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?


*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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  • chris aho

    Student Debt looms large in this conversation.
    When I started Duke in 2000, money was cheap, the economy was good, and though the horizon wasn’t peachy, it wasn’t bad. But, with attendance and participation feeling down in congregations, even way down after the bump ups we felt from 2001-2004, it is hard to justify the cost for some people. I suspect.

    • One of the things that I appreciate about Luther is that they’re up-front about their students’ average debt and the school’s work on that: http://www.luthersem.edu/about/quickfacts.aspx?m=3380#financial

    • Teer Hardy

      Chris, this was one of the main reasons I switched from a M.Div. to a MTS at Wesley Theological Seminary in DC. I couldn’t justify the cost, nor responsibly take out loans I know I would be unable to pay back.

  • Robert Ezekiel Shell

    Going into my Senior year at Luther, I would say the morale and positivity is greatly increased from the past two years (for obvious reasons). Much of this settles around the new President, from both Lutheran and Non-Lutheran students. However, to be completely honest, I think a lot of Luther’s current situation falls on whether the students will be part of the change and transformation that is happening or continue to bury any attempts at revitalization with cynicism and disengagement.

    • Great point

    • Nate in Minneapolis

      Agreed, and I started at UTS and finished at Luther and am neither UCC or Lutheran.

  • With the question about debt that Christ brings up in the comments, I wonder how schools like Meadville Lombard factor into the comparison you’re making, Tony. Meadville is a VERY expensive school, but they have growing enrollment and are solvent.

    I’m thinking particularly of this recent article about Meadville Lombard: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/295277.shtml

  • davidinD

    Full disclosure; I’m a Bethel Seminary graduate and then went on to pursue a PhD at the Iliff School of Theology & the University of Denver; I’ve also been Iliff’s chief enrollment officer for the past 8 years.

    I think the changing enrollment trends at these three schools reflect several things. First, as Robert Wuthnow (Princeton sociologist of religion) first pointed out, American Evangelicalism has tended to demographically follow the mainliners by 30 years in many respects including educational attainment, ages of marriage, number of children, etc; graduate theological education should follow this same trend. The great slide in graduate mainline enrollment began a little more than 30 years ago and thus I think Evangelical schools are beginning a decline that can be partially explained by their constituency’s demographics.

    Second, having studied at both an evangelical and liberal mainline institution, I can personally attest to the latter being a significantly better choice even if you are conservative. On the first day of being in the classroom as a doctoral student at Iliff, I went home and said to my wife (also a Bethel MA grad); wow, we really missed out in terms of being able to have a truly open, well informed, and contemporarily relevant education. The difference between the range of discussion topics, and the openess that was availed was starkly different between Bethel and Iliff. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have some really good faculty and student colleagues at Bethel, but rather that the faith statement and conservative orientation of a place like Bethel really impeded what a graduate education in the humanities should be about: wide open thinking, inquiry, and discussion. I think more people are figuring this out and this is an advantage for a place like United and Luther over a place like Bethel.

    Third, given that the mainliners still require an MDiv to be ordained, while many evangelical churches do not, there tends to be a stronger occupational reason for United and Luther’s student pools to continue to study even during difficult economic times in churches. The failure of Evangelical churches to demand theologically well-trained pastors has adversely impacted places like Bethel more than the other two.

    Finally, theological education on the whole is in real trouble. There are less than 70,000 total students in more than 200 ATS accredited theological schools, and that figure is shrinking every year. Thus, to be very direct, we have an oversupply of graduate theological institutions in North America; some will be forced to close due to sheer market forces. Almost every seminary/divinity/theological school in America is facing some sort of significant challenge and thus all three listed in this article are in a similar boat. That said, anytime a theological school can gain in enrollment over a sustained period it is noteworthy so kudos are deserved at United.

    Thanks for a good article Tony!

    David Worley (Iliff School of Theology – Denver)

    PS: Most schools enroll year around, so really you should be looking at total annual new student enrollment. My hunch is that it wouldn’t change the thrust of the article, but it is a more accurate reflection of a theological school’s actual enrollment performance.

  • BelgianFriar

    Interesting read. I had no idea that all three were down that much. I wonder if this data is telling us anything, it is not telling us as much about which theological expression is gaining than it is about seminary as a whole growing increasingly irrelevant. Non-denoms are doing better (depending on how we define “better”) than mainlines, and non-denoms often do not have the formal education requirements that mainlines have for many of their pastors. That, I think, is what we need to pay attention to. Is seminary as necessary as we think it is or once was? Perhaps just as the Church is needing to radically rethink its entire way of being in the world, so too must we radically rethink the way in which we train/educate our leaders. Our leaders must be theologically educated, but how we go about doing that may need to be reimagined along with the reimagined church for whom we train those leaders.

