The hopeful future of theological education

By Dr. Jonathan Six

Theological education is at a point of transition. Some have even called it a crisis. Delivery methods have changed, educational approaches are ever evolving, and seminaries and divinity schools find themselves in some of the most challenging days. In addition to the rise of online learning, the general reluctance for traditional educational practices creates intimidating challenges for theological education.

While Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries are not immune to these challenges, we do have cause to be hopeful. Overall, Southern Baptist seminaries remain among the highest in enrollment of those institutions accredited through the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Additionally, Southern Baptists continue to respond to the call to serve the Lord in some form of ministry. When I consider the prospects of Southern Baptist theological education, there are four key values that I hope will mark a bright future for ministry preparation.

The Value of On-Campus Theological Education

In a recent conversation, a soon-to-be graduate of Southeastern recalled wishing he would have spent time on campus getting to know the faculty and learning in a community of scholarship. While online education is a great tool, it also limits some of the more valuable experiences that on-campus learning provides. 

There is value in learning in a community of like-minded brothers and sisters, living amongst peers, and dedicating oneself to study. A learning community cultivates some of the most rewarding friendships, while interaction with faculty and other students sharpens the mind and enflames the heart with a passion for Christ and his mission. While relocating is not an option for every student, the advantage of being in the seminary community, even if short-term, requires that moving to campus should be a strong consideration for most. I am optimistic that our churches and ministers-in-training will see these intangible benefits of formation in a learning community and recognize that the value of on-campus theological education is therefore too high to discard. 

The Value of Comprehensive Theological Education

The Master of Divinity (MDiv) is the gold standard for theological education. The comprehensive scope of Southeastern’s MDiv, for example, best equips our students for a lifetime of service to Christ’s Church. However, students across the country now flock to Master of Arts (MA) programs in part because they tend to be shorter than the traditional MDiv. The most recent ATS data (embedded below) demonstrates a rapid decline of MDiv enrollment and an increasing number of MA students across accredited schools. 

Historically, churches in the SBC preferred an MDiv for their ministerial staff positions. Now, most churches prefer graduate degrees more generically. Unfortunately, seminaries must adapt to remain financially stable and missionally viable. As a result, there is a proliferation of graduate degrees, especially among MA programs, which can be great when they function as a means to study with depth or develop a level of field expertise. I have no intention of demonizing MA programs. MA programs are valuable tools for students to learn a particular subject with depth and gain a greater knowledge of a specific field. The criticism is not for these programs but rather the pragmatic thinking that reduces educational pursuits to what is quicker and easier.

While these trends are concerning, there is cause for hope. First, many students still recognize the importance of comprehensive theological training. These students are committed to extensive training and, therefore, are pursuing the MDiv. Second, more students than ever continue to pursue doctoral degrees, recognizing the need for more education that builds upon their graduate program. And yet, SBC seminaries must continue to demonstrate the indispensable value of the MDiv for sustained formation and ministry preparation.

The Value of Flexible Theological Education

Educational trends can change rapidly. Fully online degree programs did not become a factor among SBC seminaries until 2013. Southeastern, Southwestern Seminary, and Gateway Seminary were among the first to gain approval from ATS to adopt the new method of course offerings. This watershed moment has led to more flexibility for students now than ever before. 

In large part, these moves are positive, especially for the student. At Southeastern, the student who graduates on time, and stays on track, takes courses on campus, takes online classes, participates in hybrids, and takes advantage of church partnerships for additional course offerings. The savviest students recognize the value of flexible theological education. Flexible course offerings also enable those with little access to training to receive an education. Access to theological education is now at an all-time high, where education is available on-campus, online, in local churches, and around the globe. Seminaries who are creative with these course delivery methods can weather the current and future challenges to theological education.

The Value of Partnerships in Theological Education

We often say around Southeastern that theological education is best in partnership with the local church. A partnership can look very different for each church. At the base level, all churches play a vital role in the educational process of men and women seeking training through SBC seminaries. The local church plays a pivotal role in calling, developing, and mobilizing. Historically, churches have affirmed the callings of individuals seeking ministry opportunities but have relied heavily on seminaries for training. 

Today local SBC churches embrace a more significant role in training. Some churches are uniquely equipped to train their own members, while others need continued support from seminaries. Church leaders need not view the seminaries as competitors for their people but as partners for preparation. The flexibility of theological education affords church leaders the ability to actively participate in the preparation of their people while also entrusting students to the seminary for optimal training opportunities in a residential setting. While every church would love the opportunity to raise and train the next generation of pastors, missionaries, and leaders, not all churches are equipped to do so. That is what makes seminaries both valuable and essential. An ongoing, vibrant partnership with the church and for the church gives promise for the future of theological education in our seminaries.  


The challenges that formal theological education faces are real and concerning, but I am hopeful. The mission of God is a clarion call that should focus the Church on the urgency of God’s redemptive work through Christ. Further, like never before, God is calling men and women to fields of service, even in an unprecedented time of cultural, social, and political assaults on the Christian faith. 

Due to educational trends and its unchanging missional impetus, Christian higher education is perhaps once again at a watershed moment. Yet, I am hopeful because the mission endures. At Southeastern, our Great Commission identity and our commitment to the inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency of the Bible drive us as we lean into the present challenges. We are committed to persistence in our mission to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission.

Dr. Jonathan Six serves as Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. To learn more about Southeastern’s mission to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission, visit