Obituary for the Residential Seminary

Obituary for the Residential Seminary April 4, 2013

There’s lots of talk around the Twin Cities about what’s going on at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. The largest seminary of the ELCA, Luther’s president and CFO resigned late last year after disclosing a $6 million shortfall in 2012 (our of a $27 million annual budget). More recently, the interim president announced big cutbacks:

  • 18 of 125 staff were laid off immediately
  • 8 of 44 faculty members will retire this year and not be replaced
  • 5 more faculty will retire next year
  • The Masters of Sacred Music degree was terminated
  • No new PhD students will be admitted for at least 3 years

What exactly went wrong at Luther has not been disclosed, but the trends can no longer be ignored. Inside Higher Ed reports,

The changes at Luther have been unusually swift and dramatic. But the trends driving them are the same ones that seminaries are facing across the board. Enrollments are falling. Costs have increased, while student debt has become a bigger concern. Many Christian denominations, seeing their own ranks shrink, are providing less financial support than in the past. And as Americans as a whole become less religious — almost one-fifth of adults now have no religious affiliation — seminaries face an uncertain future.

The ELCA is indeed shrinking. As The Lutheran magazine reported in January,

Nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches reported an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 people in 2010. From 2003 to 2011, average weekly worship attendance dropped 26 percent. And from 2009 to 2010, ELCA membership decreased 5.9 percent, the sharpest rate of decline among mainline denominations, according to the National Council of Churches.

“Since the inception of the ELCA, we’ve seen decline every year, and it has accelerated over the last five years,” said Elizabeth Eaton, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. “It doesn’t matter where a congregation is situated, we have congregational decline in every demographic, every geography.”

That’s startling. And, when it comes to seminaries, there’s more supply than there is demand. According to the ELCA website, there are 9 ELCA seminaries and 2 extension campuses. There are three in the Upper Midwest alone: Luther, Wartburg (Dubuque, Iowa), and Chicago.

I’ve asked a couple Lutheran friends why the muckity-mucks at the ELCA headquarters in Chicago don’t consolidate these campuses down to two or three seminaries. It makes perfect sense, of course, to have one in the Northeast, one in the Midwest, and possibly one on the West Coast.

But my friends have told me that the bishops and bureaucrats in Chicago actually have no power (other than a bully pulpit) over the seminaries. There are too many tenured jobs at stake, too much endowment, too many buildings owned, too many alumni/ae with warm fuzzy memories of their own seminary experiences.

I have no insider knowledge, but from an outsider’s perspective, it looked to me like Luther Seminary was attempting to diversify — to become the Fuller Seminary of the mainline. Three of my compatriots from the Princeton PhD program have been hired in the past five years, Luther’s own PhD program was made more robust, and other projects like pastors’ conferences and were launched. I don’t know if they didn’t manage their expenses as they expanded these programs, or what happened. But the response seems clear: they are retrenching into their core business of providing Lutheran M.Div. degrees. That seems like a sketchy business model, based on the aforementioned report from The Lutheran.

Of course, none of this is unique to the ELCA. All mainline denominations are shrinking. Meanwhile, more and more seminarians are part-time students and second-career students, not interested in the residential dorms that take up half the campuses at places like Luther and Princeton seminaries.

We’ve seen some major human institutions undergo massive transformation in our lifetimes. Military warfare, for example, has gone from uniformed armies to insurgencies and guerrilla warfare. Other transformation is in our future: I suspect that governmental bloat will at some point cause our federal bureaucracy to implode.

The massive transformation that’s taking place right before our eyes is in education. The death of residential seminaries is happening contemporaneously with the rise of TED Talks and MOOCs. This summer you can take an online reading course with Pete Rollins and Tripp Fuller. Doug and I will be announcing next week our first round of Theological Learning Adventures.

Theological education is becoming more accessible and more diffuse. Residential seminaries of all stripes have a lot to offer — a lot! But if they don’t retool themselves now, before it’s too late, they will simply continue to whittle away at their programs, faculties, and endowments until they have nothing left to provide.

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