By: Eric D. Barreto
October 08, 2015
How then might theological education address the theological, ministerial, and pedagogical opportunities present in our seminary classrooms?
In July, I made a brief case for placing questions of difference and diversity at the center of theological education. In my mind, the case is getting stronger by the day not because of the article’s persuasive powers (!) but because God is moving in our midst.
Recently, the Association of Theological Schools convened a conference call looking at the state of the industry of theological education. They invited thinking about enrollment, students, faculty, and finances. One set of findings in particular struck me. The number of racial and ethnic minorities in ATS schools is growing significantly. At the very same time, the composition of the faculty and administrators of the same school are simply not reflecting those demographic shifts.
How then might theological education address the theological, ministerial, and pedagogical opportunities present in our seminary classrooms? I would like to propose three paired statements to help us continue a complex but vital conversation.
The presence of racial and ethnic minority students or faculty in institutions of theological education are both essential and insufficient. That is, students need faculty from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to help nurture the kind of leader that can engage the work of ministry with intercultural competence. And faculty need a diverse student body that will stretch us, lead us to learn more and more about the ways in which God is moving in our world today. But mere presence is not enough. Too often, institutions assume that students and scholars of color will do the work of diversity on behalf of the institution. They can serve on the committees and work groups that will tell the rest of the institution how to do this work. Their mere presence in these meetings is proof positive that we are headed in the right direction, an institution will imagine.
But if authority is not invested in these handful of minorities, then such striving towards embracing difference will falter. If the institution outsources diversity efforts to those faculty and students who are already champions of diversity, then such striving is doomed from the first. Presence is not enough. Presence without the power to implement substantive change and the institutional support to make such change a key part of the mission of the institution will avail little.
Diversity is even riskier than we perhaps first think. A true embrace of racial and ethnic differences in our classrooms means a substantive shift in how and why we teach. That is, the shift we must embrace is not just demographic; it’s pedagogical at core. How might our pedagogical assumptions need to shift in light of a diversifying classroom and community? How do cultural particularities change the way we learn best? Can I assume as a teacher that how I learn best is how all my students will learn best? And, most importantly, in what ways will students from different backgrounds transform our work as teachers and theologians of the church?
If presence is not enough, neither are numbers. That is, the best measure of diversity in theological education is not just a census of students and faculty of color, but the transformation such students and faculty bring in their wake. No recruitment effort can substitute the kind of strategic work that is required not just to host diversity but welcome it, embrace it at the core of the learning endeavor. Racial and ethnic diversities are not incidental to the mission of theological schools but an indispensable ingredient in our time. And so the hard work of diversity must be strategic. It must be a grassroots effort of champions of diversity who keep the work before the institution, who are irritants of the status quo and allies of the minoritized. Diversity must also be a strategic effort that starts from the top, so to speak. Presidents and deans and boards must meet the grassroots to effect true pedagogical and theological transformation.
This is perhaps the most important point in my mind. We might be tempted to see the ATS data and imagine that diverse students and faculty will save our institutions. We might hope that diverse students and faculty will help our institutions survive in a time of crisis. Such an approach misses the opportunity before us. In theological education, diversity is a theological imperative, not a Hail Mary when all hope is lost. In theological education, diversity is not the last gasp of a dying institution but a rebirth, a resurrection that God has effected. We might be tempted to look at the changing demographics of our communities and see in constituencies of color a way through a difficult time. This gets it half right.
What if racial and ethnic diversities are not just an escape hatch but a new path altogether? What if racial and ethnic diversities are not just the markets theological schools might reach but the source of the transformation these schools and churches at large most needs today?
That is my hope not just because I long for the survival of an industry we call theological education but because in diverse communities God is transforming the church today. In these communities, God’s resurrection power is most evident.