Innovation propels seminaries through transitional waters

Innovation propels seminaries through transitional waters

January 31, 2009
Written by Daniel Hazard

Academics and practice integrate for relevant ministry

A collective shockwave rippled across the field of theological education when Seabury-Western Theological Seminary announced in February 2008 that it could no longer continue operations. While not closing at that time, the 150-year-old institution located in Evanston, Ill. - one of 11 Episcopal seminaries in the United States - needed to take drastic measures to ensure its current students would graduate.

Reducing courses and degree programs, firing staff and professors, eliminating facilities use and shunting students to other Chicago-area seminaries for courses has given Seabury some breathing room. Still, it has made no commitment to continuing the traditional three-year Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) program required for ordination within the Episcopal Church beyond the graduating class of 2010.

Not alone in their predicament, reports of troubled seminaries are regularly in the news. On Jan. 13, trustees of Disciples-related Lexington (Ky.)Theological Seminary declared the school to be in a state of financial emergency. The status allows trustees to end faculty tenure, reduce budgets and decrease course offerings in order to rapidly "reinvent itself by developing a curriculum that stresses effective parish ministry as [our] primary focus."

Even the third largest seminary in the nation, Southern Baptist Seminary of Louisville, Ky., has not been immune from financial difficulties. In December 2008, due to decreased value of invested endowments and lower than anticipated giving, Southern Baptist began layoffs, cut spending and put capital campaigns and hiring on hold in response to a projected $3.2 million annual shortfall.

The refrain among seminary administrators is all too common: Decreasing enrollment, overextended endowment funds and an increasingly diversified student body have forced institutions to rethink long-held assumptions regarding the model for graduate theological education established in the late nineteenth century.

That model, a three-year, full-time residential program, no longer accommodates the needs of a majority of today's seminary students. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for seminaries, cites a number of trends that are forcing seminaries to rethink their approach to ministry preparation. While the number of students enrolled in seminaries has increased in the past 10 years, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students has decreased. This trend is explained, in part, by an increase in part-time and non-degree students. These students are more apt to seek a geographically close institution, continue family commitments and employment, and be less likely to make use of campus housing. As a result, more flexibility in scheduling - including evening and weekend courses - is required to accommodate these students' needs.

What the 'customer' wants

In their book "Contextualizing Theological Education" (Pilgrim Press, 2008), editors Theodore Brelsford and P. Alice Rogers identify the three constituents of seminaries as the academy, students and the church. That is to say, the role of theological education must satisfy a scholastic goal; enrich students professionally and spiritually; and provide the necessary benefits to congregations and ministries, the eventual employers of their graduates.

Brelsford's introduction says, "One reason for the increasing importance of contextual integration is a growing perception in the culture at large of both the academy and the church as marginal or irrelevant to the practical concerns of life in the 'real world.' "

In suggesting a possible remedy to this perceived irrelevance, Brelsford continues, "If we intend seminary education to matter and make a difference in society, church and the world, then what we do in seminary must be integrally related with significant social and global realities."

That is no small task, according to the Rev. Dave Schwab, former UCC Ohio Conference Minister and Eden Seminary board member. Purposefully using business terms, Schwab says his role on the board is to represent the customer (congregations) of the seminary's product (M.Div. graduates.) What customers/congregations want are "pastors and leaders who can meet the spiritual and organizational needs of the church," he says.

"The local church is an integral partner," says the Rev. William McKinney, president of the UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, of congregations' role in pastoral formation. "We're doing a better job of listening to them than we did a generation ago."

And this statement represents the clear acknowledgement throughout theological institutions - academic rigor, while an important foundation, is not the sole indicator or training criteria for effective ministry.

Reflecting on the importance of local church involvement in pastoral preparation, the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, recalled his transition from seminary graduate to pastor, saying, "I received a wonderful education at Yale Divinity School, but my formation as a minister was continued by my first congregation that understood it had a responsibility to help shape leaders for the church."

That isn't to say seminaries have historically avoided integrating internships and contextual education into their curriculum. Field work has long been a vital part of seminary programs. But critical reflection on the experience of the context, and incorporating it into the academic sequence, is a relatively new model in theological education.

