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Law schools and theological schools: learning together

As strange as it may sound, there may be a lot for theological schools to learn from a study of law schools.

In January 2014, the American Bar Association published a “report and recommendations” from an ABA “Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.”1 The system of which American law schools are a part “faces considerable pressure because of the price many students pay for their education, the large amount of student debt, consecutive years of sharply falling applications, and dramatic changes, possibly structural, in the market for jobs available to law graduates.”2

The parallels to challenges in theological education are fascinating and worthy of serious conversation.


“The current system of pricing and funding in legal education demands serious reengineering,” because of increasing costs and inadequate or inequitable financial aid.

In recent decades the price of theological education has increased more rapidly than either the consumer price index or the higher education price index. And while student borrowing is not directly tied to the levels of tuition charged and the percentages of students who are borrowing to finance their theological studies is not growing, it is clear that those who borrow are borrowing more and that women and some racial/ethnic constituencies bear the greatest burden of educational debt.

Accreditation and innovation

The current practice of accreditation reinforces a “far higher level of standardization in law schools and legal education than is necessary to turn out capable lawyers.” Instead, the report argues, the accreditation system would better serve the public interest if it facilitated innovation, by clearly outlining and implementing a process of exceptions, fostering experimentation, and modifying Standards as experiments and innovations are proven successful.

A significant change in the ATS Standards adopted in 2010 and 2012 was to allow petitions for exceptions or experiments. The volume of those petitions signals a lack of congruity between the Standards as currently written and the work of the schools to serve their “public interest,” perhaps requiring additional revision of the Standards.

Contextual education

“The balance between doctrinal instruction and focused preparation for the delivery of legal services needs to shift still further toward developing the competencies and professionalism required of people who will deliver services to clients.” The report calls for “more attention to skills training, experiential learning, and the development of practice-related competencies.”

Theological schools are developing a wide range of “contextual” models of education utilizing congregations and a whole range of ministry sites. Competency-based education, for example, is deeply rooted in congregational contexts, and many online programs utilize persons from ministry settings in their education and formation of students.


The report addresses changes in faculty culture that are crucial for future legal education. Some law schools “will continue to operate under the current model” that emphasizes relatively small teaching loads and a focus on traditional legal scholarship. In many institutions, faculty models will change. “These changes may relate to: accountability for outcomes; scope of decision-making authority; responsibilities for teaching, internal service, external service, and scholarly work; career expectations; modes of compensation; interdependence; scope of the category ‘faculty’ and internal classifications within that category; and a host of other factors.”

Similarly, some theological schools will continue to work effectively using the traditional model—and they should. For most schools, though, many of the changes named for legal education have already happened or will soon take place. For a number of years is has been clear that the definition of “faculty” has been changing amid questions of who sits at the faculty table and why.

“Consumers” of education

The report identifies a pervasive “consumer outlook” that represents a shift from earlier understandings of legal education “as a means to personal growth and development,” to education “as a means to a job or career.” Related to this shift is a tension between the public value (the competence of lawyers who serve) and private value (ability of those with legal education to earn a living) of legal education.

Many in theological schools have spoken about the growing “consumer” mindset of students, especially as costs grow and students bear more of the expense themselves. Students, we are told, have less patience with course and degree requirements whose immediate relevance to their present or future ministry is not obvious. The tension between public and private values of theological education also merits reflection. Denominations, congregations, and other publics (including faculty members?) might value longer, more robust programs that better ensure proper equipping of religious leaders for service to communities of faith. Students often favor shorter programs that cost them less and credential them more efficiently for ministry roles.

As in law schools, responses to the challenges in theological schools reflect “good faith and increasing commitment. Self-criticism and search for solutions abound. Many schools have reduced expenses, changed curricula, introduced new degree programs, and experimented in a variety of areas.”

A coming stage of the ATS Educational Models and Practices project will convene a study group to gather expertise from professional educational programs, like legal education, to inform the work of theological schools as they address challenges and embrace opportunities for the future.

1Appropriate to an association of lawyers, the report opened with the disclaimer, “The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.”

2“Report and Recommendations American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education,” January 2014, 1.

3Ibid, 17





Stephen: I hope you are in touch with the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism, which runs biannual workshops on Professional education, ethics, and identity. I shared a paper this fall at their conference at the Mercer University Law School, based on the Carnegie study of Clergy Ed. and our work here in D.C. It was very well received, and the potential for cross-fertilization here extremely rich!

Very interesting that the two can learn together.