The Faculty Members of the Future: How Are They Being Shaped?

by Barbara G. Wheeler

Barbara Wheeler is president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and director of Auburn’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 4-11, 1998, pp. 106-111. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Wheeler cites the research done by Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education in intensively examining theological faculties in several seminaries, with particular emphasis on whether such schools will be able to recruit enough qualified faculty to replace the many who are currently retiring. After reassuring that enough qualified applicants are available, she warns of the current dangerous practice of replacing full-time tenured faculty with part-time adjunct faculty, and the importance of seminaries nurturing faculty members’ sense of vocation, particularly junior faculty.

An old story tells about a philosophy professor who, despite his long tenure and large classes, remembered every student he had ever taught. Late in his career he approached a middle-aged woman at a reunion of graduates. "You are Mary Smith," he said to her. "You took Philosophy 101 in 1967. You sat in the third row, on the window side of the classroom, four seats from the aisle."

"Wow!" said the woman. "That's amazing. How could you possibly remember me? That was almost 30 years ago! And," she added, "who are you?"

The story has its charm, but it is not at all illustrative of the educational experience. Students remember faculty more than they remember anything else about their education. While the administration often personifies a school for its faculty for students the school is the faculty This was strikingly evident in the two institutions several colleagues and I studied during the past decade (a study which recently appeared as Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools). Students, we found, barely notice what administrators do and say, unless students encounter them as teachers, and most students have no idea who constitutes the board of trustees. But faculty play a pivotal role in students' lives, not only imparting information and demonstrating how to think, but also teaching by example how to treat people, what to wear, what jokes are funny and what art and music is good. Students adopt some of the ideas and habits of their teachers, reject some, and adapt some to their own circumstances.

It matters a lot, then, the sort of faculty schools have and will have. During the past five years, Auburn Seminary's Center for the Study of Theological Education (with support from Lilly Endowment Inc.) has been intensively examining theological faculty. In one project, which I codirected with Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., we surveyed current theological faculty and all current graduate students in theology and religion. We also interviewed cohorts of junior faculty in three theological schools over a three-year period, as well as assorted junior faculty in other seminaries. In addition, we conducted case studies of four theological schools that have reputations for being good places to work. And we studied faculty compensation, the history of the faculty role, and the special challenge of recruiting and retaining minority faculty.

We began the study because so many people -- seminary deans and presidents in particular -- told us that they were worried about whether theological schools would be able to recruit enough qualified faculty to replace the many who soon will be retiring. Between the beginning of this decade and the middle of the next, about two-thirds of those who were teaching in 1990 will have retired.

Our research soon convinced us that there are enough people to consider for faculty slots. Doctoral programs in theology and religion contain more than enough students to fill the number of available jobs.

But will these people be trained and formed in ways that equip them to prepare religious leaders? Deans and presidents have doubts and anxieties about this. Religious studies, they fear, is coming to dominate doctoral programs in the field. Some of the largest programs are housed in universities that have no seminaries; several are in public institutions. Administrators worry that doctoral students increasingly will be trained in the history of religion or comparative religions rather than in Bible, theology, ethics, church history and practical studies -- the traditional fields of theological education.

That a number of newly minted Ph.D.s do not hold the M.Div. degree, are not ordained and have no hands-on pastoral experience gives rise to worries about whether theological education will adequately maintain its church connections. Deans and presidents fear that doctoral programs are emphasizing research at the expense of teaching. Added to these worries are the perennial complaints of bishops, denominational executives and prominent pastors that faculty live in academic ivory towers, preoccupied with guild concerns and insulated or even alienated from church life.

Our evidence suggests that many of these anxieties are not warranted. Many widely held impressions and assumptions are inaccurate. We made three especially surprising discoveries.

(1) The popularity of religious studies has not substantially reshaped the training of theological faculty. About two-thirds, including the younger, more recently hired teachers, are trained in 25 doctoral programs, almost all of which were also among the top 25 faculty-supplying programs 30 years ago. There have been a few changes -- Hartford and Johns Hopkins have faded, Emory and Fuller have emerged, and far fewer faculty, especially Roman Catholics, are trained in Europe--but every program on the list still is located in a seminary, a religiously related university or a university that has a divinity school. Religious studies programs in institutions that are not related in any way to the church or to ministry preparation do not play a substantial role in training theological faculty.

Many more younger than older faculty lack the M.Div. degree, but almost all the non-M.Div.s got a theological master's from a seminary or divinity school rather than, or in addition to, an academic master's from a religious studies program. (If theological schools don't like having fewer faculty with M.Div.s, they have only themselves to blame for creating an alternative degree.)

Also, theological ways of organizing doctoral study are still dominant. Many more current graduate students locate themselves in theological studies than in religious studies (49 percent versus 37 percent, with the remainder rejecting the terminological division). An even larger number are studying in one of the traditional theological fields. About three-quarters want to teach in Bible, theology, ethics, Christian history or ministry studies rather than religion or something "of' religion. Strikingly, three-fourths of doctoral students, whatever their own interests, report that Christian studies dominates the curriculum of their doctoral program. And more than 90 percent of current graduates say they would seriously consider teaching in a religiously affiliated college or university or a divinity school. More than 80 percent would teach in a denominational seminary, indeed, denominational seminaries ranked highest among first choices of places to teach.

