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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  • jkingcade

    What are your thoughts about St. Paul School of Theology’s move to consolidate operations with Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City? Or more broadly, the move to reconnect the seminary to the church (even if for financial rather than theological reasons)?

  • David Blackwell

    I am a very satisfied MA and MDIV graduate of Northwest Nazarene University. I had a job. This allowed me a rigorous study experience, while stil maintains my job and my role as church pastor. The best part was that my ongoing experiences as a pastor and the life of my church were intentionally included in the syllabus of pretty much every class.

  • I received my MDiv from one of the ELCA seminaries (Southern in Columbia, SC). Because of their budget shortfall, they merged with Lenoir-Rhyne University.

    Some of the issues at the ELCA seminaries have to do with mismanagement. Southern built a new apartment complex right before I started there, to the tune of a few million…the problem was, they had neglected one of the other two sets of apartments…

    As to why the ELCA doesn’t consolidate down to 2-3 seminaries? I think that might have to do with the unique history of some of the seminaries. Gettysburg and Southern are both over 175 years old. I have no issue getting rid of the seminary in Philly and Ohio. Atlanta is an extension program and probably could be eliminated too…same with the Southwest extension in Texas. Leave Pacific and let Chicago, Wartburg, and Luther to battle it out (My bet would be on Chicago). That would leave 4 ELCA seminaries. But since I’m not in any position of leadership in the ELCA, it won’t happen.

    • Dana

      To Craig:

      I am a graduate of one of the seminaries “you have no issue getting rid of,” namely Trinity in Columbus, OH. Looking at your comment, I am trying to understand what makes you have “no problem” just closing it down.

      TLS was founded the same year as LTSS (1830) and has just as “unique” of a history. It also is the only ELCA seminary without any debt, has the second largest alumni base, and has its sister school, Capital University, literally across the street. Moreover, TLS has an extensive and unique partnership with Bexley Hall (an Episcopal Seminary) that could provide a model for future ecumenical partnerships at other schools. The arguments for keeping TLS open are as strong or stronger than any other ELCA seminary.

      Which is the whole problem: if consolidation occurs, how can you decide which school gets closed and how do you justify it to its many constituencies (alumni, donors, faculty, neighboring congregations, supporting synods, etc)? None of us wants “our” seminary closed…

      We want regional diversity, but we live in a church with unequal membership distribution (it might make sense to keep multiple seminaries in the Midwest- cause that’s where the bulk of ELCA Lutherans are). In addition, consolidation might not make anything better… “getting rid” of congregations rarely leaves the ones left behind larger when the dust settles, and the LCMS with only two seminaries is struggling with theological education in a very similar manner.

      Maybe the solution is for the church to stop treating theological education as a luxury item. Maybe its time for older pastors (who went to seminary when it was basically free) and the congregations who benefit from their service should consider the injustice of the massive withdrawal of support to seminaries in the past few decades. Maybe its time for the church to say: we value having trained pastors and we are prepared to pay to have them.

      In the meantime, I think every ELCA seminary is working incredibly hard to adapt to the challenges they are facing. Lots of smart, talented people are putting together creative solutions and finding new avenues towards sustainability. They deserve our full support.

      • The primary (and lets be honest, selfish) reason is it doesn’t affect me. It’s not “my” seminary. I personally have not had positive experienced with Trinity graduated and so my bias plays into my opinion. But Trinity does seem to have it together financially.

        I do think the ecumenical argument can be made by a lot of the ELCA seminaries. Southern, for example has a Methodist and Baptist studies program.

  • This same dynamic is affecting all higher education, in general. It is not unique to denominational seminaries.

    The biggest challenge with the diffuse nature of education you describe, is nobody has yet figured out a way to certify a standard of achievement for someone educated by TED talks and MOOCs. Until this credentialing problem is solved, accredited colleges will always have a role to play.

    The question is whether a brick-and-morter college can weather these changes. Luther Seminary just posted an opening for a “Learning Designer and Technologist”, apparently to try get a stronger foothold with online and digital instruction. But if Luther Sem, or ELCA, doesn’t already have a robust digital education project underway, they are starting off way behind the curve.

    These are challenging times for higher education. The colleges with the deepest pockets will survive, and consolidation is a luxury that the ELCA still has that can give them some slack that other seminaries may not have. But until someone solves the credentialing problem, traditional colleges will always have a role to play.

