Bonfiglio to Lead New Initiative in Public Theological Education

April 30, 2019

Ryan BonfiglioCandler welcomes Ryan Bonfiglio as the school’s inaugural director of public theological education and an assistant professor in the practice of Old Testament. The director of public theological education position is part of a new initiative at Candler to engage with a broader audience around questions of theology and faith.

Though the role is new, Bonfiglio is a familiar face around campus: After earning an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, he served as a teaching assistant in Candler OT classes while completing his PhD in Old Testament at Emory’s Laney Graduate School. Prior to joining Candler this spring, he taught at Columbia Theological Seminary and served as the John H. Stembler Scholar in Residence at First Presbyterian Church (USA) of Atlanta.

During his time at First Presbyterian, Bonfiglio says he discovered his deep love for theological education in terms of its engagement with a broader public. Now charged with forging a new program at Candler, he’s focused on rethinking the location, accessibility, and format of theological education.

The idea that theological education happens primarily in seminaries and divinity schools is relatively new, historically speaking, Bonfiglio says, noting that the first seminary was not created until 1563. “A lot of church history and education happened prior to the invention of seminaries.” In the days of the early church, large urban cathedrals were often the home of theological education, providing not only clerical training but lay education.

Since the invention of seminaries, Bonfiglio says that the church has essentially outsourced what it once understood to be a deep and intricate component of its mission. He began to contemplate what might happen if we began to bring to the local church what seminaries already do so well: deep, meaningful, theological engagement.

One option would be to offer a seminary course within a local congregation—without the one-sided assumption that church members alone would benefit from the presence of the academy. Instead, sharing resources in this way would allow for “lay people to wade into deep theological waters, and seminary students to learn from really smart, experienced lay people,” Bonfiglio says.

Expanding the possibilities for where theological education takes place also means rethinking access, and recognizing that the field goes beyond existing primarily for those who feel called to ministry. Bonfiglio says that degrees like the Master of Divinity and Master of Theological Studies have become “the spiritual equivalent of an MBA or a master’s in nursing—something you need to carry out a specific profession.” And while he agrees that this is not negative in theory, it does leave out a large portion of the population who might gain a great deal from deeper theological engagement.

Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics Ted Smith, who has studied several nascent models of theological education in different contexts, agrees. He has been at the forefront of Candler’s shift from offering continuing education programming to alumni or working pastors to offering theological education to a wider audience. “Unhooking theological education from the process of preparing for a ‘day job’ in religious leadership opens it to people with all kinds of vocations, and from a much wider range of backgrounds.”

Bonfiglio takes it one step further: “What if we began thinking of the purpose of theological education not just as a pathway to a professional degree, but as an act of discipleship? Not just for those who feel called to a form of ministry, but to anyone who feels called to deepen their faith in Christ? How would that change what we do, what we produce, our sense of mission and calling, how we engage with the broader public?”

His questions are especially relevant in an age where the general consensus is that fewer people are attending seminary. Bonfiglio believes that’s only the superficial tip of a very deep iceberg. “What I commonly hear is the connection of declining seminary enrollment to a lack of interest, that because fewer people are going to seminary means there must be less interest in theological education. In my experience, interest in theological education has never been higher.”

Where the difficulty lies, he says, is in making seminary feasible amid financial, familial, geographic and vocational challenges. “It’s harder to quit your job to go to seminary, or to graduate from college with a lot of debt and go right into seminary.”

Another potential benefit of combining forces of the academy and the local church could be the reenergizing of two institutions that, on the surface and in the media, are losing ground. “Millennials are leaving the church because they’re dissatisfied by the fact that it’s often not a place for them to engage with the theological questions they have with integrity, honesty, and authenticity.”

Which leads to the last step in Bonfiglio’s three-pronged approach to public theological education: rethinking format, and how seminaries—including Candler—might package and promote their content. He cites the popularity of TED Talks as an example: “You can listen to a TED Talk and engage in meaningful intellectual engagement in the time it takes to walk your dog or drop your kids off at school. What if we could do this in the church?”

Bonfiglio already knows part of the answer: at First Presbyterian, he founded and directed TheoEd Talks, an ecumenical speaker series where church and academy leaders share “the talk of their lives” in 20 minutes or less, aimed at sparking conversations that change the way people think about God, religion, and the power of faith to change lives. Each TheoEd Talks event brought in a full capacity crowd, and an even larger audience is accessing past talks and interviews with the speakers through the TheoEd Talks website.

When thinking about what public theological education at Candler might look like, Bonfiglio has multiple thoughts about how to engage a diverse public, including non-Christians and those who don’t attend church. This will include bringing TheoEd Talks into Candler’s orbit. He also talks about making courses more open and accessible to the public, experimenting with hybrid audiences like those of seminary students and lay people, and offering short courses for non-degree students that are “diverse and sophisticated in terms of content delivery and conceptualization of the course.”

Bonfiglio says he hopes to be “evangelistic” about public theological education. “My vision is for Candler to be a leader and innovator in this field. Not just to do it well, but to advocate for it as a part of what seminaries and churches need to do moving forward. I want Candler to be a thought-leader in public theological education, not just within our local community, but nationally, maybe worldwide. It doesn’t mean we have all the answers or take the lead on everything. It might mean convening conversations and figuring out ways to engage our master’s students in these conversations.”

Ted Smith believes that this new venture will give Candler new ways to live more deeply into its mission to educate faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries throughout the world.

“This initiative in public theological education will connect Candler’s expertise with learners who are seeking to live in ways that are more faithful, authentic, and committed,” he says. “This kind of work has been happening at Candler for years, through programs like the Mallard Lay Theology Institute, the Youth Theological Initiative, and Candler faculty members’ countless hours of teaching in the community. The new initiative will gather these existing efforts and work to extend them, and will also launch new programs. I’m excited to see the forms that will emerge.”