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.