Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-cutting the seminary pie

I had a conversation with one of the recently laid off ELCA churchwide staff members. As we discussed the downsizing happening all over the church, I mentioned one of my pet peeves: the ELCA’s eight seminaries. “They just can’t do it,” this person said, referring to the need to somehow consolidate these institutions. Ultimately, we agreed, it’s going to be the rules of the marketplace that change things. Or as I put, eventually some of them just aren’t going to be able to write checks anymore.

I have been involved in different ways with several congregational mergers and consolidations. None of them were easy; some of them were a mess. After thinking they were the answer to declining memberships, synods and bishops have backed off from encouraging them. Some time ago the Alban Institute reported its findings that after merging two congregations, the size of the new congregation will not be A+B but usually only A, where A is the size of the larger congregation. In other words, in the transition you should plan on losing the equivalent of the smaller of the two congregations. My experience would affirm that.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is famous for his adage, “All politics is local.” I think something similar could be said about religion. Local congregations get people’s loyalties. Local congregations have personalities and histories. Local congregations have egos—sometimes big ones. As a result congregations don’t die or merge with other congregations very easily or well.

Seminaries it seems are not any different. I went to the most “blended” Lutheran seminary: LSTC in Chicago. When I was a student there were still a fair number of faculty members from the predecessor schools. One way to identify them was where they ate lunch in the cafeteria. There was the Augustana table, the Maywood table, etc. Institutional memories are long and persistent.

It seems unlikely than any of the ELCA’s seminaries are going to voluntarily put themselves out of business. Yet that is what needs to happen, whether through merger or closure. The shrinking ELCA simply doesn’t need all of them and can’t support them. There needs to be fewer teachers, fewer deans, fewer support staff, fewer buildings, fewer light and heat bills.

The problem is that in the ELCA’s decentralized polity virtually all of its constituent institutions are functionally independent: congregations, camps, colleges, medical facilities, social service agencies, and seminaries. They all may have the name Lutheran in their titles, and even claim a specific connection with the ELCA, yet by-and-large they are all free to pretty much do whatever they please.

For most of these, that organizational independence is backed up by financial independence. Seminaries, however, receive significant subsidies from synods and the ELCA. They may be unwilling to consolidate but that doesn’t mean the church has to subsidize their inefficiency.

Talking about the ELCA’s latest budget cuts in his recent open letter, Bishop Hansen specifically said aid to seminary education was unaffected. Why not? If belt tightening is necessary, there’s no reason why seminaries should be exempted. If the pie has shrunk, rather than cut smaller slices why not cut fewer slices?

The seminaries’ inclination toward self-preservation is understandable but it’s time for the church they serve to provide a reality check. How about this memo: “We have eight seminaries but we are now only going to support four. Figure it out.”

Follow up: In the comments, a press release is mentioned about a recent joint meeting of the boards of three ELCA seminaries: LSTC, Trinity and Wartburg. You can read it here.

8 comments:

Julie & Jeanie said...

Doug-

Check out http://www.lstc.edu/news/index.php?action=viewNews&id=255.

While I agree that much more needs to be done, it does actually seem that some conversation is happening around this issue. It may be a while before we actually reduce the number of seminaries, but I think the reality of the situation is sinking in, and they're starting to take steps toward something more sensible. I think they're all tired of living on the edge.

Doug said...

I wish I could share your optimism Julie--and not to play the I've-see-it-all-before card--but, I've seen it all before. I had read the press release (thanks for mentioning it--I should have included it) and I think it actually is further evidence of the problem. It doesn't give the adopted 6 resolutions but the summary is not encouraging:

"The actions of the boards commit the seminaries to explore business, programmatic, faculty, and planning models that will further their common mission of forming leaders for the church."

OK. That and $1 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The rest of the release is equally vague and--contra the above quote--noncommital. How about this quote from LSTC's Jim Echols:

"It was very important and extremely beneficial for the boards to reflect on the current and future stewardship of these seminaries in the larger context of North American and ELCA theological education."

The other quotes and summaries are similar jargon and PR gobbledy-gook. None of this sounds like people who are getting serious about taking real action about real problems. I checked the other two web sites. Wartburg had the same press release while Trinity didn't mention the meeting. They did both have statements in reference to their financial problems and cut-backs assuring everyone that they are positioning themselves for a long and healthy future. Of course, that's for prospective student and donor consumption (LSTC and Wartburg are both in the midst of capital campaigns).

These schools have been talking about "cooperating" for years. That's why the Cluster was formed. We're way past cooperation. I think the financial and demographic situation is changing much faster than they want to realize or, at least, are willing to admit. Unfortunately, rather than a well planned and thought through consolidation, they are each trying to tread water long enough for the others to tire out and then have to yell for help. Who says Christians don't believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest?

Tom said...

I'm not certain that was the hyperlink Julie had intended, still to my mind it points to a key problem in Lutheran Seminaries, a profound confusion of goals.

That link brought me to a news piece of 2007 on Professor David Rhoads publication on environmentalism. Though interesting and perhaps noble, doesn't this exemplify the problem? How does a study in environmental activism lead anyone to Christ? Of all the things congregations are, large scale polluters isn't one.

Continuing in this vein,Lutheran seminaries will die a death of disinterest and irrelevance. Perhaps the un-funding of these institutions of self-importance is the evangelical thing to do.

Doug said...

Tom, I added the link in the "Follow up" at the very end of the post.

Doug said...

It's funny you should mention David Rhodes' environmentalism. I just got the invitation to LSTC's professional leadership conference in February and that's the topic: "Greening the congregation." My immediate thought was, This is really a pressing issue right now? A lot of congregations are wondering how to just stay open. It seems to reflect a head-in-the-sand attitude that everything is going on just as before. I tossed the brochure--I don't plan to attend.

Chris said...

Is the support from the ELCA "significant," as you say? I don't think it is, though I could be mistaken. Denominational support for our seminaries isn't what it was a few generations ago. Seminaries live and die by their tuition and fundraising dollars. I'm not sure that the amount of support from Higgins Road is terribly significant.

Anonymous said...

“This is really a pressing issue right now? “

Sorry Doug, but I would say yes, and for the church to be relevant in these ways is required to engage and to return people and their pocketbooks to Christ's church. My humble opinion. David Mc

ebmargit said...

I agree to some extent -- but then there's the issue of accessibility for folks who already have families and jobs but still want to be pastors. Having a seminary that's relatively geographically close is really a wonderful thing (though why Gettysburg and Philly couldn't have merged already is beyond me). But we could do with fewer seminaries if more classes were available online. That's what the Covenant church does (I took a mostly-online class at NPTS while at LSTC). They've only got 1 seminary, but they have a class model of one intensive week of in-person classes and a couple of months online for paper-writing and forums.

And then there's the issue of the archaic seminary setup. Why a third-year internship? Why not a fourth-year, non-resident internship (with a standardized start time so everyone knows before mid-April whether they can work through the summer)? It would save one move (seminary-internship-first call instead of seminary-internship-seminary-first call). That's a whole lot of seminarian money that could be used for other things.

And while we're at it, why not ordain before first call, once graduation and candidacy are done? I know that's just crazy talk in our church, but other churches do it all the time. (Other churches even ordain - gasp! - chaplains!) The idea that folks go without a job for years after graduation, but are doing pulpit supply (and having to get special permission to do communion, even though that's not very Lutheran) is ridiculous.

My three cents, from an intern loving internship and my education but somewhat frustrated by "the process."