Amid the Challenges, Daniel O. Aleshire Sees Opportunities for Renewal
The practice of theology involves telling stories, yet theological educators live in a world increasingly suspicious of metanarratives and often receive their training in the grand particularities of a text or time. These particularities may make for good scholarship, but what is the effect on teaching?
For 26 years, Daniel Aleshire has led the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) first as associate director for accreditation from 1990 to 1996, then as associate executive director, before serving as executive director from 1997 until his retirement in 2017.
During his tenure, Aleshire sought to help schools and faculties improve theological education in this environment. Prior to his tenure at ATS, Aleshire earned his PhD from Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, served as a pastor, and taught courses at the seminary level. His latest book is Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education (Eerdmans, 2021).
Aleshire recently sat down to discuss the great and small, past and future of theological education with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes.
ESTES: From your perspective, what does teaching well mean to you?
ALESHIRE: I think that teaching well ultimately means that the teacher has provided the context in which students have learned. Teaching without learning may be a good performance art. But ultimately, the primary task of teaching is learning. And as I have watched theological educators over the decades, I think teaching well involves three or four primary qualities. And in theological studies, teaching well begins with the teacher’s sense of a true love of God. The theological disciplines are not just content areas. They are ways of looking at how God has been understood, experienced, and the ways and work of God. So it begins there. I think it continues by caring for the students you’re teaching, respecting them, understanding the worlds from which they came and the world into which they’re going and taking both seriously. I think teaching well also involves knowing a subject intimately and continuing to learn into that subject.
Pedagogy is also important, and the best pedagogy is knowing something so well that you have students’ respect for that knowledge, and the teacher has their trust that what’s being said is from a well of knowledge and not just from current opinion. And then I think it also involves working at developing those skills that help students learn. That might be the hardest one for a lot of theological professors, because if they love God and care for the students and love their subject, they think that’s enough to motivate student learning, to empower their learning. And it will empower many students. Those three characteristics alone will motivate and empower student learning. But learning also requires help along the way. And teaching well means we take seriously how the students learn and how the professor facilitates that learning. And in some ways, this last one is the one that comes with greatest difficulty. I don’t know many theological educators that really get a major thrill out of being educators. They get their thrill out of being theologians, about being biblical scholars, about having taken their own sense of love of God and care for students and embodying that in a sophisticated knowledge base of their content area.
It’s not that students don’t listen. It may be that students can’t hear some of the things we want them to hear.
But even graduate theological students need guidance in how to learn. And so teaching well means that we try to pay attention to that. I don’t think professors are as responsible for understanding educational technology as they are for understanding their discipline. But teaching well means that they take seriously what students need to learn and make that available in their teaching and in the structure of their courses.
ESTES: You mentioned that faculty need to be wells of knowledge for their students. In your career, you’ve seen the rise of digital technology to the point where students, instead of having only the faculty member as the well of knowledge, now have at their fingertips millions of wells of knowledge—some of which really don’t offer knowledge at all. How important is that today, given the trends that you’ve seen? How does the expertise of the faculty member play out?
ALESHIRE: Well, there are certainly more informational data points in the world—and they are more readily available, but what is not as readily available is the capacity to interpret those data points and the capacity to relate those data points one toward another. So maybe “well of knowledge” is not as good of an image as a “source of wisdom.” That would be a more biblical image, one that reflects a reality beyond just information. The best professors I’ve known have a wisdom that’s accrued from the learning of their discipline and from how that learning has guided them as human beings as well as scholars. Students can find most any fact they want to find. What they can’t find are how the facts connect with one another to form a narrative that is life-giving, that is life-informing.
Maybe another way of saying that, Douglas, is that the abundance of new information and the specialization of learning has led to a grand particularity. And what students need is to understand how particular pieces of information fit into a broader narrative. Postmodern thought is suspicious of metanarratives, of course, but in fact the Christian story is a metanarrative. It involves many details, and those details point to a congruent whole. And the kind of hope I would have for theological faculty is that they know how their particular part of a knowledge base fits more broadly to that whole and how the whole of our faith is the resource that gives direction and vocation and meaning and a sense of belonging with one another and lots of other things we associate with Christian conduct.
