Terry C. Muck: Seminary professors are servants of the church

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In this Q&A, the outgoing executive director of the Louisville Institute shares his thoughts on the state of theological education as well as an initiative to support Ph.D. students in their vocational formation.

Theological educators train as scholars and researchers. But Terry Muck wants them to be aware that part of their vocation is to form the future leaders of the church.

To that end, Muck has spent the last few years at the Louisville Institute creating support programs for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral students. So far, 47 students have been involved in two fellowship programs. They are part of the Vocation of the Theological Educator Initiative, which is entering its third year.

“The reason they want to be theological educators is to help young ministers, but we just want to help them see that, and see that that is a skill that is as important -- and in some ways, that it’s as hard to obtain -- as the research dimension,” Muck said.

Terry MuchBefore becoming the executive director of the Louisville Institute in 2012, Muck had a long career as a theological educator, serving as dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He also was a professor at Asbury and at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

A prolific editor and writer, he served as executive editor and senior vice president of publishing for Christianity Today Inc., and has published numerous books.

Muck, who is stepping down from his post at the Louisville Institute, spoke with Faith & Leadership about the state of theological education and his hope for the future. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You’ve spent the last few years setting up fellowships for Ph.D. students in theological education to begin their teaching careers in a supportive environment. What challenges are you trying to help address?

The presenting problem is that most young people who decide to become theological educators are trained in institutions that put a heavy emphasis on scholarship and research, but not as much emphasis on the church dimension of being a theological educator.

Of course, a seminary professor needs to be a great scholar and a great researcher, but a seminary professor also needs to see himself or herself as a servant of the church and someone who is training the future leadership of the church. Our program adds that extra dimension to it.

Q: So you’re helping them understand the impact they will have on their students?

Very much. We’re helping them see their own vocation a little bit more clearly.

They get in very good schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard and Princeton and Yale and Emory and Duke and Vanderbilt and all these other schools where, just by the work that they are tasked with doing, they begin to see their vocation solely in terms of writing scholarly articles and becoming important guild members.

We think that the instinct is right. The reason they want to be theological educators is to help young ministers, but we just want to help them see that, and see that that is a skill that is as important -- and in some ways, that it’s as hard to obtain -- as the research dimension.

Q: How do the programs work?

We have two scholarships. One is a doctoral fellowship, where we pay their expenses to come here to Louisville for three two-day meetings a year to hear speakers and interact with their peers.

The other is the postdoc. These are recent graduates of doctoral programs, and we place them in schools where we pay a stipend, pay their health insurance, their travel expenses, their moving expenses, their housing; and we’ve worked it out with the deans of those schools to give them a two-year postdoctoral teaching experience that we hope teaches the values that we want taught.

Q: To what extent is your support intended to get them off to a good start?

Well, really, that’s a lot of it. We help provide them a good first teaching experience. We place them in schools where we know they’ll get that.

The other dimension is we bring them to Louisville three times a year to listen to great theological educators talk about what it means to be a theological educator, to share their own experiences with the vocation. And so we spend a lot of time and a lot of money helping them get mentoring in what it means to be a theological educator.

Q: Why do you think those resources are well-spent? What do you think is important about helping theological educators get a good start?

Well, of course, we won’t know if it’s well-spent or not until we’ve been at it for a few years.

But we hope what happens is that we’re training a whole generation of young people to fully understand their vocation, and then, by doing that, to pass that on to their colleagues in whatever schools they’re teaching in, or to younger scholars, so they will in turn become mentors in helping other young scholars who want to get into this.

We hope that there will be a passing of the wisdom and a creation of a culture of theological education that we think is important.

Q: What would you share with schools about supporting faculty? Have you set processes in place that might be transferrable?

Well, we think just the fact that it’s a program designed to make explicit what this vocation is all about will have a great impact.

We’re trying to pair [young theological educators] up with the good ones in their discipline. I think that works in any vocation, and we’re hoping it works especially well with theological education.

Q: In working with deans and working with recent graduates, what have you learned about theological education in the current environment?

The first year I was working on this program, I visited 40 different seminaries around the country and talked to deans and faculties, telling them about this program and seeing if it resonated.

