Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sinking Seminaries

General Theological Seminary
A couple weeks ago an op-ed piece appeared in The Washington Post titled “The rise and fall of the American seminary.” It was written in response to the ongoing upheaval at one of the premier Episcopal seminaries, General Theological Seminary in New York City. Basically the school has imploded in financial distress and internal strife. Recently most of the faculty quit or were fired, depending on which side you listen to.

The gist of this article by Tom Ehrich (an Episcopal priest and “church consultant”) is that GTS’s embarrassingly public meltdown is symptomatic of a crisis spreading throughout the world of denominational seminaries.  From my experience, his analysis is right on the money and certainly applies to the seminaries of my own Lutheran denomination (ELCA).

For years I have participated in meetings and conversations on the impossibility of sustaining our church's theological schools as they have been constituted. They cost too much and we have too many of them have been the most obvious problems. Pastor salaries are too low for seminary graduates to pay off their student loans. Dropping enrollments make the individual schools (financially stressed in my day) impossible to maintain. Yet the can has just kept being kicked down the road. Now a crisis state is forcing schools into shotgun mergers and consolidations, or outright closure.

As Ehrich goes on to say, the crisis of the seminaries is paralleled by the crisis of congregations. Together they are facing shrinking resources and confusion about their purpose. Culture has changed and drastically so when it comes to religion. Most of these institutions have resisted the changes as long as possible, until now when many are simply being swept away.

What Ehrich doesn’t say, however, is that the seminaries bear a special responsibility for the crisis of the church, especially the decline of US mainline denominations. For decades these generally liberal schools taught their ministry students contemporary theology and critical biblical studies which together exposed much of traditional Christianity as irrelevant to, or in denial of, the modern world. Yet apart from the classroom and student lounge debates, this information fell lifeless to the floor. Rarely were students encouraged to actually apply this knowledge in their future congregational ministries. In fact, usually the message was quite the reverse: keep this to yourself lest you upset the folks in the pews. Seminaries have stood out uniquely as institutions of professional training by giving students information they aren’t actually supposed to use.

The result has been clergy by the thousands handicapped from the start in not having the tools to respond creatively to a rapidly changing world. While using more adult language, their preaching essentially repackages ideas they learned in Sunday school. The Bible continues to be interpreted with a naïve realism, even when they are aware of alternative modern critical understandings. Ancient church creeds and doctrines continue to be propounded, however irrational or meaningless they have become.

Amazingly, and tragically, even now nothing has really changed. In the midst of crisis, churches and seminaries look only for ways to trim and adapt their operations to new fiscal realities. Rarely, if ever, do they consider whether in these times fundamental change might actually be called for. Seminaries have been in possession of the ideas that could have ignited a transformation of the church into relevant and dynamic social institutions. They didn’t use them and now are paying the price for remaining aboard a sinking ship.

Afterword: Here is a related blog post I wrote almost five years ago. As I say above, this conversation has been going on a long time: Re-cutting the Seminary Pie.