ESTES: So, with the trends you’ve seen and experienced, do you think it’s easier or harder for faculty to teach well today than when you started your career?
ALESHIRE: It’s difficult to know whether it’s easier or harder. It’s certainly clear that it’s different. I was a theological faculty member from 1978 to 1990, and I worked with ATS from 1990 until I retired in 2017. So it’s hard for me to say whether the teaching, if I were still a faculty member three years ago, would have been different than how it was when I was teaching in a theological school in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What I think has changed is that students, as I remember them, came with a lot of church experience. A higher percentage came from church-related colleges. A high percentage of them had grown up in church. The culture had a higher regard for religion in general forty years ago than it does now. And so there was a kind of formation that students got within the theological school. At times, teachers had the task of unforming some things that had been improperly formed in students —and that’s a difficult task but they also had the sense that religion was a more broadly accepted cultural enterprise than it may be now.
So now we have a higher percentage of students who come in with less church background, fewer cradle Christians in the seminary classroom, fewer patterns of formation—or malformation, as it might have been at times. But the kind of thing that comes from the street-smart forms of religion that you get growing up in a congregation—there are just fewer students who bring that background. And that changes the work of the faculty member. And whether it’s harder work or easier work, I’m not sure. The faculty may have less amount of reteaching than they may have had at one time, but they have the task of sorting through students’ initial exposure to the text and to the grand tradition. Because there was more general formation, because of all of the ecological support that religious involvement hadforty or fifty years ago, the theological faculty member could kind of specialize in their particular part of it. And now, that same level of specialization just doesn’t make sense in the way it did, because there’s not just one generalized formational background that many students have.
It’s not that students don’t listen. It may be that students can’t hear some of the things we want them to hear as teachers because in the past their hearing depended on a lot of other things they had heard, and students today haven’t heard those same things. I really think that what’s more difficult is the fact that we are teaching people who are less acculturated to religious ways of being in the world, to Christian ways of being in the world—or they’re newer at it, or at least a higher percentage are than when I was teaching forty years ago. The theological faculty member has a greater responsibility for Christian formation of their students than they may have had at an earlier time, when they were perceived more as having a responsibility for the intellectual formation of students or the skill-building formation of students. Now the task is: How do we help these persons leave seminary or theological school more truly mature as Christian human beings? And that’s part of the theme of the book Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education. The future of theological studies doesn’t eliminate anything that we were doing forty years ago in what was a professional model of theological education. But it means we are taking it into new territory by looking more carefully at the formation of those virtues of leadership that are evident in the past goals and that were evident in the life of the early church.
ESTES: What are some of the promises you see developing in theological education today?
ALESHIRE: Well, I have a long list of those. We have among the best trained faculties we’ve ever had in theological education, at least in the schools I worked with at the Association of Theological Schools. We have sophisticated scholars who’ve done sophisticated work, and there have always been those. But the percentage of all faculty who fit into that category is higher than it was at an earlier time. And theological education emerges where there is religious energy. A denomination doesn’t start a seminary as its last act before it closes. Seminaries are always indicators of religion-building. And if you look at the seminaries that have been formed in the last thirty years, for example, all of them represent efforts to bring theological education to new constituencies.
There are twelve ATS member schools whose primary language of instruction is Korean or Mandarin, bringing theological education as a first-language resource to immigrant communities in North America. Well, that’s a very interesting development. Or you have schools like City Seminary in New York, which found its mission in how to help immigrant pastors develop the skills necessary to work with their Americanized immigrant congregations. There are hopeful signs in the context of the quality of academic preparation of faculty and the kinds of new theological schools that are being formed.
I think people worry too much. Theological education and the church are changing. And the hope comes from looking where the energy is, and the despair comes from looking where the energy seems to have faded. I see church taking on new forms. I see theological schools taking on new forms. And theological education is so much more accessible now than it was forty years ago. We were struggling at my former seminary about what would it mean to have an extension site in a distant city. That’s really not the question anymore. Now the issue is: What can be done digitally? What can be done with technology that we didn’t have forty years ago? And how does that technology need to be supplemented and enhanced by people who put material together, who engage personally with students?
