CHEC Conference and the MDiv Program

Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC)—an organization of about 35 Christ-centered (I would prefer the term evangelical, but using “Christ-centered” allows the Reformed paedobaptists to be included) institutions of higher education in Canada—held its triennial Forum in Winnipeg from May 25-27. CHEC includes seminaries and graduate schools, Bible colleges, and Christian universities. In the interests of full disclosure, I am the chair of the board of CHEC.

I know that some of you are still focused on my mentioning of Winnipeg, and I realize that Winnipeg is not a destination place for most people—but don’t sell Winnipeg short. If you don’t stay at the airport or in a bad hotel or isolated on a college or university campus, but instead stay downtown—Winnipeg is a fantastic city. The architecture is excellent—with a wide range of styles. Particularly noteworthy are some of the art deco buildings and post-war modernist houses. These alone are worth seeing, as is the river front. The train station is spectacular with its domed ceiling. There are also some excellent restaurants in town. However, you need to go to downtown Winnipeg to see and enjoy these things—and they are worth it.

I am getting distracted by Winnipeg, however. The CHEC Forum had a couple of highlights. These include a great talk on emerging Christianity in Canada by my colleague Dr. Lee Beach and a recounting of his time in theological education by Dr. Paul Magnus, who was awarded the CHEC Leadership Award. Apart from seeing colleagues, much of the rest of the conference was, unfortunately, pretty flat—probably because we didn’t really get a clear focus on what it was about, and we had pretty poor attendance. That’s a shame, as such a venue provides a unique opportunity for all of us to gather and discuss the state of Christian higher education.

The CHEC Forum, however, also included a pre-conference seminary meeting. This was probably the best part of the entire conference, because we were able to discuss the many problems that seminaries especially in Canada face. In case anyone does not realize it, seminary education in Canada (and in the US to some extent) is in big trouble—with shrinking enrolment and a number of institutions struggling for survival (my own greatly excepted—we are near our all-time highs in virtually every area worth counting). This pre-conference encouraged discussion of some of our problems and how we might address them.

Here are a few takeaways: most seminaries are working on tweaking and trying to fix the MDiv degree, with shorter length, fewer units required, and many alternative delivery systems. I think we just need to face the fact that the MDiv is dying, if not already dead. So far, any efforts to revive or resuscitate are not working. Let’s face that fact and develop a degree for the future, rather than trying to prop up a degree of the past. The MDiv itself is an anomaly in professional education today—requiring three years of post-baccalaureate study for a master’s level degree—and so needs to be completely rethought.

I gave a paper at the conference in which I compared the MDiv to the Ford Edsel—a car with many fine features but that was an abysmal failure. I found that many of the reasons that are often cited for the demise of the Edsel apply directly to the MDiv as well—the target of the product shifted, wrong product at the wrong time, difficult to place in the wider field, unreliable, design problems, and politics (see the Wikipedia article on the Edsel for an interesting summary—then substitute MDiv for Edsel and see how it reads).

Despite all of these problems, I was surprised and disappointed how little enthusiasm for change there was among my seminary colleagues. Most seem to be content simply to try to make the status quo work. They perhaps get this attitude from ATS, the seminary accrediting agency, which to my mind has failed to address in necessary ways the seriousness of the problem in theological education. I don’t think that they have an idea of what to do, so there is a lot of handwringing but not much else. Right now I am not seeing any major movement towards a resolution.

We probably need to rethink the “basic” theological degree—whether we need one at all, whether this degree should be an undergraduate or a graduate degree, whether it should be a reconceptualized one- or two-year degree or whether it should be a professional doctorate like other professions. There is a lot to think about and very little action being taken. Savour the days of the MDiv, because it looks like it is going the way of the Edsel.

— Stanley E. Porter

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