Amid Great Change, the Ongoing Exploration of Theological Education Between the Times

December 10, 2020

Candler School of Theology at Emory University is completing the third and final phase of the Theological Education Between the Times (TEBT) project, which includes publication of a series of twelve books to help readers understand what might be born out of this time of transition in theological education. The first three books are now available. The project is being funded by grants from Lilly Endowment Inc.

SmithLaunched in 2014, TEBT is led by Professor of Preaching and Ethics Ted A. Smith 04G, who initiated the project in recognition of seismic social, cultural and demographic shifts that demand a reassessment of how we approach theological education.

“Theological education is in a time of great change,” Smith says. “The shifts we’re responding to suggest that we are in the midst of a large-scale transition between something like what Charles Taylor called an Age of Mobilization to what he called an Age of Authenticity,” Smith says. “Our core institutions—including congregations, denominations, civic organizations, and all kinds of other voluntary societies—were built in and for that earlier era.”

Seeing this bigger picture more clearly explains the current stresses on theological education, all the way down to its foundations. “Professional theological education is designed to provide credentialed expertise for leaders of voluntary societies,” he says. “But the vocation promised, the nature of the authority being offered, and the kind of institution to be served all made sense as part of a social imaginary that is rapidly eroding. The challenge is to develop faithful modes of theological education that can fit with and transform this changed constellation.”

Enter TEBT, whose aim is to gather diverse groups of people to think in critical, theological ways about the meanings and purposes of theological education. Lilly Endowment has funded the project from the beginning, making a $460,000 grant in 2013 for Phase 1 and a $605,000 grant in 2016 for Phase 2. The latest grant, for Phase 3, was $1.2 million.

“Theological schools, like other institutions of higher learning, are moving through a period of profound disruption and change,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “In the face of these changes, many theological schools are stepping back to assess and clarify their fundamental purposes so they can be more effective at preparing and supporting Christian leaders.  TEBT is helping to produce the intellectual and theological resources needed by theological schools to engage in this critical work.”

The element of diversity built into the project is key not only to address issues of justice and inclusion, but to elevate the quality of discernment among participants. “When we are trying to say ‘yes’ to the ways God is moving in the world, it helps to have many different vantage points on what’s happening,” Smith says. The study has consistently involved scholars within a wide range of demographics, including age, race, ethnicity, gender, denomination, academic discipline, and type of institution served.

Phase 1 of the project, which took place from 2014 to 2015, focused on conversation and listening and featured nearly 60 participants and five regional consultations. Diversity was at the forefront of not only the people invited to participate but also the places where they met: the consultations were held at Candler, Saddleback Church in California, Howard University Divinity SchoolEsperanza College in Philadelphia, and Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. American, Brazilian, British, and South African participants from a variety of denominations penned short essays on the meanings and purposes of theological education; 27 have since been published.

TEBT-story2.jpgThe second phase of the project, from 2016 to 2019, featured a smaller number of participants in even deeper conversation. A group of twelve senior fellows—almost all participants from Phase 1—met seven times over the three years. As they joined together to learn more about theological education in the U.S., they were also researching their own individual projects that would become the Theological Education Between the Times book series, published by Eerdmans. They shared early versions of their writing, which Smith hopes has led to the books having a sense of interconnectedness, though they cover a broad scope of perspectives and subject matter.

“While the books are personal, particular, and individual, they are not idiosyncratic,” he says. “They are not worlds unto themselves. The authors understand themselves as accountable to various communities—including the authors in the group. They have been in conversation with one another all along the way.”

In addition to these publications, Smith has given over two dozen presentations to faculties, boards of trustees, senior administrators, denominational leaders, and other stakeholders in theological education.

The goal of Phase 3, which began in 2020 and will continue through 2023, is to share the work of Phases 1 and 2 in ways that spark fresh reflection in a variety of contexts. “Phase 3 of TEBT is a shared, social learning process that will take many forms,” Smith says.

CrenaTo help guide this process, Lucila Crena 06C has joined the project as TEBT’s managing director. Currently finishing a PhD at the University of Virginia, Crena will join Candler’s faculty as an instructor of theology, ethics, and culture in the fall of 2021. Her research centers on shifting theopolitical imaginations of “the prophetic” in the U.S. and in Argentina’s Teología del Pueblo. She has been awarded fellowships from the Forum for Theological Exploration, The Louisville Institute, and Virginia Theological Seminary. With a background in strategic planning, academic expertise in prophetic social movements, and experience teaching in innovative schools including the Comunidad de Estudios Teológicos Interdisciplinarios (San José, Costa Rica), Crena is well equipped to help lead this third phase, and says she is delighted to join the project.

“From its inception, TEBT has pursued contextuality and relationality not only as boxes to check, but because of a sober hopefulness: That when we don’t turn away from our context or one another in search of ‘the blueprint,’ we will find wise, brave, faithful ways to respond to the epochal shifts in theological education that emerge from the particularities of our communal and institutional stories.”


This fall, the first three books stemming from the study have been published by Eerdmans: Renewing the Church by the Spirit: Theological Education After Pentecost by Amos Yong; Attempt Great Things for God: Theological Education in Diaspora by Chloe T. Sun; and After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings, which has been named one of the best books of 2020 by Publishers Weekly. The remaining nine books will continue to be published in clusters over the next two years.

“Our hope is that these books can reach the full spectrum of people who care about theological education today, including not only faculty and administrators but also students, trustees, ecclesial leaders, donors, and even people who don’t think they would ever want anything to do with ‘theological education’ but are still hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives,” Smith says.

As the books spark conversations, so will multiple events—some hosted by the project itself, others by partners including the Association for Hispanic Theological Education (AETH), the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the Louisville Institute, the Forum for Theological Exploration, and InTrust. TEBT has also formed a speakers’ bureau, where the 12 book authors will travel to interested communities to speak and listen.

One goal, Smith says, is “to make it possible for all kinds of people, congregations, community organizations, schools, and other bodies to partner with us—not just institutions with connections to make the invitation and money to pay expenses. We want to encourage a broad spectrum of communities to engage in active reflection.”

A pivotal piece of Phase 3 is the launch of the TEBT website, spearheaded by Crena. The site will serve as a repository for the many writings and resources produced by the study, while also publicizing events and speaker opportunities. Like the entirety of this final phase, the project’s web presence is intended not as a passive space, but as a catalyst for shared, social learning.

“That’s the work of Phase 3: Not to disseminate information, but to spark deeply contextual discernment within communities that reflect the various diversities of our contexts,” Crena says. “These discernment processes do not replace wise management practices, but orient them towards the ends of theological education, as we can pursue them in this particular place, with these particular people, at this moment of the story. I find that to be joyful work.”

By the time the project winds down in 2023, Theological Education Between the Times will have spanned nine years and countless contexts. It will have moved through national and global shifts politically and otherwise, not to mention a world-changing pandemic. And ultimately, it will have invited people from many places and backgrounds to join in the conversation on how to faithfully pursue theological education in a time of great change.

“The Reign of God breaks into history at every moment, always present in but never identical to the times,” Smith says. “The work of Christians is to discern that in-breaking and respond in faith. That is what this project tries to do.”

Photos taken during Phase 2 gatherings of Theological Education Between the Times.