I find that theological education has more tools to work with now than it ever has. It can mourn that the one tool most people love doesn’t seem to be used as much, or it can celebrate that it has so many more resources at its disposal to address its mission and to educate persons as leaders of communities of faith. I think theological education, because it is history-bearing, always walks around with a great big backpack full of centuries of thought and learning and reflection on the Christian way of the world. They do have resources for renewal, however. Schools are renewed as new faculty join, as a new class of students come with their optimism, hope, and with the opportunities they present.
Theological education is renewed as it takes seriously new forms of expression, of congregating, of Christian ministry, and of Christian work and presence in the world. So I see lots of hopeful signs. But, like congregations, some theological schools are not doing well. Like other congregations, some are doing wonderfully well. So, the question “What do I see hopeful about theological schools?” is embedded in the question “What do I see hopeful about Christian presence in a changing cultural moment?”
It’s not going to be the same as it was. The percentage of church attenders has declined. The percentage of persons who even claim church membership has declined in the United States, and more rapidly in Canada. But that doesn’t undo any of the work of grace that occurs for those who still gather and who find new ways of expressing their faith and work in the world. So I have great hope about the future, because I think of resources, capacity, and change, and the ongoing work of God in the world.
ESTES: So, what I hear you saying, then, is that even though in the US and Canada we have fewer students coming into theological education with some formation, at the same time we have better tools than ever to form those students who do come in.
ALESHIRE: I would agree with that. We’ve got to remember that Christianity is a tradition that flourished, that grew. And how you function as a house church is quite a bit different from the administration of the tall-steeple, cathedral congregation now. But those are resources, and the goodness of the gospel is not diminished by the cultural movements in which it lives. We need different resources, different ways of coming at the task. But the goodness of the gospel does not diminish regardless of the cultural position of religion in a society.
ESTES: From your vantage point, what advice would you give a young professor today about teaching well, or about their career, or engagement with theological education in general?
ALESHIRE: I would encourage persons new to theological education to continue to learn their specialty and to deepen their ability to work in that specialty but not to get lost in it. You’re a New Testament scholar, Douglas. For almost twenty years, ATS conducted an annual conference for faculty new to theological education. I was talking with a firstor second-year professor at one of those conferences, and asked what they enjoyed about teaching in a theological school. And the individual said, “Well, I did my dissertation in Pauline studies, and our department is large enough that I can concentrate on the Pauline corpus and others will take care of the other New Testament literature.” And I said, “That’s wonderful.” I thought to myself, however, that no student is going to go out and be able to work only on the Pauline corpus. They need someone who really knows the Pauline corpus well and can teach it, but that corpus needs to be associated with, embedded in, and interrelated to the rest of the New Testament. And so it’s this task of being deeply aware of your specialty but knowing that your specialty exists in the context of a broader area.
Everything about graduate education sort of pulls on the individualism of the scholar. No one writes a dissertation by committee. It is individual work. Then you join a faculty and suddenly realize that teaching is a community enterprise. Students aren’t going to learn what needs to be learned from only one professor. A whole community of professors is oriented to overarching educational goals and sees heir individual work as relating to the broader goals. There’s a lot of anxiety, I noticed, in faculty new to theological education. That might be true of faculty teaching in church-related or Christian institutions, as well. Most have come from doctorates in research universities, where the criteria for tenure and promotion are almost exclusively about productivity of knowledge and research—as they should be in those kind of institutions. And then they come to a liberal arts college that’s church-related or to a theological school. And they look at the sort of formal criteria for tenure and promotion, which look a whole lot like the criteria at their research university, but they function so differently in many theological schools or liberal arts colleges.
I felt that, at times, younger faculty were unnecessarily fearful that caring for students and teaching well and being involved in congregational life as well as continuing their discipline wouldn’t be enough— that the only thing that counted would be publication in a university press or a peer-referenced article. For some schools, that is clearly the case, but for many, it’s not. What’s different is the assumption that it’s the case in all of them, and I want to encourage younger faculty to pay attention to the operational criteria of tenure and promotion and not be fearful for what they assume those criteria might or might not be. I also want to advise younger faculty to realize they’re stewards of a privilege. There are a whole lot more people who would like to be teaching in theological schools—or teaching the theological disciplines at liberal arts colleges—than are teaching. To have the opportunity to teach is a privilege to be stewarded, not an entitlement to be claimed. I feel for the persons who have done the preparation and never find the full-time teaching job. I worry about that a lot. But what I know is that those who do have the opportunity to teach are working in a context of privilege. And privilege is simply stewarded and cared for and understood as privileges, not as entitlements.