    • Mark Christianson

      Education is undergoing something of an identity crisis. What people seem to be demanding is essentially vocational training (even if it doesn’t fit the mold of an old style trade school with which such a term is associated). We have large quantities of communications majors or business majors rather than English, psychology, or economics majors. Businesses want to hire people without investing in extensive training. Students and their parents want to be able to walk into a good paying job right out of college directly using what they studied while there. Politicians want what businesses want. Education leaders want students, happy parents, and happy business and political leaders. And so many are less concerned about the what education does to people than the credential they have at the end of it. TED talks and MOOCs are busy conveying interesting ideas and information, one (limited) topic at a time. Getting short changed is guidance in thought and analysis and the development of an intellect; a basic education that is adaptable and which is as much about being a well-rounded person with a full life as it is getting that good paycheck or fueling the economy. None of the supposed alternatives or competitors of traditional education really provides, well, education. Solving the credentialing problem really only provides a piece of paper of limited value. It doesn’t solve an educational problem.

      Treating the issue like a question of product development, fulfilling market desires, and marketing isn’t going to get us very far for very long, I fear. Staying still will certainly not help. The ELCA needs to think very carefully about what it needs for the long term. We too easily get bogged down in not unimportant questions of skills and knowledge needed now. How will we approach being church? What role do we expect pastors to have and how will they be in our communities? Do we think of the role of seminary in terms of the verbs train, teach, or form? Or something else? My own thought is that formation should be primary, and we need ongoing face-to-face relationships, rather than information, skills, and distance learning to accomplish that. But we need to be clear about what we value to both make the right decisions about how to do that, make it important to ourselves, and find it supported as a central function of this thing we call the church, whether it looks very much like what we’ve had or very different than what we have today.

  • Brian P.

    There’s another element that’s this: the traditional seminary product seems a bit antiquated. We’re getting more and more to a environment of religious pluralism. The Internet is changing the rules of everything. People can peer richly inside their own and others’ faiths, beliefs, rituals, institutions and see all of the good, the bad, the ugly. In many ways, the institutions prepare individuals for ministry in a culturally isolated environment that no longer exists.

    • Andy

      Then how to explain the growth of evangelical denominations like Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God? I think what we are seeing is increasing polarization with skeptics on one end and evangelicals/conservatives on the other, with the mainlines in the middle taking the hit. Who knows where progressives fit in…

      • Southern Baptists are also shrinking. I don’t know about AoG.

        • Just graduated from Southwestern Assemblies of God University myself. From what I can tell, the denomination is shrinking in America and Europe, but growing in other parts of the world (Africa and India in particular, at least according to our own missions department).

          The school itself seems to be gearing up for growth, but the actual number of students seems to be hitting a plateau. I am in agreement with you that any university or seminary needs to take the changes that are happening in higher education seriously. Stop building enormous buildings that will be of no use in ten years and start catering to distance education students. That seems to be a necessary step if they want to at least survive.

      • Membership in Southern Baptists is declining too..

        Assemblies of God are up, but Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims are outpacing them.

        If numerical growth and truth are somehow correlated, then orthodox Christians are on the wrong side of truth. But Jesus never spoke of statistics, so I’ll trust there is more to God than numbers.

  • It’s not entirely true that chuchwide has no authority over what happens to the seminaries. It’s certainly true that there are historical loyalties which are way more powerful than an outsider can imagine — but churchwide has quite a bit of say in who serves on the boards of the seminaries, and some believe that factor has reduced the financial expertise present on the boards.

    Higher education in general is undergoing upheaval. It’s not at all surprising that the seminary model is part of that upheaval.

  • toddh

    I’m not sure why, but something strikes me as odd in the critique of the residential seminary, given that you were the beneficiary of that model, at least twice over. You would likely not be where you are now without the residential seminary – nor would I for that matter. As a Luther graduate, it’s a tough story for me. Two of those leaving or forced to leave were on my dissertation committee. I love the direction that Luther has taken over the years, but clearly the new cultural realities as well as the bad economy has taken its toll.

    • Don’t blame the economy for this, Todd.

