Navigating the Decline of America’s Seminaries

Navigating the Decline of America’s Seminaries May 17, 2022

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has announced that it is selling its campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts.  The administration describes the sale as “the latest in a long series of re-inventions” for the school”, but for those familiar with the academy this is happy-talk. A seminary without a library and a campus has to make steep compromises in the size of its faculty, the programs it offers, and the kind of  community it can build. And such announcements are always the beginning of slow decline.  Among evangelical schools this process had already started at Fuller Theological Seminary, which has been unable to sell its campus and is still burdened with unmanageable debt.

But the trend is not unique to evangelical schools.  Mainline seminaries have been in decline for over two decades now.  In my own denomination this trend included the sale of Seabury’s campus in Evanston, Illinois and its merger with Bexley Seminary in Rochester, NY.  The sale of Bexley’s campus in Rochester and eventually the sale of Seabury-Bexley’s campus (a house, really) in Columbus, Ohio, was the next step in its devolution.  The merged operation is now housed at Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park and competes with five other seminaries in the Chicago area.  Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was already the product of one merger.  After selling interest in its buildings and property to Lesley University, it finally sold the rest of its property, dissolved its faculty, and moved its operation to Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  Today its Dean also functions as what passes as the schools remaining faculty, relying largely on the faculty at its host institution.

Developments of this kind are accompanied by other smaller, less public retrenchment: cuts in the size of faculties, endless experimentation with strategies for delivering education (including remote, online and hybrid formats), curricular innovation – often with an eye to looking for students who aren’t necessarily interested in traditional forms of ministry – and the development of new degree programs.  These efforts are not the product of any malevolent designs, and they are not always done to forestall decline, but the changing math of the environment is definitely a factor.

Alongside the growth of mainline Protestantism during the fifties and sixties, seminaries grew as well.  The size of the modern seminary was only sustainable as long as a fresh cohort of prospective students was available as well.  For a time, there were more than enough students: Returning veterans from World War II swelled the ranks of seminaries.  The war in Vietnam produced its own cohort of prospects.  Women’s ordination was one of the most significant developments in growing the demographic of the modern seminary.  And second-vocation Boomers who went back to school after building careers elsewhere were part of the last surge that led seminaries to believe that they could continue to grow.

Those trends began to trail-off in the nineties, however, and the trend was further exacerbated by the conflicts that roiled mainline Protestantism over sexual orientation.  That debate and the rise of SBNRs – people who think of themselves as Spiritual, But Not Religious – further diminished the size and number of mainline churches and with it, the number of full-time openings for clergy.  Those dynamics also made parish ministry less attractive to prospective students who could not miss the challenges inherent in leading conflicted congregations.  But those conflicts also further divided the pool of prospective students, with ecclesiastical leaders driving their ordinands to one seminary or another, depending upon their social commitments.

Hard behind these developments there have been factors that threaten the future of mainline seminaries:

  • One, the implosion of mainline Protestantism: There are now more SBNRs in the United States than there are mainline Protestants. Seminaries are working to develop other cohorts of prospective seminarians, but the truth is that theological seminaries are not schools of economics, politics, or public policy, and they cannot promise the same career possibilities that other institutions can offer.
  • Two, the ties between the church and seminaries have been weak and they are going to weaken further. Some denominations have never supported their seminaries.  Churches that supported their seminaries are cutting that support or eliminating altogether.
  • Three, the church is further eroding those ties by opting to develop their own regional programs and ordaining the people who complete their work there.
  • Four, Covid hit commuter schools and residential programs hard, and it isn’t clear that they will recover.
  • Five, Covid also demonstrated that online education is not the panacea that it was once thought to be. It turns out that – for all its touted flexibility – online education is simply not the same.  Students know it.  Faculty do as well.
  • Six, some denominations (notably, the United Methodists) are yet to face the division and down-sizing that will accompany still more conflict.

Some schools prepared for these trends.  Others did not.  Some of the trends could be foreseen.  Some of them, like Covid, could not be anticipated.  Some seminaries made adjustments ahead of the trends.  Others exacerbated the challenges that they faced by investing in buildings they could not afford and by adding layers of administrative assistance that they did not need – even after some of the trends became evident.

The implications, however, are now unavoidable and there will be more “strategic initiatives”, mergers, property sales, and faculty down-sizing.  Sadly, because seminaries have their own boards and are independent institutions, in the aggregate the adjustments made will be haphazard.

How do students navigate this complex landscape?  Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:

For seminarians preparing for ministry in the church: Beware of programs that have been retooled to serve a wide-ranging cohort of students.  The program you enroll in may not be geared to parish ministry and may leave you with substantial gaps in the preparation that you receive.  Beware, too, of the church pushing you into programs that are unaccredited substitutes for a seminary education.  We still live in a credentialed culture and even if you are ordained by your church, you will be ill-served in the long run by certification programs that cannot offer those credentials.

For seminarians preparing for ministry beyond the church: Remember that – depending on the place that you hope to serve – having a theological degree may hinder your finding employment in the non-profit world.  It is certainly commendable to live out of your spiritual and theological commitments, but those commitments will be peripheral to the mission of institutions without a religious affiliation.  In those places degrees in non-profit business administration, public policy, social work, economics, and political science remain the more attractive form of preparation.  It may be better to get a good, sound, informal theological orientation to support your sense of vocation.

For students interested in theological education, exercise caution: Do not pursue a PhD if your goal is to teach in a seminary or in the academy at large.  The number of jobs will continue to diminish.  Pursuing a terminal degree is worth it only if it will equip you for a variety of endeavors and only if you can afford it.  Adjunct teaching pays poorly, stretches the energies of those who do it, leaves little or no space for research, and offers little chance for advancement.

I wish that I could offer a larger, comprehensive solution.  Unfortunately, as churches and seminaries have drifted apart there have been fewer and fewer constructive conversations about what churches need and what seminaries might do.  The result is a free-for-all, governed by Darwinian principles.  Seminarians and prospective seminarians should bear in mind that it is not their responsibility to shoulder the consequences.


Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash









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