May  2018 01
Are There Too Many Seminaries?

Are the formerly mainline denominations served by too many seminaries? That question is being asked and answered, in a variety of ways, in the last few decades, especially since the Great Recession.

From Bangor to Boston, from Columbus to Chicago, from Lexington to Los Angeles, from the Twin Cities to Texas, seminaries have closed, sold valuable property and moved, merged, changed mission-staff-program, and (one of the strongest trend-lines) become a constituent school of a university.

Yes, there is a lot of “creative destruction” going on in the economy of graduate seminaries, and sometimes the restructuring of the industry looks more like destruction, without the “creative.”

Some observers conclude there are too many seminaries. The numerical decline of the formerly mainline churches since the 1960s, coupled with the weakened financial state of congregations that could previously afford full-time clergy, have created excess capacity in seminaries.

Denominations with upwards of 30 percent fewer members and financially weaker congregations are served, in several cases (e.g., United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ) by as many seminaries today as they were at their numerical peaks.

Sometimes the argument is made in terms of pulpit replacement rate. In this way of thinking, seminaries exist to provide education for lead pastors in congregations. The Master of Divinity degree, which remains the “gold standard” requirement for graduate theological education among the formerly mainline denominations, was an accredited seminary’s lead offering.

If there are fewer congregations, and if fewer congregations can afford graduate seminary-educated clergy, then—again—there is excess capacity and the number of seminaries should decline.

However.

About 20 years ago, I was in a meeting where a consultant asked a critical question: is it THE purpose of seminaries to offer the MDiv degree in preparation for leadership in congregational ministry? Or, he asked, does the offering of the MDiv degree point toward a larger purpose?

He then referred to a charity that originated to combat a childhood disease. When a cure for that particular disease was found, what should the charity have done? Declare mission accomplished and cease operations?

That was one reasonable course of action. But the charity’s leadership decided healthy children, rather than the elimination of a particular disease, was its cause. Eliminating one disease, and then turning attention to another, was a means to an end, not the end itself.

(Granted, one could argue it was an act of self-preservation, and no one likes to be on watch when an organization dies.)

I’ve applied the consultant’s logic to graduate seminary education. Protestants in the U.S. founded seminaries neither to offer the MDiv degree nor to educate clergy—as the end game. Yes, the primary audience has been persons preparing for some form of ministry.

However, the end game has never been a cohort of educated, privileged clergy. The long game has been a more educated church, better educated Christians, by educating clergy who would educate laity.

It is the laity who must negotiate between Christian faith and the workaday world. It is the laity who are the everyday, everywhere public theologians. When thinking about and acting in matters of public life, do laity have something intelligent to say? Are they equipped to act in “way of Jesus” ways? What would Jesus do, WWJD can be a really apt, profound question, not just the letters on a cheap bracelet.

Jesus deserves to be served by an educated church. Clergy educated in graduate seminaries are one means to that end. A means. Not the end.

There are too many seminaries, in terms of adequate financial support from shrinking donor bases to support them all. It is the case that there is excess capacity, as the demand for degree programs of a particular type and duration soften.

But if the end game is a better educated church, a church with the spiritual-emotional-social-intellectual intelligences worthy of being associated with Jesus of Nazareth, we need all the theological education we can afford. And then some.



Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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