Our survey does not, of course, tell us whether religious studies has changed the way that "theological" subjects are taught and studied at the doctoral level (no doubt it has had some effect). But the worry that the pool of future faculty will be dominated by graduates of religious studies programs whose whole training is outside the fields and institutions of theological study and who would not want to be associated with such schools is misplaced.

(2) Most theological faculty are not primarily absorbed in academic research and scholarly publishing for narrow guild audiences. The single most often reported research "area" is interdisciplinary research. Fewer than 10 percent of theological faculty report that the pressure to publish interferes with their teaching responsibilities. And scholarly publication rates are not notably high. About one-third do little or no scholarly research. One quarter are highly productive scholars, but almost all of these also produce publications for a general audience. These self-reported rates and types of publication for theological faculty are almost exactly the same as the rates reported by undergraduate faculty. Given that theological education is a graduate enterprise, one is inclined to wonder not whether faculty spend too much time walled up in the library but whether they do enough scholarly research.

(3) Virtually all theological faculty are heavily involved in religious practice. Four out of five have served in a professional ministry position, and three out of five have done so full time. Almost all attend worship services often, and many regularly lead them. Half of the ordained faculty and 40 percent of all faculty say that they lead worship at least once a month, and one quarter of the ordained faculty (who are 75 percent of the total) do so weekly.

That younger faculty are markedly less likely than their older colleagues to hold the M.Div. degree, be ordained or have professional ministry experience is largely due to the entry of many women into the field. Women are not eligible for ordination in the Roman Catholic Church and in many conservative Protestant churches. Mainline Protestant women report that they sometimes are advised not to try to do both ministry and teaching. Perhaps this advice is good. It is very difficult, according to women who have done both, to fit seminary, parish ministry, doctoral study, teaching, publication and child bearing into the two decades between college graduation and the age -- the early 40s -- at which tenure usually is granted.

Theological faculty also are active in their denominations and in ecumenical agencies. They spend an average of 15 days a year in such activity in addition to their other church involvements. Figures like these convince me that the standard proposal of church leaders -- that seminary faculty regularly spend sabbaticals or other periods of leave as ministers in congregations -- is misguided. Most already invest a great deal of time that way. In contrast, they allot very little time to civic and community activities or to recreation and leisure. My strong impression, based on these data, is that faculty tend to spend too much rather than too little time in church activities, and that scholarship and involvements beyond the church consequently sometimes suffer.

Though these findings led our research team to conclude that many standard concerns about theological faculty are not well grounded, all is not well. Our study produced evidence of problems -- or at least strenuous challenges -- that do not yet worry church and seminary leaders but probably ought to. These problems are linked to a major social and cultural shift that affects all the professions. I call the shift commodification.

Not long ago professions were understood as the social roles in which occupation and vocation combined. One committed one's whole self to the profession. Character and spirit were as relevant to professional practice as knowledge and technical skills. Because the profession was what one was as much as what one did, the commitment to it was usually for life. The institutions that professionals served demanded this kind of dedication and often returned it, giving many the chance to work in the same place from the beginning to the end of their careers. Committed to a calling for life and to particular institutions for extended periods, professionals were expected to be both experts in their fields and social leaders.

Increasingly, however, professionals now are viewed as vendors of highly specialized services. The profession is considered not an identity but a marketable capacity to be sold to the highest bidder. A person's character and commitments and the larger purpose of his or her life are irrelevant as long as the professional product meets the standard set in the contract for services. If the market for one kind of service weakens, the professional may well refit herself to offer a different one.

Institutions no longer expect a major personal commitment or a long tenure, and in their quest for the most and best service at the lowest cost they make fewer commitments to those they employ. Vocation and occupation have been uncoupled. Professions are more and more viewed simply as high-level jobs.

In college and university education and in fields like medicine, where these developments have received more attention than they have in the church and seminary, both sides tend to assign blame to the other. Institutions accuse young professionals of self-centered careerism. They are preoccupied with their own security and advancement, or so the indictment goes; their commitment to the welfare of the persons, institutions and wider society they serve is secondary at best. Young professionals, for their part, say that the institutions that employ them care most about finances and will readily exploit their employees and sacrifice the quality of the institution's work to ensure positive financial results. Because institutions no longer offer the opportunity for long-term commitments or sometimes even full-time work benefits, professionals have to give priority to taking care of themselves.

I doubt that either side is chiefly or exclusively to blame. Rather, both participate in a culture in which security, independence and financial success for the individual and the institution are more highly prized than the common good -- both in its collective aspect and in the emphasis on nonmaterial goods. That these changes are widespread does not make them desirable. It seems quite clear from the experience of doctors working for managed-care companies, of engineers and other technical specialists who live from one short-term consulting contract to the next, and of permanent adjunct faculty that this model of professional life is scary and unsatisfying. The toll on institutions may be high as well.

