.“ Same fundamental structure, different form.

No “change” holds more significance for the future of theological education than the rising numbers of students of color represented in theological schools.

No “change” holds more significance for the future of theological education than the rising numbers of students of color represented in theological schools. In fact, at nearly 40% of the total students enrolled in more than 270 institutions in the Association for Theological Schools, students of color represent the only growing cadre in group in a student population that has been flat or declining in recent history. Additionally, given the slower rates of religious disaffiliation among communities of color as compared to whites, some predict that for North American Christianity, 2040 (the projected year when there will be no racial majority in the U.S.) is just about here.

Based on these data and other trends, here’s the looming reality for American theological schools. The majority of the constituents of American theological schools will soon be students of color, seeking to build their capacity to lead Christian congregations and ministries in a wide array of communities of color. For North American theological education, this does not amount to preparing future leaders to address the needs of communities that are a photo negative1 of the declining white Protestant mainline or traditional white evangelicalism. This involves no less than the restructuring of institutions to provide contextually responsive leadership formation that serves an increasingly diverse cultural and theological landscape. In leadership lingo, this is what we call an adaptive challenge that calls for more than tinkering with degree offerings, curriculum and program initiatives. As Stephen Ray noted, it means facing down the lingering legacies of colonialism and white Western cultural dominance and trusting brown hands with the future of theological education in North America.

In 2013 Juan Martinez, Vice President for Diversity and International Ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary, moderated a panel entitled, What Does 2040 Mean for Doctoral Theological Education? He grounded his framing remarks in a critical insight. “The consensus which gave rise to the structures of which we are a part is fractured.” This moment calls for an excavation and reassessment of the consensus, the underlying structure, the deeply held mental models that give rise to the system of theological education as we know it.

To be sure, some institutions are oblivious, tinkering here and there with charitable gestures at “diversity”, but largely remaining committed to business as usual. Some are just waking up to the real impact these shifts are having on their campuses and their bottom lines. Still a few others, some of which participate in FTE’s Institutional Doctoral Network, are actively seeking to implement fundamental changes beyond mere representational diversity to position themselves to respond faithfully to this impending reality.

As I pay attention to the changes afoot in North American theological education, I regard Michelle Alexander’s analysis of American apartheid as a cautionary tale. How might our change conversation begin to reckon with the dominant world-views and unconscious assumptions that shape our field? What constitutes the consensus that underlies the dominant forms of theological education in North America? Are change initiatives in theological education focused on forms or fundamental structures? What kind of deep change in the field do we need make a difference for the communities it will increasingly serve in the 21st century?


1. In Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses this metaphor to describe the distinctiveness of black culture. He writes, that the black world carries its own unique qualities “more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.”

Tags: Diverse Solutions, Thinking Out Loud


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