He’s seen theological education’s revolution
Retiring minister: ‘There’s not a normal’
Decades ago, the Rev. Daniel Aleshire followed what was then a conventional path to the ministry. After graduating college, he earned a master’s of divinity degree via a three-year, full-time program at an accredited seminary on a campus with acres of green lawns and red-brick classroom buildings topped with white cupolas.
Nowadays, as he completes nearly 20 years as head of the Pittsburgh-based Association of Theological Schools, Rev. Aleshire has a bird’s-eye view of how people prepare for ministry. And what’s clear is that relatively few ministers get their training as he did.
“There’s not a normal,” he said.
Rev. Aleshire, 69, is planning to retire from the association, where he began work as a staff member in 1990 before becoming its executive director in 1998.
The association accredits, consults with and provides research for more than 270 seminaries and other graduate schools of theology across the United States and Canada, which currently are teaching more than 72,000 students.
For Rev. Aleshire, it’s been a dynamic time in the field. Several seminaries in more liberal mainline Protestant tradition, which have been losing members, have gone out of business or merged. Other, more evangelical Protestant seminaries have grown. Roman Catholic seminaries, which went through a downsizing and an overhaul of their formation program a generation ago, are holding steady. Foreignlanguage seminaries are growing.
And the profile of a typical seminarian has changed with the growth in students of color, in older students and in those seeking degrees in fields other than the traditional pulpit ministry, such as counseling.
As these schools change, the association has sought to change with them, providing them guidance and aid. Whereas many denominations have carefully scripted requirements for ordination, many thriving churches are independent, which makes for a more improvised path to the pulpit.
North Fayette, convenient to the airport both for frequent-flying staff and for incoming board members and visitors.
The association’s accredited seminaries include Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant schools, including five accredited seminaries in the Pittsburgh region, two Catholic and three Protestant.
The association’s affiliate members also are made up of Buddhist and Islamic seminaries, and it has cooperative ties with Jewish seminaries.
One of the most remarkable changes Rev. Aleshire has seen across his professional career is the growing diversity of seminarians. More than four in 10 students are either racial or ethnic minorities or are international enrollees, many of whom are students of color. Four decades ago, that figure was less than one in 10, according to the association.
Existing seminaries are responding to those changes, and new ones are cropping up.
The California-based Logos Evangelical Seminary offers Mandarin-language training for pastors to serve ethnic Chinese churches all over the world.
The home page of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in America, also based in California, comes up in Korean.
The association has also worked with the Association for Hispanic Theological Education, whose members include Spanish-language Bible institutes around the country.
The two associations have set up a process in which graduates at Bible schools that meet certain standards can go directly to an accredited graduate program at a seminary, rather than needing to go to a fouryear college first.
“There are just all of these different forms of theological education emerging,” Rev. Aleshire said.
Overall, seminary enrollment has steadied after several years of decline.
The one constant, said Rev. Aleshire, is that churches are going to continue to find ways for their current and future ministers to get training.
“We’ve always imagined that a theological school has one foot in higher education and one foot in the church,” he said. The association’s role is “always trying to negotiate those two.”
In retirement, Rev. Aleshire plans to keep busy, evaluating a grant project and researching his third (“and final”) book on theological education. He and his wife, Jo Ellen, have two children and a grandchild.