Something important for our social health and strength is missing from commodified medicine, even if the new arrangements are not yet raising mortality rates. Companies that downsize their employees and replace them with contractors and consultants often see the quality of their product suffer, and some discover that they are not saving much money either. I think we will soon see that schools in which professors are not fully committed to teaching and the life of the mind do not form the characters or intellects of students and may not be effective even in imparting technical skills. Commodification of the professions is a trend to be challenged and resisted.

Is commodification a problem in theological education? Our evidence suggests that it is. Schools increasingly rely on adjunct and part-time faculty. In 1970 among schools in the Association of Theological Schools there were 12.4 students per full-time faculty member; in 1990 there were 22.3 students for each full-time faculty member. In the 20-year interval, the number of full-time faculty increased 5 percent and the number of part-time faculty 129 percent. More and more these part-time and adjunct faculty not only supervise field work, as they did in the past, but also teach core courses.

Our studies of graduate students and junior faculty show that they often view themselves as service providers rather than professors on a long-term mission. From one perspective it is welcome news that almost all graduate students will teach in almost any kind of institution: it means that schools get to choose their faculty from a very large pool. It also seems salutary that most doctoral students, wherever they locate themselves, have positive views of both religious and theological studies. Perhaps the hostilities that other research has documented between camps of senior faculty split along these lines will not be as fierce in the next generation.

But these findings are also cause for concern. Both graduate students and new faculty say that they decided to pursue the doctorate in religion or theology because they became keenly interested in a subject -- Bible or ethics or anthropology of religion. Our interviews suggest, however, that many are not committed to any broader purpose, such as shaping the next generation of religious leaders, or molding undergraduates into citizens who understand the importance of religion whether or not they practice it, or making the case for theological perspectives in intellectual circles where theology is viewed with suspicion.

As long as these young scholars can teach and do research on their chosen subject matter -- as long as they provide, that is, their specialized services -- they will do it for almost any institution and any purpose, rather like engineers who will offer their skills to build either medical equipment or weapons systems, depending on who offers them the better job. Our graduate students and newest faculty increasingly have fields and specialties -- services to sell -- but not vocations to make a particular kind of difference in the church or the world.

Will theological schools have the faculty they need for the future, faculty who will shape the educational mission of the institutions and make their programs more influential? They will have such faculty only if they can temper the process of commodification. We propose two steps in that direction.

First, institutions should aim to have as high a proportion of their faculties as possible be full-time, tenure track or continuing. There are heavy pressures in the other direction. A school can get a lot of course-teaching services for the salary of a full-time faculty member who draws fringe benefits and earns sabbatical leave. Institutions that must staff courses given at distant sites and odd hours are especially tempted to lean heavily on occasional teachers rather than regular faculty, many of whom don't like to move around or to teach after dinner. But there is a high educational cost in replacing faculty on regular appointment with other kinds of teachers. However able occasional faculty may be, students do not revere them. In the two seminaries we studied, it was the students' sustained exposure to the professors who were a consistent presence that gave them examples of character, behavior and deep convictions against which to measure themselves. Only in that testing and measuring process did genuine learning -- including content learning -- occur.

Second, institutions should nurture faculty members' sense of vocation, giving special emphasis to junior faculty. The single least expected and most significant finding of our study of junior faculty was that their success -- defined as tenure or extension of contract -- is a function not of how well they perform but of decisions the institution makes before they arrive. Early in the three-year study, before we knew what would happen to those we were following, we noticed that some junior faculty had what we came to call "valuable jobs." They were doing things that key faculty members thought important. Others had what we called "junky jobs" -- a collage of tasks no one else wanted to do but that had to be done to please accreditors or political caucuses in the school or in outside constituency groups.

We also noticed that some junior faculty had been carefully chosen for their potential to fit the school's culture; these usually got a lot of attention from powerful senior faculty after they arrived. Others were hastily appointed and usually ignored. Not surprisingly, most of the carefully chosen junior faculty were serving in valued positions and most of the haphazardly appointed in junky jobs.

It was also not surprising that most of the first group were tenured or promoted or both, and the others weren't. If one of the schools we studied had not had a financial crisis, the correlation would have been almost perfect. In only one or two cases did sponsored faculty in good jobs mess up so badly that their colleagues did not want to retain them; and in only one or two instances did junior faculty manage to overcome the handicap of appointment to a junk job.

The success or failure of new faculty, then, is largely determined before they begin to work for an institution by the way that institution has shaped the position and the care with which it selects the occupant. The reason for this, I'm convinced, is that new faculty -- though very smart and well read (and probably better educated than most of their senior colleagues), though religiously observant and already experienced in teaching, though flexible, open and good-humored -- have not found a vocation, do not know what purpose they want to serve. If administrators and senior faculty set their assignments with real seriousness and adopt them into the company of educators with great care, that invitation can function as a genuine call to profession. and many of those so called will find their calling.

If, however, schools cobble together positions purely for their own convenience and select the occupants carelessly new faculty will see that offer for what it is: a contract to buy their services. The work will probably get done, but the relationship will not be happy or lasting.