SHAWNEE, Kan. — Molly Marshall has seen and experienced remarkable changes in theological education during her career that took her from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where she taught theology, to Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas.
After two years as a visiting professor at Central, she was elected professor of theology and spiritual formation in 1997 — and then in 2005 as president of the more than a century-old seminary. Recently she was feted for a decade of leadership during which time significant changes have occurred.
She describes Central as “a hospitable, diverse and progressive seminary” that seeks to become “the most creative and effective expression of leadership development for ministry locally and globally.”
At this juncture in her leadership as president, Marshall was asked by Editor John Pierce to reflect upon experiences of the past and to consider the possibilities ahead in theological education and congregational ministry.
BT: What are the three biggest changes at Central since you became president, and what has resulted from these changes?
MM: The three biggest changes are: a new location, accessible delivery and innovative curriculum.
We moved the seminary in 2006 to a vibrant new location (in Shawnee, Kan.) that is much better suited for faculty and learners. We changed the schedule for classes and developed nine new sites for face-to-face classes, as well as technologically enhanced classes.
And we have developed curriculum that is competency-based, entrepreneurial, and focused on leadership development.
BT: How is a current seminary student’s experience different from your own experience as a seminarian?
MM: My experience as an M.Div. student (shortly after the earth cooled) was residential, with a full week of classes, and given to “mastering the body of divinity” more than focused on the practice of ministry.
At that time, we did not see the cultural marginalization of churches and [we] thought that full-time, lifetime employment was the calculus.
We now know that the economics of ministry are very different, and it is getting more difficult for the minister and congregation to afford each other.
BT: What’s the “next thing” calling for your attention?
MM: The next thing calling for my attention is long-term financial sustainability for Central. I believe this is possible as we articulate a compelling and relevant sense of mission for the seminary.
Part of what claims me at this point is the need to prepare ministers for the kind of intercultural and interfaith work our religiously plural world requires. Cultivating respect for the lived religion of others is essential.
BT: Theologically, what does the church and its ministers need to be grappling with now?
MM: Churches and ministers must engage their contexts in creative ways.
What needs doing in their particular community that is left undone?
What are the rising needs that only their congregation can address?
How can facilities be deployed as community hubs rather than insular fortresses?
When churches show real hospitality to immigrant communities, a renewed sense of mission and relevance can occur. Being self-protective ensures dwindling significance, and it denies the urgency of what faith communities can offer on the social landscape.
A richer liturgical life will provide for the sacramental hunger so many express; longing for transcendence in our worship is rampant.
Engaging current issues like care for creation, welcoming sexual minorities, and non-violent practices will enhance the witness of congregations. BT
By John D. Pierce