Socialized Theological Education

Socialized Theological Education May 27, 2016

News that Andover Newton Seminary is moving to Yale Divinity School (the theological world’s version of mergers and acquisitions) brings to mind the limits of the United States free market in religion. Of course, since Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, folks attentive to religious news have heard a fair amount about the failings if not immorality of global capitalism. And this is hardly a new theme for American Protestants since the mainline churches, thanks to their heritage of the Social Gospel, have long been critical at least of free markets’ excesses (while being remarkably agnostic about the consequences of free love). Even evangelical Protestants have gotten into the act. The 2004 statement from the National Association of Evangelicals, “For the Health of the Nation,” was much more critical of capitalism than evangelicals were used to:

Though the Bible does not call for economic equality, it condemns gross disparities in opportunity and outcome that cause suffering and perpetuate poverty, and it calls us to work toward equality of opportunity. God wants every person and family to have access to productive resources so that if they act responsibly they can care for their economic needs and be dignified members of their community. Christians reach out to help others in various ways: through personal charity, effective faith-based ministries, and other nongovernmental associations, and by advocating for effective government programs and structural changes.

That’s hardly radical. But it’s a long way from affirming that markets or the invisible hand (God’s?) will provide.

That is no less true for Protestant theological education where laissez faire policies have prevailed ever since the United States’ officials decided not regulate or patronize religion. For churches to make it, pastors and congregations need to raise their own support. This makes the church in the United States a voluntary organization rather than an established (government-supported) one. Sure, denominations may pool resources and underwrite a church plant here or a ministry there. But it still depends on voluntary giving rather than government underwriting.

This is all the more true for theological education. In U.S. higher education we do have many schools whose revenues depend on government subsidy. From public schools to state universities, tax support for education shows that Americans are willing to pay for some forms of education. But this is not true of theological education. I am unaware of any federal, state, or municipal government that subsidizes the training of pastors — in the United States, that is. In Canada and in Europe theological education is usually part of the university system and governments in European countries generally regulate and pay for theological education (to a degree).

In the United States, by contrast, a seminary or divinity school’s budget is entirely dependent on tuition and financial contributions from private donors. The difficulties that Andover Newton faced are a good example that free markets can’t sustain certain sectors of theological education:

Deciding to move to Yale was not easy, Drummond said. But some change was necessary because of Andover Newton’s finances. The school had run a deficit of $1 million or more for 10 straight years as of 2014-15. That’s substantial red ink for an institution with an operating budget of approximately $6-7 million and an endowment of roughly $20 million.

“The finances were really tough,” Drummond said. “In nonjargon, we were running out of money. It’s really not any more complicated than that.”
Andover Newton will face a vastly different economic situation at Yale Divinity School. The goal at Yale is to provide full-tuition scholarships to students demonstrating need, said Gregory Sterling, Yale Divinity School dean. Average yearly tuition at Andover Newton currently averages between $9,000 and $16,000, depending on the program. The school says scholarship aid will not cover students’ full costs.

Would seminary leaders in the United States, especially the ones critical of the economic inequality generated by free markets, prefer a socialized or nationalized model of theological education? If so, the Federal Department of the Study of Divinity would probably have nixed Yale’s acquisition of Andover Newton. The reason is that a government regulated seminary world would bring the closing of at least half of the nation’s theological institutions. And who knows what the remaining schools would teach? Higher criticism? Dispensationalism? Lutheran two-kingdom theology? Who knows. But I bet the bathrooms would be trans-friendly.


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