      • I think the economy can certainly be blamed, at least in part, for the decline in seminaries. I work in Admissions at one of the ELCA seminaries, and I can speak for myself and my colleagues at the other seven when I say that the enduring refrain these days is that people simply cannot afford to quit their jobs or sell their homes in addition to taking on the financial responsibility of attending seminary. I wasn’t around in the seminary world prior to 2008, so I don’t know if the stories were different then, but the numbers alone are astonishing: the number of entranced candidates in the ELCA prior to 2008 is astronomically higher than the number of entranced candidates now. There are people out there with incredible gifts, who know that seminaries and churches could use those talents right now, in the midst of decline, but there’s no way they can make it happen without incurring significant educational debt (which now comes at an immediate 6.8% interest rate, an addition of about $1,400 per year for the average student). It’s a cycle: students can’t afford to come to seminary, seminaries have to balance their budget on fewer students, and can’t afford to do as much as they once could. I see astounding creativity every day on the part of students and faculty and staff at the seminaries, and I can’t even imagine what that might be like if we added to the mix all the students who sense the call to ministry but can’t afford to make it a reality.

    • Well there will probably always been *some* residential denominational seminaries, as well as university divinity schools, but they’ll be serving a smaller segment of the population. What will replace them will be the interesting question.

  • T.S.Gay

    Honestly, resident seminaries sent out people to become managers. Trained in the balancing act of finances, stress, knowledge, relations. I almost said CEO’s., because that is how they worked at the local level. I really believe it became part and parcel to a church that had triumphed over persecution in its days of weakness, but corrupted as it transitioned to power. To me the heart of the gospel forever excludes any “cause” within history becoming translated into some program, and that includes Christianity. The cross enlightens the fact that man… made in God’s image and covenant partner.. has in fact always turned against his partner. Nevertheless God has refused to let us go, accepts the betrayal, and bore the pain. And yet we still are refractory to that spirit. Don’t send me leaders….some heavenly counterpart to any earthly success method… fact, I really wonder if any young person on a trajectory of virtues like the beatitudes should seek a resident seminary education. But we certainly need more of them. Somewhere there are upside down ideas about seminary- a radical discontinuity from what has evolved.

  • Alan K

    The joke in my own denomination (PCUSA) is this: Presbyterianism is well situated should the year 1957 roll around again. It always gets a hearty laugh followed by some quieter but longer groaning.

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  • Dan Hauge

    I basically agree that the entrenched institutional model, as it now stands, will need to make some serious adjustments. What I am interested in is how, given the ever-diffusing models of how we get educated, we can hold on to certain key elements that I think the residential seminary provides: 1) Extended face to face dialogue with teachers and fellow students, 2) Full access to extensive library systems, and 3) Standards and credentialing (as Curtis mentions above).

    #2 may be easier than I realize–as someone not currently enrolled in an institution in 10 years I’ve found it a little tricky to figure getting back on the inter-library loan system, but this may just be that I haven’t tried hard enough :). But I do have serious concerns that we may start thinking that the level of interaction on an online course can somehow replace the experience of a learning community, with shared personal space and interaction. I think there is a place for the online learning model (there has to be, it’s inevitable whether fussbudgets like me like it or not), but I’d like to see real effort made toward creating systems that can honor the diffusion but still make physical community part of the experience.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot since i read it earlier today. It’s slightly personal because I have friends who are acquainted with Luther (staff, alumni, and about to begin as students there) and so when I heard of the hardships, I felt for them. I never did finish seminary, but I do know that the part I was going to have a difficult time with was fulfilling the residential requirement. I love online classes, but depending on the degree you can only take 1/2 to 2/3 of them online. Everything else must be done residentially. For me personally, this was (and will be, if/when I ever go back) a hardship. While I am not sure what needs to change in seminaries (because I am really lacking in knowledge as to how they are run), the things that I know would benefit me and probably many others would be 1) financial aid for part-time students as well as full-time students 2) no time limit to complete a degree, as long as one is working on it consistently or has good reason to take a long break from it 3) opportunity to do more online (though I understand there are accreditation issues with this).

    I also wish we would look at a seminary education as more of a lifetime learning process rather than just a 3-4 year event done in order to be a pastor. Then you have the denominations or Christians who look at education with disdain, but who will ordain any male they want.

  • Last year I had a conversation with a college friend about Luther. She was “worried” (as only evangelicals can worry) about someone she knew who was planning to go to Luther, as the school, apparently, is “very liberal.” Attending an ELCA church or school has become a statement since the split(s) within the ELCA. In the broader (or maybe just louder) evangelical culture, identifying with the ELCA (or mainline, in general) is code for being a “fake/lazy/deceived Christian.” It makes sense that seminarians who want to be as marketable as possible upon ordination would not want to affiliate themselves with this institution when simply being associated with the ELCA might cause them to be looked over for a job.
    Also: Shay Kearns at Anarchist Reverend wrote an interesting article awhile back about the mainline’s PR problem:

  • Luke A

    Word on the street is that Bethel is doing the same thing….