    • SaraWG

      Hey Belgian Friar- I’d encourage you to read my response to Tony’s post: http://wp.me/p1LgJ6-3v.

      • Ghost_King

        Love how you blow Tony’s words out of proportion. You also have a spell mistake or two-seems you were really angry when u wrote it? I didnt see any of what you said Tony’s intentions were, and i am not even part of ur country. Also he stated his involvement with the named three seminaries. This makes it more likely that his intentions wasnt all “ugly” as you make it out to be. Lastly i can take DavidinD’s words as truthful, being part of those systems himself and writing down his true hearts feelings for open dialogue. It always seems to me, when i hear people like SaraWG, that they are so fondly more aggressive patriotic towards a system rather than the living kingdom we say we live in. Take a breather- i think if you claim to know Tony’s heart then you wouldnt try to “destroy” his integrity in open dialogue- or maybe you just dont like him, i would know.

  • Thanks, Tony. When you say “Down from” is that from last semester, last fall, or something else? When you wrote “new students” you mean people who have not attended previously and this is across all degree programs?

    • I mean from last fall. And I mean those who are in ministry-prep degrees, primarily the MDiv.

      • Thanks!

        • SaraWG

          Hi- I posted more of the numbers on my blog in response: http://wp.me/p1LgJ6-3v.

          • Guest

            Sara – give it a rest. You seem to think it is your duty to bring “truth” to each new comment of this dialog. I will say – I went to a very conservative Seminary in Boston and the numbers there are definitely down. They are also down at two of the more Driscoll-esqe, conservative seminaries I know of in the south. This is indeed a trend across the US which we are speaking about. I’ve definitely noticed it and enjoying dialogue – not because I want to tear anyone down, but there is nothing to “fear” or threaten in discussion.

  • Tim McCoy

    Tony, great dialogue. Could it be a reflection of a shift in consciousness, a whole new shift in world views? From the separate, even fragmented view of reality to a holistic, connected view of reality. Good-bad. Right-Wrong. Conservative-Liberal. These are part of a dualistic thinking that can no longer be sustained due to science. Quantum Physicists are sounding more and more like Ancient Wisdom Teachers. The old dualistic model was inevitably going to die as we have learned it did not accurately reflect reality. This is a natural death and an exciting time as we are part of resurrection. Wonderful, wonderful interaction. With gratitude.

  • SaraWG

    Hey Tony- I wrote a response to your post…http://wp.me/p1LgJ6-3v.

    • I read it. I think my post was a lot less incendiary than you take it to be. It was more about trends based on anecdotal conversations, not about the inevitable triumph of liberalism. The triumph of liberalism — like the survival of UTS — is anything but inevitable.

      • Nate in Minneapolis

        I don’t think SWG wrote that she thought your article was about “the inevitable triumph of liberalism” and the first time I read your article it isn’t clear to me you’re talking about “trends based on anecdotal conversations.” And with respect, your intentions in writing the post are one thing. How it is received is another.

      • SaraWG

        Hey Tony- My concern is that by your posting “trends based on anecdotal conversations” that you ignored the public nature and power of your platform. People listen to you and when you aren’t careful and make broad sweeping statements without actually having the correct data, then you end up causing effects that are (as you write) “incendiary” in nature. Your post prompted a lot of conversation on FB and fueled a notion that Luther and Bethel are in real trouble while United is moving forward into a preferred future…which isn’t fair or true! As I wrote- all three schools are facing various challenges and all have particular possibilities of promise and beauty. Additionally, part of my post was challenging you to be more intentional since you are a public figure and ensure as best as you are able (like by talking with the admissions people) that you are telling a story that is verifiable…because otherwise it appears that you are trying to be provocative without concern for how your writing negatively impacts others.

        • Clint Schnekloth

          I agree with Sara. Tony needs to offer a much more substantial response to you rather than dismiss your post as “over-reading” his. Tony, let’s hear you respond to Sara’s careful analysis with some actual content and response.

          • Sara is writing about last year’s numbers and previous years, all publicly available on the ATS site. I acknowledged the historic differences at the three schools, which she does as well. Sara also avoids mentioning the 50+% drop at Bethel between 2006 and 2013, also available publicly from ATS (and that’s before three popular professors left).