ESTES: What value do you see faculty’s engagement in some type of personal ministry outside their teaching duties?
ALESHIRE: Of the twelve years I was on a theological faculty, I was a part-time associate minister in a congregation for six. That’s part of the answer to your question. The theological school exists for the understanding and the work of communities of faith. The seminary or theological school doesn’t exist for its own sake; it is an institution that exists on behalf of something. And that is the Christian project in the world, which has many manifestations and has many different expressions. The task is finding the kind of ministry expression that contributes to growth of understanding as a faculty member and doesn’t compete with it, and using the experience one gathers in a congregation or another ministry context as a way to enrich and resource what they’re doing in the classroom. For most theological faculty, the center of their calling and faith is teaching. And so they have a stewardship responsibility to nurture their capacity as teachers.
That doesn’t mean they use congregational experience for another reason—to be manipulative in a way. It means they don’t let the congregational or other ministry experience make them a less-good teacher when they’re with their students. I think no one in theological education makes a lot of money, and often the ministry is the moonlight work that makes it possible to pay the bills. That’s OK. But the task is to respect their calling as teachers.
Another value of some form of ministry work is that congregations know some things that the theological scholars do not. Theological scholars need to learn from congregational and other ministry contexts. Having some time in ministry, maybe early in their career but perhaps continuing throughout their career, is truly helpful for a theological scholar. We have a list of great theological scholars whose scholarship was focused in congregational life and then overflowed into their teaching
I also have one caution, and that is that congregations have something to learn from theological scholarship. We seem to be in a time, in American religion anyway, where there is sort of suspicion about learning—about theological knowledge—as if limited knowledge would somehow be better, or as if the knowledge that really counts isn’t about the nature of the Trinity or how the Scriptures came to be or how we understand the work of Christian faith in other centuries. I grieve that a lot. For theological scholarship to benefit the church, the church has to have some interest in it. And if the church has no interest in it, then it’s hard for one whose primary calling is related to that task of understanding those centuries or that text or those theological formulations. I worry as much about the theological educator that seems to have no connection to the church as I do about congregations that seem to have lost their desire to learn things that are biblical and theological. They seem ready to learn things that are practical or will make their lives happier. But I hope that congregations or individual Christians who have lost or never had the joy of learning might discover it, and what it can do for them as they live out their faith.
ESTES: I think it’s safe to say that more theological material is being published than ever before. From your perspective, why should younger scholars continue to publish?
ALESHIRE: I said one time that no one should be allowed to publish until they have tenure, rather than to publish in order to get tenure. What we need is not just more theological literature. We need the literature that really informs the situation or that informs the moment or that has something to say. And it takes a while to learn what it is you have to say. I would like to see less pressure on young faculty to publish and more pressure on them to learn and mature, knowing that publication grows out of that maturity of learning. Young faculty have something to say. They are going to learn by writing. So I’m not calling for a prohibition against writing until mid-career. If you haven’t written anything before mid-career, you may not write anything after mid-career. But I want young faculty to write because they really have something they want to say, not because they think that they have to do it to be able to stay in their jobs. Of course, I’m removed from that pressure, so it might not be fair of me to say that.
Theological education is renewed as it takes seriously new forms of expression, of congregating, of Christian
ministry, and of Christian work and presence in the world.
I think some readers would say, “The old man just doesn’t get the pressure we’re under.” But in the context of so much availability of theological writing, I hope that institutions will nurture younger faculty to write what really matters most to them—and give them the time to let them be sure what matters most to them, and maybe what should matter to other people. I think that research is crucial. I think that research is the way a scholar continues to learn, and that means something to the scholar’s students because they see the scholar continuing to learn and that research in the theological disciplines tends to end up in writing. I worry about folks who never get anything written, because I wonder, “What are they learning? What are they constructing? How are they putting things together with a new angle? What vision do they bring to their work?” But I also worry about the pressure to publish early, so I want space for publication to mean something more than career definition. I want publication to reflect new thought and maturity of old thought.
