A Tale of Three Seminaries

A Tale of Three Seminaries September 9, 2014

The Twin Cities boasts three Protestant seminaries (forgive me if I don’t consider John Piper’s unaccredited school a seminary in full standing). They are Luther Seminary, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Bethel Seminary. And I think that the rising and falling fortunes of these three can tell us something interesting about the landscape of the church in America today. [Disclosure: I teach at United, I am part of a Templeton grant at Luther, and I once made out with a girl in the trees behind Bethel. I have friends who teach at all three.]

Luther Seminary was initially founded in 1917 as the merger of three Norwegian Lutheran seminaries. Another merger with Augsburg Seminary (also Norwegian) happened in 1963, and yet another merger in 1976 with Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary (English) led to Luther Northwestern Seminary. In 1994, they simplified the name to Luther Seminary. Luther is the largest of the eight seminaries of the ELCA denomination — with incoming classes of well over 100 — but it has recently fallen on hard times. Due to falling enrollment and financial mismanagement, the president and CFO were let go and many faculty and staff were laid off.

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities was also formed by a merger. In 1957, the United Church of Christ denomination was formed out of the merger of a couple denoms, and in 1962, UTS was founded as the merger of Yankton School of Theology (German Congregational) and Mission House (German Reformed). In the 1970s and 80s, UTS was at the forefront of liberalism, particularly feminist theology, and was among the first seminaries to enroll openly gay students. But their star faded, and in the last few years, incoming classes were in the low 30s. Today it serves primarily UCC, UMC, and UUA students.

Bethel Seminary was initially founded in Chicago in 1871. In 1914, it was acquired by the Baptist General Conference denomination and moved to Minnesota. Always evangelical in its outlook, Bethel made news in the 1990s when professors John Piper and Greg Boyd squared off, resulting in Boyd’s resignation and Piper’s withdrawal from Bethel and the BGC. In its heyday, Bethel was welcoming over 200 new students every year, but recently they’ve laid off all of their church historians as well as several other faculty members.

Here’s the interesting part:

This fall, each school has about 60 new students.*

Bethel is down from 200 to about 60.

Luther is down from over 100 to about 60.

And United is up from about 30 to 60.

So, what does this say about seminary education in 2014? Taken in aggregate, the numbers are down across the board, as are the enrollments at all seminaries. Each school is attempting to entice more students with online courses of study, and each is using adjunct and short-term employees to fill gaps in their faculties.

In the 2000s, Bethel expanded aggressively, opening campuses on both coasts and adding degree programs. Luther also planned for growth, adding a student center and faculty at great cost. UTS was simply trying to survive during those years, though they did add an expensive new chapel.

Now, Bethel has closed their East Coast location, frozen faculty pay, and laid off some faculty. According to sources, the current administration has tacked hard to the theological right, maybe in hopes that a committed conservative seminary will attract like-minded students.

Luther has staunched the bleeding with lay-offs and the cancellation of some degree programs. There’s a new president, and I hear that morale is higher this fall. I’ve predicted that more consolidations will come within ELCA seminaries, and it seems that Luther would benefit if that should happen.

United has hired two Bethel professors and Bethel’s former director of admissions. They’ve pared down the M.Div. program to fewer hours and lower cost. They’ve opened another location in a downtown warehouse, and they’ve begun offering community ed. classes on beekeeping, beer making, and bread baking.

I doubt there’s ever been a time when all three of these seminaries have had the same sizes of incoming classes. Nor would many people have predicted that in 2014, the evangelical seminary would be waning and the liberal seminary waxing. Does this mean that the conservative moment has passed? That progressive Christianity is marketable? This is too small a sample size to draw those kinds of conclusions. But it’s at least interesting to see what’s happening at our three seminaries.

What have you seen this fall at your seminary? Are numbers up or down? Is morale up or down?

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*UTS has 63 new students this fall, a confirmed number. I’ve heard from faculty at both Luther and Bethel that they have “about 60.” This does not include Bethel’s master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, which the other schools do not offer.

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You can find all of Tony’s books HERE, and you can sign up to be the first to know about his next book, Did God Kill Jesus? HERE.


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