            I’m writing about this year’s numbers. Those are not published, unless the schools choose to release them. I’ll follow up Monday with responses from any of the schools that email me, and I’ll follow up again in 2015 when ATS publishes this year’s numbers.

            Sara’s analysis is indeed careful, as you suggest. I appreciate what she’s written.

    • Jennifer

      Yes! Everyone needs to read your post, SaraWG. You report facts and first-hand knowledge over hype and personal agenda. What Mr. Jones may have meant versus what he messaged appears to be miles apart. Anyone considering a seminary degree in the Twin Cities is advised to read your excellent, factual response and coverage of the current status of these three seminaries.

    • Tim

      Sara, it’s interesting in reading the comments on your blog that you’ve had to backtrack from many of the statements, and you’ve basically admitted that Tony’s post made you so mad that you were provoked into mischaracterizations. I think that’s very telling.

      I also think this post, by someone very familiar with all three schools, also shows that you’re misrepresenting what’s really going on: https://www.facebook.com/thorsten.moritz/posts/10205086337824296

  • To any who think I rigged the numbers because I’m an adjunct prof at UTS, I didn’t. As I wrote, I’m also part of a grant at Luther and have many friends there — I am very much pulling for Luther to fully recover from its recent troubles. In fact, I have a stake in their recovery as a grant recipient. And I’m also well aware that, even with 60 new students, UTS may not survive. Every staff member there knows that and talks about it openly.

    I’m trying to compare apples-to-apples here, basically M.Div FTEs. We won’t know exactly what those numbers are until ATS publishes them next year. In 2013, it was:
    Luther: 309
    Bethel: 129
    United: 53

    I’m suggesting that they’ll be closer to one another in 2014. And I was really working with anecdotal evidence based on conversations.

    I’ve invited the admissions directors of all three schools to respond, and if they do I will post their responses unedited.

    • SaraWG

      Hey Tony- I’m glad you reached out to the Directors of Admissions at all three of the schools. Again, to be clear…none of what you write here matches what you said in your original post (with the exception that you are a part of both Luther and UTS and that UTS has 60 new students for this fall). You didn’t compare apples to apples…if you had included what you did in this response then I would have actually really appreciated your original post!

  • At least it tells us something about the landscape of the church in the midwest. I’m not sure every region has the same trends, but maybe they do. I’m curious how your other occasional employer Fuller Seminary would compare with Claremont School of Theology. I know Fuller has had some drops in enrollment causing issues and likewise has adjusted their MDiv downwards. Azusa Pacific has also been hit, and also has changed the MDiv requirements. So those are the conservatives. I don’t know about CST or other “liberal” schools.

    • davidinD

      Claremont has been relatively stable or growing, but that had a lot to do with a major financial gift they received to launch ‘Claremont Lincoln University.’ It would be hard to compare Fuller and CST over the past 5 years and draw any macro conclusions simply because of one huge gift.

  • davidinD

    One point that hasn’t really been engaged here is the rather unsexy notion that demographics have a lot to do with evangelical declines in seminaries. This was what I was referring to with:

    “…as Robert Wuthnow (Princeton sociologist of religion) first pointed out, American Evangelicalism has tended to demographically follow the mainliners by 30 years in many respects including educational attainment, ages of marriage, number of children, etc; graduate theological education should follow this same trend. The great slide in graduate mainline enrollment began a little more than 30 years ago and thus I think Evangelical schools are beginning a decline that can be partially explained by their constituency’s demographics.”

    In other words, regardless of what one thinks ideologically, Evangelical schools will face a certain amount of downward enrollment pressure (at least domestically) due to the changing numbers of Evangelicals of seminary age in the pews.

    • I think that’s a great point. It’s surely not just theology or heritage at each of these schools. The fact is, both evangelical and mainline seminaries overbuilt during heady times, and now comes the time for some pruning.

      • Fuller was definitely hit by the heady times. Now they’ve sold off most of their student housing (everything but the huge new Chang buildings). Got out of the student housing business, let their bookstore go too, first to the Methodists, and then the last couple of years to Archives.

        Evangelicals also tend to derive from denominations that don’t require an MDiv or such degree. So, there’s a curious split, with the less Evangelical mainlines get, such as PCUSA for instance, the less overall demand their will be from those who might have otherwise gone that route. Fuller has a sizable population of students who want but don’t need an advanced degree, with cost becoming a prohibitive factor.

        Pruning for all is involved.