Taking a Close Look at the Furniture: The Future of Theological Education and Its Curriculum

by Rebekah Miles, Chair of the Perkins’ Curricular Review Committee

Dan Aleshire, retired director of the Association of Theological Schools, often draws on the image of furniture to describe current transformations in theological education.

“In a time when so much has changed and continues to change… what should be the future of theological education? Some people want to get rid of all the furniture and start over, while others want to refinish a few pieces but otherwise keep everything just as it is. There is another option.  [M]aybe the task this time requires most is to go to the attic and retrieve some things that were put in storage because they were too valuable to give away. Their usefulness had not ceased, though their use had, for a time.”

At Perkins we are taking a close look at the furniture and its arrangement as it relates to the curriculum, and we would like to invite you to join us in this task.  Many of you will be receiving a survey about our curricular review that we hope you will return. We need your feedback.

More than 50 years ago, in the fall of 1970, Perkins kicked off a new curriculum. Following a zany, uncharacteristic period in the 1960s when students were allowed to design their own courses of study, Perkins initiated a curriculum that will be familiar to many of our M.Div. graduates from the last 50 years.  Students were required to take two course sequences in Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and Systematic Theology, along with courses in Moral Theology and the practice of ministry, including preaching and worship. Also required of all M.Div. students was a massive credo, written in the final semester of systematic theology. Since that time, Perkins has seen four major reviews of the curriculum, led by Joe Allen (1981-82), Charles Wood (1989-90), Jouette Bassler (1997-98), and Evelyn Parker (2006-07). While each of them made small changes, as did the Committee on Academic Programs, the curriculum today is very close to the one put in place in 1970. The furniture has been rearranged with a few chairs reupholstered and a few new lamps added perhaps, but the basic pieces are not too different from what they were when the curriculum was new.

Aleshire sometimes offers a dynamic twist on the image of furniture rearranging, likening his career to that of a boat captain who awaits strong winds and high waves. “I feel I’ve spent the last 10 years unbolting all of the furniture on the ship, and we haven’t hit the waters that will shift the furniture all around, but we will… Then we’ll have to see what the furniture looks like on the other side.”

In this metaphor the furniture shifts with unavoidable external pressure – such as the wind and waves in the case of the sea captain or changes in church and world in the case of the theological school. Certainly the church and world are strikingly different from what they were in 1970 when this new curriculum was put in place. The United Methodist Church had just formed and members were optimistic about their future. Nixon was early in his presidency, the Democrats still dominated Texas politics, and leaders in Washington regularly worked across party lines. The first hand-held calculator had recently been invented and marketed by Texas Instruments and the prototypes for personal computers were in the works, as was the data networking system which would ultimately become the internet.  In Texas the population was less than half of what it is now and the Dallas populations about a third, with much less ethnic diversity. Perkins faculty and student body in 1970 were also much less diverse than they are today. We live now in a much different world and church, and both continue to change rapidly and unpredictably.

In this new context, what do we need from theological education for the formation of Christian leaders?  Do we need a few tweaks in the arrangement, a retrieval of the well-worn, or a whole new set of furniture? How do we best take the gifts of our tradition and make them useful and holy for our time? We want to hear from you – email me at rlmiles@smu.edu.