‘A new leadership environment’

Seminaries need to meet the changing needs of the church, Longfield says

February 16, 2011


The Rev. Bradley Longfield, dean of the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, is a historian looking to the future of leadership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Longfield, who spoke Jan. 26 at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ COM/CPM Leadership Training Event at Christ the King Retreat Center here, said the church needs “to find new and creative ways to train leadership.”

And he added, “Seminaries, if they are open to change, can play a major role in this ‘new leadership environment.’”

Today’s seminaries face challenges that didn’t exist in the middle part of the 20th century, Longfield said, pointing out that denominations are in decline and that Christian identity is increasingly unfocused. He said the PC(USA) has lost a third of its membership in the past 25 years and half of the congregations can no longer afford a full-time minister.

“There is a general shift here. Identification and participation are on a downward path,” Longfield said, adding that it’s common today to hear the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”

Longfield, also a professor of church history, said, “The future seems to be breaking in much more quickly than most of us would like.”

A minister in the PC(USA), Longfield served as a pastor in Indiana and taught at Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., before coming to UDTS. He has been dean of the seminary at Dubuque since 1998.

Longfield, citing a recent paper by the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs of the PC(USA), noted that our situation “creates anxiety and fear,”  but also “offers great hope and exciting new opportunities.”

The ability to make changes, however, has not been a characteristic of the church and its seminaries. “Technology has changed every aspect of our life,” Longfield said, and he pointed out the church’s relatively slow response to make use of radio and then television. Today it’s the Internet. “It’s 2011, maybe we can think about that,” Longfield said.

“The question is how we serve God,” he added, and asked, “Are there things that hold us down from serving God in the future?”

At Dubuque, the seminary is looking into alternative ways to serve God and meet the needs of the denomination.

The seminary currently offers a Master of Divinity program primarily online, requiring students to spend only four weeks on campus during each academic year. That program will graduate its first class in 2012.

The Dubuque seminary also offers an online program for Commissioned Lay Pastors.

Longfield said, “No one is predicting that [seminaries] will abandon their role as graduate professional schools.”  Even so, he noted that Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, has encouraged seminaries “to diversify their educational practice to meet an increasing diversity of educational need.”

Seminaries, for example, could begin partnering with colleges to offer baccalaureate theological education. “Maybe not everyone needs the M.Div.,” Longfield said.

He pointed out recent calls for “alternatively credentialed clergy,” “on-the-job education” and “lay education.”  Lay education, he said, could focus on “those Christians hungry to learn but not called to ordained ministry.” Seminaries could provide, in the words of the JCLN, a “lifelong theological education” for elders and deacons.

And at Dubuque, nearly all new programs can benefit from the seminary’s use of technology in distance education.

In the long run, Longfield said, “Seminaries are going to follow the needs of the church.” And as far as technology goes, he said, “We can do that.”

The COM/CPM Leadership Training Event is an annual activity of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. Next year’s event is planned for Jan. 31-Feb. 2.

Duane Sweep, associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, is a frequent contributor to the Presbyterian News Service.

  1. Seminaries are becoming redundant. In years to come, they will become Liberal Arts centers with small religious education departments. This is what happens when many of our seminary lecturers and professors are no longer parish pastors from reformed denominations.

    by John Stuart

    February 28, 2011

  2. "whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." Having read the above comments, I would suggest that the problems the PCUSA has with leadership is that we are following the wrong leadership models. Getting out in front and leading the charge might actually be the wrong approach for the Church. Just my two cents! We have a pretty good model - quit acting like generals and start acting like followers of Christ. If you are going to lead the people, then perhaps you should try getting behind them and serving them.

    by Scott

    February 24, 2011

  3. How is leadership developed or honed while the student sits in front of a laptop? Doesn't leadership involve relating to people? I am a little perplexed about the article (as Richard Hong appears to be also). Our evangelical friends have been offering theological education at the undergraduate level for some time. Some will go on to a seminary while others follow a "bi-vocational" life. Not all who feel called can negotiate the rigors, let alone afford the cost, of a graduate education. At the same time there are lot of theological degrees being earned that will be displayed on the wall or in a CV but have no bearing on how the recipient ministers (if in fact he/she ever does) or how she/he leads.

    by Bill Holmes

    February 23, 2011

  4. I agree with Richard, Dubuque is not going far enough but at least it's a step. There are people born to "carry the epaulet rather than the hod" but even they can learn to be better leaders if exposed to the theory and lessons learned practice of leadership. We handicap ourselves by the assumption that birth and rearing are the only way we get leaders. As a retired Army Colonel I have experienced even the most inept leaders improving when given a chance. I have grown weary of trying to convince seminaries of this fact. In the long run we get what we deserve.

    by Jim Bushong

    February 18, 2011

  5. I didn't see anything in the article that actually addressed the question of LEADERSHIP. Leadership is the art of getting people (or an organization) moving toward a goal. Ultimately, it's the skill of getting out in front, saying "Let's go!" - and having people charge up the hill with you. And this is, in the end, a character issue. Leadership boils down to this: You are a leader if you are a person who says what you mean, means what you say, does what you say you'll do, and takes full responsibility for failure. Do that, and you'll be a leader. And unfortunately, as a pastor and a CPM chair, I don't see enough such persons in ministry. Too many pastors are afraid to say what they mean, and don't do what they say they'll do. They pin the blame for failure on everyone else (it's the culture! it's my members! it's my dastardly elder!) instead of looking in the mirror. Leaders lead, and if your people aren't following, it's because they don't see a leader. If we could make sure that every pastor owned this, you'd see a denomination that was really moving forward, because we follow a leader who said what he meant, meant what he said, and took responsibility for the failures of humanity all the way to the cross. We need to be leaders striving to be worthy of the One who leads us.

    by Richard Hong

    February 18, 2011

  6. Dean Longfield and Dubuque are owed our thanks for voicing and hopefully acting on what many of us have felt for some years now. Having served on CPM for about 5 years now I have been appalled at the lack of preparation for leadership those under our care are being afforded. As an organizational consultant to churches throughout the middle of the country I am finding that most of the troubled churches I encounter suffer more from leaders who don't know how to lead than from theological disputes. This continues throughout our denomination as those who feel called to executive ministry have little to no preparation and are provide poor examples, particularly for new pastors.

    by Jim Bushong

    February 18, 2011

  7. This article reports some great ideas being expressed regarding the ways Christian educators should consider adopting new ways of communicating to students and creating new forums for learning!

    by John

    February 17, 2011