New and young professors have courses to prepare and students to teach and institutional cultures to perceive. And maybe they have a dissertation that’s ready to be published. Maybe the world doesn’t need to read the dissertation that they wrote to demonstrate they could do good scholarly work—I don’t know. But what I hope you hear me saying is a huge encouragement to write on things that matter as the individual perceives it—or as they think others should pay attention to it—and then to have institutional patience to let that kind of writing emerge. Maybe for young faculty the publishing begins, I suppose, with more journal articles and fewer monographs, as they develop their voice and develop the disciplines that research and writing take. At times in theological education, we tend not to value articles as much as we value monographs, and maybe the articles are more important expressions of scholarship. I really want younger faculty to produce writing, but I don’t want them to feel as much pressure as they do to get something out the door that will be read by forty-two other people.
Writing always has an audience, but we don’t value some audiences as much as we value others. We push new faculty to write for the academic audience, when in fact they might learn more writing for more church audiences early on. The pressure to publish a scholarly monograph in the first five years of teaching has not led to many pathbreaking monographs. It helps a discipline get established. It develops a sense of confidence in the scholar. It does some good things. But I don’t know what it does for a broader audience.
Of course, there have been some first books that have really been wonderful—and no first book has to be wonderful. Carey Newman, for a long time, was editor at Baylor University Press and is now at Fortress Press. ATS asked him to talk at some younger faculty events, and he would talk about the first book being a noun—it’s your dissertation, it’s definitional, it’s staking out a territory. But as you mature, scholars’ books become verbs. I don’t want to encourage new scholars to do advocating before they’ve done their definitional work. You’ve got to learn to play the scales before you play Mozart.
We ought to have patience for the noun-writing but understand that the real contribution is in the verb-writing, the advocacy writing.
ESTES: What do theological faculty need to pay attention to today? What’s the thing that needs to be on everybody’s radar?
ALESHIRE: This may be either a cutesy or a curt response, but the one thing I would say is that they can’t stay focused on only one thing. This is a multidimensional world. It is a complex moment in the life of religion and the culture of the work of congregations, of the work of theological scholarship. And complexity requires a commitment to look in multiple directions with some degree of discipline and clarity. If faculty were orchestra musicians, in order to play in the contemporary orchestra, they need to know how to play baroque music. They need to know how to play modern orchestral music. You accrue many styles of playing because music changes over time. You can’t just be content with one style unless you’re in a unique orchestra that uses only timepiece instruments; you’ve got to learn a broad repertoire. What we need are faculty who pay attention to lots of kinds of information, lots of kinds of life situations. And that’s harder. It would be easier if we could only do one thing. But the one thing we’ve got to do is to be looking at multiple sources, multiple issues, and sort through that and come to reasonable action and reflection based on that.
I know Kierkegaard wouldn’t be too happy with this response—he said “the purity of the heart is to will one thing”—but I think I could still make this claim and be consistent with one of the things he was saying. We just live in a multidimensional world, and we have to develop skill at being somewhat multidimensional. The language of the academy that we need to know as scholars is technical; the language of the congregation is not technical, and we need to be bilingual in that way. We can’t just function with one language. And we can take that and just expand that in lots of different directions.
ESTES: One direction we could expand—and this connects with what we were talking about earlier— as the number of cradle Christians coming into our programs declines, we cannot rely on the standard conversations of the past. We have to be aware of the various new conversational patterns.
ALESHIRE: That’s right. We’ve got to have some facility to live in a multivariate world, and that’s its own discipline. And I think there’s great risk in that. There’s limited security in that. But the pastor can’t make a living on only the Pauline corpus. It takes broader engagement.
This is wonderful work. Engaging in theological disciplines, teaching these disciplines, nurturing and educating a generation of leaders—it is wonderful work. And it is worth all of the effort you could give to it. It is not the kind of work where, in the end, the effort expended looks like it has been wasted. It is the kind of work where the effort expended is gratifying in the end, which is where I am in my own career.
This article was originally published in Didaktikos, a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines. Didaktikos is published by the makers of Logos, the premier Bible study platform. Learn how your institution can equip your students for a lifetime of study at www.logos.com/academic-solutions.