America’s mainline Protestant seminaries are in crisis, but so far they seem to be spending more energy dodging tough choices than preparing for the future. A recent article at Inside Higher Ed describes the enrollment collapse at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Luther is one of the most important Lutheran seminaries in the country, but its status wasn’t enough to insulate it from the forces upending seminaries everywhere. Enrollment fell off sharply, and the institution “was running multimillion-dollar deficits, spending down its endowment and relying on loans.”
The seminary’s response? It’s making some painful cuts, letting go of some staff and reducing the number of degree programs it offers. Luther isn’t alone; seminaries all over the country are facing tough choices.
In many cases, survival has required selling off property or losing independence. More seminarians enroll later in life than in the past, meaning that seminaries often don’t need buildings filled with dorms and apartments. Others have worked to develop online programs, requiring less of a physical footprint, and selling or leasing their additional facilities.
These may be steps in the right direction, but they are baby steps at the beginning of a very long march. Higher ed is in trouble in every branch of learning, but the crisis facing seminaries is worse than that facing any other professional degree program. Seminaries, and especially those serving mainline Protestant denominations, have to change faster than law school or PhD programs if they want to survive. And selling some property or firing some staff, though sadly necessary in many cases, is just the start to a wrenching period of transformative change.
In effect, these churches are clinging to the ministry model that dominated mainline churches in the 20th century. Seminary leaders act as if the average seminary grad will still earn an average salary in an average church, that that salary can still support the loan payments that keep tuition levels high enough to support a traditional seminary, and that denominations or rich believers can and will make up the difference between tuition and cost. These assumptions are almost certainly false.
As we’ve noted before, the modern American church, especially among mainline Protestants, but also to some degree among Catholics and evangelicals, got mixed up in the blue social model. The clergy became a ‘profession’ like the others. People pursued careers in the ministry, complete with grievance procedures and pension programs. Denominations built up regional and national organizations that were staffed with professional staff. Progress was seen as replacing volunteers with certified, graduate educated professionals: Directors of Sacred Music and Directors of Christian Education. People built lots of buildings they couldn’t afford to maintain. From an organization perspective, denominational bureaucracies were like GM and IBM in the 1950s and 1960: hierarchical, growing every year, and offering employees jobs for life.
Neither Jesus nor any of the twelve apostles could get a job in any self-respecting mainline church in America today; none of them had a degree from an accredited seminary.
So part of America’s contemporary religious crisis has to do with the decline and fall of this blue model church, and any solutions to that crisis need to involve creative ways of transitioning to a post-blue era. More and more mainline Protestant ministers can expect to be part time or volunteer. The traditional denominations (each with a network of expensive seminaries and bureaucracies) will have to consolidate. Church bureaucrats will largely need to disappear.
This means that seminaries will have to change much more fundamentally than firing a few professors or selling off some dorms. Christianity is going to have to be more of a mission and less of a profession in the future. It may be that future ministers will learn the trade the way Peter learned from Jesus and Timothy from Paul: they watch the masters at work, and start their own pastoring careers under the supervision of someone they respect.
It’s not surprising that most seminaries and denominational bureaucracies would rather think about anything than the collapse of their business models. But rethinking the way the churches work is an essential part of the mission of Christian leaders today, and their failure to engage bespeaks a much broader failure to grasp the challenges of our times.
Pivoting off of the Inside Higher Ed piece, Rod Dreher asks about possible solutions to the wider troubles facing US seminaries. He writes:
What liberal Christians will say is, “Be more liberal!” What conservative Christians will say is, “Be more conservative!” Neither strategy seems suited to the nature of this crisis.
Dreher is completely right that the problems facing seminaries aren’t just theological. And it’s more than a question of budgets; penny-pinching won’t see them through the storm. It’s time for new leaders with vision and imagination to take the church beyond the blue. Since the colonial era, the genius of American Christianity has lain in the ability of new generations of Christian leaders to reinvent institutions, find an authentic theological stance and voice that appeals to each new generation, and put Christianity in the forefront of individual lives and social challenges from age to age.
Theology can be debated; liberal, conservative, protestant, catholic, fundamentalist, modernist. There is much to be said for each of these positions, and the debates need to continue.
But there’s a much more critical difference: the difference between life and death. There is a lot of dead wood in American Christian institutions today, and the carters are coming to clear it away.
[St. Patrick’s Cathedral image from Shutterstock]