After earning her medical degree, Dr. Annah Kuriakose signed up to teach in one of Newark, New Jersey’s public schools, recognizing that education could be a vehicle for public health for her students. Pursuing that vision, she then served as Program Director for a minority public health non-profit in New Jersey for three years before setting out to discover how to combine faith, education, public health, and young people--a journey that led her to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Annah’s classmate, Sydney Montgomery graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law, founded a successful tech company, created a nonprofit to help first-generation and minority students get into law school. She attended Princeton Seminary in part because she feels called to help young adults discern their own vocations. What she does not feel called to is ministry in a congregation.
Meet the New Seminarians—and the challenges they pose to traditional theological education.
By design, most seminaries prepare students for church leadership—which has long been equated with preaching, teaching, administering sacraments, and leading a congregation of the faithful. Today’s students come with less defined views of ministry, and more expansive views of the type of flocks who need shepherds. Many hope to create new communities and experiment with alternative economic models that address the injustices of existing practices--leading students to explore social enterprise and other entrepreneurial forms of ministry.
Recognizing this new moment in theological education, Princeton Theological Seminary--with funding from Trinity Church Wall Street--has launched the “Teaching Spiritual Entrepreneurship in Seminaries” Initiative. In this initiative, 9 partner seminaries will launch “learning experiments” to better address students like Annah and Sydney. As Kenda Creasy Dean, the Initiative’s director and Princeton Seminary’s Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture, put it: “Young people smell something that is shifting, that feels like a call from God to catalyze the common good of our communities, and not just focus on what’s happening inside a church building.” Princeton’s learning experiments, for example, will create educational offerings in spiritual entrepreneurship for three audiences: degree students, returning citizens from prison, and pastors seeking an online certificate.
Tim Soerens, co-founder of The Parish Collective and part of the project design team, describes the Initiative’s purpose: “We’re discerning how to shape environments that form leaders of the future church, particularly those who are called to new entrepreneurial endeavors in neighborhoods and communities.” Javier Perez, Director of Global Missions Programs and Impact for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, underscored the importance of seminary involvement: “Seminary can bring theological imagination to this work that you will not find elsewhere.” Rooted Good’s Mark Sampson concurred: “How can we train leaders to think theologically about economic practices.? How does that shape our understanding of ownership, of compensation and salary, of who gets included and invited into the conversation? These are deeply theological questions. And if we’re not wrestling with these questions in seminary, then who is going to wrestle with them?”
The goal of the Teaching Spiritual Entrepreneurship Initiative is to equip seminaries across North America to theologically form and practically prepare students to lead social innovation and entrepreneurial ministries. In addition to Princeton, eight additional theological schools have been awarded “learning grants” to support entrepreneurial learning experiences with their students: Austin Theological Seminary (Austin, TX), Candler School of Theology (Atlanta), Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary (Chicago), George W. Truett Theological Seminary (Waco, TX), Hood Theological Seminary (Salisbury, NC), Multnomah University (Portland, OR), San Francisco Theological Seminary, and Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC). Each school must work with “community partners”— organizations already engaged in spiritual entrepreneurship—to develop a unique, contextualized learning experiment.
One of the initiative’s first tasks has been mapping the existing landscape of accredited U.S. theological schools’ current offerings around social innovation. Project Coordinator Larissa Kwong Abazia, who oversaw the mapping work, noted: “Most schools do not publicize these initiatives, when they exist at all. Spiritual entrepreneurship tends to be a ‘fugitive’ subject in theological education—sometimes it exists, but it is hiding behind other seminary offerings.” That makes it hard to attract students like Annah and Sydney, who may not realize that theological education could benefit them, or that it prepares leaders for more than congregational ministries. Beth Putney, PTS MDiv 2023 graduate, mined all seminary and theological school websites to uncover any courses, continuing education opportunities, and other programs connected to innovation.
“We’re seeing a time and a space when we need to crack our imaginations open about what church is, and how church functions in a community. And that means that our leadership formation and the practices around that need to change,” says Abigail Visco Rusert, Princeton’s Associate Dean for Continuing Education. The Teaching Spiritual Entrepreneurship Initiative will continue through spring 2025.