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  • PS anafterthought

    A woman from my church is a distance learner seminarian at Luther Sem. She says that the on-line learning is comprised of a very rich discussion and back and forth with the other students and the professors. Then the students get together for a couple of intense one or two week sessions per year, where they are finally face to face. She says that the professors have remarked about their depth of community developed in the on line classes and the day long sessions. Well, I hope I’m not misrepresenting that. But it sounded great. In contrast, a pastor I know well did one intense year at another seminary to get a second masters. The year consisted of class time, travel back and forth time to the apartment in another part of the city, family time, and study time. She did not become acquainted with any other seminarians aside from one she already knew. I’m just pointing out that physical presence doesn’t necessarily equate with “community building.”

  • ERW

    As a student of both PLTS (Berkeley) and LSTC (Chicago), I was constantly frustrated with so many things. Being prepared to lead the church of the 1950’s is how I would sum it up. They are brainstorming solutions, but I’m not sure if they are remotely on the right track. Should we be letting go of our highly academic heritage and just training people pastorally and on the Biblical basics? The problem I often had was that it wasn’t academic or spiritual enough. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology has a great model, I like what I have seen and heard coming out of Fuller and Claremont. But I fear that our ELCA seminaries are going to be doing restructuring for the 80’s, not today. Much like our training for Mission Developers is not so much training people for ministry in our current context — I learned more at last years Church Planters Academy than most of my colleagues have at the MD training.
    When I was at PLTS (last year), I wrote a three part series on my seminary experience, if anyone is interested. I was very frustrated, so it is probably a bit ranty. Here’s part 1:

  • The difficulty with residential seminary models is that the dependable money–students in mainline denominations who need an M.Div for ordination–is still big enough to keep the traditional models traditional, even as such denominations are shrinking. No one is quite willing to jump at a missional model degree, that could be holistic and thus make much more sense of the residential status.

    An embedded degree program that combines an inward and outward orientation–a contemporary, monastic, combining learning with practice is needed for actual church ministry leadership, but there’s not a consistent enough demand for seminaries to let go the “Just what the 1950s ordered” seminary models and really embrace a more transformative degree programs. The pastors who graduate, then, are prepared to lead in models that mostly don’t work (the occasional mega church are the exceptions) and unprepared to lead in ways that actually fit their context.

    Seminaries are a bit like television or movie executives. They play it safe, or if they try to risk they do so with so many strangleholds on the creativity that it’s worse than if they just didn’t try.

  • John Michalski

    Come to Nashotah House. If you offer something real, people will respond.

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  • Tom Brackett

    This description of the good people involved is so disappointing. “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.”

    It will not be possible to discern new possibilities if we do not accept that we are a part of this system that Tony Jones is describing. I come from a Reform tradition. I understand iconoclastic urges. I know how to speak truth to power. This caricature of the leaders who are working their way through this delicate moment of transition is not at all helpful.

    Some suggestions? This is not the problem of muckety-mucks and bureaucrats. This is a problem/challenge for all of us to discern, but in a spirit of generosity and compassion. These same challenges and opportunities are showing up in public education and health care and even in … (get this!) … non-denominational movements. It makes it very difficult to say these things about others and then come to the table and discern together how we might move forward on this.

    May I ask that we honor each other – presume good will – in the hopes of discerning together what it means to follow Jesus in this crazy moment.

    • Sorry you found it offensive, Tom. Several of your comments about me recently have gotten back to me. I find those offensive. So maybe we can call it even and agree to disagree about the potential of denominational bureaucracies.

      For what it’s worth, it seems to me as an observer that the ECUSA has done a better job adapting to changes in society than most denoms.

      • Tom, I’ll call you, and I will remove your comment so that your phone number is not public.

      • Tom Brackett

        Tony, I look forward to your call. You are welcome to keep my phone number up there – it’s public anyway. I also want to be clear that I did not describe any part of your post as offensive. I was not offended. I was disappointed – not with you but with the disparaging of the leaders named as “muckety-mucks and bureaucrats.” That’s truly a caricature of the good and lovely people trying to lead these struggling institutions. My well-being is directly wrapped up in their well-being. My well-being is also connected to yours. I would welcome a call or, if you like, I will call you. I am grateful that you are engaging these issues with your usual perspicacity, Tony. Your companion in ministry, Tom. 646-203-6266

  • George Waite

    Theology is a product fewer people want to buy.