What I learned is that, No. 1, it really does. Current faculty members recognize that this is an important part of their vocation that they aren’t necessarily being trained for.

The second thing I’ve learned is I’m just in awe of the number of young people who want to be seminary professors. I’m in awe of how bright they are and how smart they are, but also how dedicated to the church they are.

Our challenge is just to help these students become the very best teachers and professors that they can be, and I’ve been very inspired by that, personally.

Q: Being on a campus is always so exciting in that way -- it definitely gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it?

It makes you feel good. I mean, you hear so many stories about the challenges that theological schools are facing and the lack of money and all this kind of thing, and so you’re almost set up to expect the worst.

Then when you get into it, at this level at least, you find out that there are all these great young people that would do anything to get into these schools to teach, and that is very inspiring.

Q: Since you are retiring, I wanted to ask a little about your career more generally, and your experience. How has theological education changed since you first started teaching?

Students have become much more globally focused, not just in a geographical sense.

Although it’s true that they think much more in terms of the worldwide Christian community, I think they’re also more global in the way they view theology. They are more open to a variety of viewpoints than I recall them being when I went to seminary or when I first started teaching in seminaries.

When I was in school, if you were a Calvinist, you read Calvin and his followers, and that was that. And if you were a Wesleyan, you read Wesley and his followers. I don’t think that’s so much the case anymore.

Q: I assume you think this is a good thing, based on your own writing and research.

Yes, I do think it’s a good thing. I’m sure there are people who don’t. But I do think it’s what education is all about -- that you don’t develop a theological position until you have been exposed to a wide variety of theological positions. That’s how you arrive at the one you think God is calling you to.

I think that educational institutions are becoming much more open to that kind of general learning than they were when I was in school, when it was more a matter of passing on a single, narrow tradition.

Q: Do you think that’s had a trickle-down effect into congregations, or do you think it’s something that’s trickled up from congregations? Is there a connection there to what church life is like as well?

Yes, probably both. You know, we live in cultures that are much more complex and varied in terms of cultural and ethnic influences, so I think there’s a certain amount that pastors and professors are influenced by the people they serve.

But I also think it works the other way. I think that the training that scholars receive now in universities is much broader than it ever was before, and so it works [in that direction], too.

Q: Based on the changes that you’ve seen in the schools and the students and the church, what advice would you have for a chief academic officer, say a dean at a free-standing seminary?

I would suggest that maybe it’s best to see one’s task with these students as more than teaching a single tradition.

I’m not opposed to a Methodist school teaching the Methodist tradition and a Baptist school teaching the Baptist tradition. But I think that on a par with that, it’s important that you realize that what you’re teaching these students is a way of life, a way of being Christian in a very complex, pluralistic, diverse world.

You’re teaching them a way of life that is probably different than any way of life has ever been before, and I think that enables them to be much more effective pastors/theologians in their very diverse audiences that they are preaching and teaching to.

Q: So as you look forward into the next decade, what do you think are the issues that the church and theological education will be dealing with? Do you have any thoughts or predictions for the future?

I don’t know. That’s a hard question, of course. I think it’s self-evident that we are in the midst of a broad, general set of institutional changes -- that the institutions that govern and guide our churches and church people now are going to change in the next decade.

I suppose a follow-up question to that is, “What are they changing to?” That’s what I don’t know. If I knew that, I’d be really wise.

But I think just the fact that churches and denominations and ecumenical agencies are changing pretty dramatically right before our eyes is something that we should be making our students aware of and prepared for -- that they’re ready to address the new, and to work within institutional structures that they can’t even imagine right now.

Q: How do you think theological education will keep up with that reality?

If I were a dean, how would I do that? I guess, first of all, just by talking about it, by encouraging professors to talk about it and make students aware that this kind of transition is already taking place. This is happening, and probably will increasingly continue to happen as the years go by.

Q: Is there anything you’d want to add?

No, except to say that I’m very optimistic about the church, and that I tell my students that.

Perhaps there’s never been a time of greater change in the church, and that should be exciting. That should not be fear-producing but exciting and challenging. I mean, they get to go through this. I’m going to be on the sidelines watching them go through it, but they get to actually go through it, and I try to encourage them to be excited about that.