One such revised curriculum has been in place at the UCC-related United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for four years. Kita McVay, president of the seminary, says, "The intent of the [curriculum update] is to educate students and send forth graduates who are able to adapt to the changing church."

With an emphasis on integrating academics, spiritual formation, practical arts of ministry and ethics, United feels they are "providing the essential skills and strengths" required for ministry in a variety of contexts.

UCC-related seminaries find options

UCC-related seminaries are no strangers to the economic realities faced by other institutions.

Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine sold its campus in 2005 and relocated students to a rented space at nearby Husson College. At the time of the move, Bangor had only 20 full-time students. The Rev. William Imes, seminary president in 2005, said of the transition, "[We] can't run a campus that was built primarily for residents for what basically is a commuter population."

A similar transition is scheduled for Chicago Theological Seminary. Anticipating the need to reduce costs and find appropriate space for their student body, the school will move from its historic Hyde Park home to new facilities nearby on the University of Chicago campus in 2012.

The new facility is being made possible through a multifaceted agreement with the University of Chicago. Under the agreement, the university will purchase the existing CTS buildings and construct and furnish new facilities to the seminary's specifications. CTS will hold a 100-year lease on the new building at a rental rate of $1 annually.

Eden Theological Seminary, facing a financial crisis in 2007, received a grant from the UCC-related Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis that could total more than $18 million. The money, intended to strengthen the school's long-term financial viability, included $4.5 million to be disbursed through 2010. It provides additional operating revenue and assists Eden in the repayment of outstanding debt during this term.

Contingent upon Eden's ability to make financial strides during the initial three-year period, the foundation will provide up to $13.6 million in additional support, which will be used, in part, to retire all outstanding debt.

The Rev. David M. Greenhaw, Eden's president, said of the gift, "Deaconess' support will enable us to concentrate on what matters most - providing our students with an exceptional seminary education so that they become the finest pastors and community leaders they're capable of being."

The way forward

Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania has joined with other UCC seminaries in rethinking its curriculum.

It has taken strides to increase contextual education within ministry formation curriculum. Lancaster now deploys teams of four students to one congregation. The Rev. Reiss Potterveld, Lancaster's president, says the team approach helps students learn to work cooperatively by developing community improvement and congregational vitality projects.

Further work in exploring possibilities for UCC and other mainline seminaries is underway. Greenhaw is currently writing a book on the mainline Protestant church in America. He notes that a challenge for these institutions exists in the fact that mainline membership and churches have declined by approximately 40 percent since 1964.

"The programmatic response [to the decline] is profoundly different for these schools," he says. Because of the reduced number of students and congregations for them to serve, Greenhaw believes mainline seminaries need to find purpose in their historic identity.

Elements of that identity, he says, are fostering the position that faith and critical thinking are bound together; faith that is most effectively represented through responsibility in the social world; and a true love for "the other" - as someone not to be feared, but to be seen as a compliment to the spiritual life of the church.

While challenges remain, hopefulness exists in the UCC-related seminaries - no matter their size. "We live in an era of emergence, where 'congregating' is undergoing a lot of changes," says McKinney of PSR. "We need to broaden our understanding of what it means to prepare people for congregational ministry."

McKinney is optimistic that by focusing PSR's curriculum on how people congregate, and assuming all churches are in some way "new churches," they can better prepare students for the needs of future ministry.

Potterveld of Lancaster sees his institution continuing to serve the 80 percent of students who come expecting to be ordained into congregational ministry. Yet, he is cognizant of the many students who come seeking to serve in chaplaincy or specialized ministries. To meet this need, Lancaster has designed programs, including lay formation, capable of serving 2,500 students each semester - a much broader audience than its traditional M.Div. program.

"Seminaries are first and foremost the trainers of pastors and transmitters of our traditions," says Greenhaw. "But degreed education is only a means to an end, not the end itself."

Alluding to the future role for seminaries within the UCC, Greenhaw concludes, "Theological education can't only be about clergy preparation, it should imbibe a depth of understanding in the Christian faith in relation to the world in a variety of situations that are appropriate for all the baptized." 

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