A word on our seminaries: Consolidate!

By George Clifford

Fiscal constraints have prompted announcement of major program or organizational alliance changes at the Episcopal Divinity School, Seabury Western, General Theological Seminary, and Bexley Hall. Concurrently, the cost of seminary education continues to escalate, leaving many graduates with significant debt and discouraging some potential students from attending. Meanwhile, enrollment at the eleven seminaries affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC) has declined by 35% over the past five years.

The seminaries’ tactical moves and sad fiscal realities of theological education should encourage any Church, especially one like TEC that is in overall numerical decline, to reexamine its strategy for developing ordained leaders. The present strategy, with eleven affiliated seminaries that in a sadly misguided policy receive no direct TEC funding, has considerable underutilized capacity, unnecessary multiple geographical locations, and institutional identities determined more by nineteenth century rather than twenty-first century factors.

Because effective ministry and mission arguably depend more upon effective leadership than upon any other organizational factor, educating and forming the next generation of ordained leaders should be a top organizational priority for TEC. Although the legal and fiduciary relationships between TEC and its affiliated theological schools varies widely between schools, the primary mission of TEC affiliated seminaries from TEC’s perspective is to educate persons for ordained ministry in TEC; other missions, such as lay education, are important, but secondary. Theologically (though not necessarily legally), these affiliated schools are assets – as institutions, as holders of real property and endowments, as recipients of contributions from individuals, parishes, and dioceses –for supporting that visible branch of Christ’s church known as TEC in ministry and mission.

One critical strategic issue for TEC is to how best utilize those assets in forming and educating new leaders. At least three divergent options are readily apparent.

First, attempt to maintain the status quo. The recent tactical moves by several seminaries – tactical from the strategic perspective of TEC and not the individual school – represent possible actions consistent with this option. This option values each school as an independent entity and is consistent with TEC’s drift toward a congregational and less connectional polity.

This option appears an almost certain dead end. The eleven schools may survive. But focusing on seminary survival represents an instrumental goal (establishing seminaries to educate clergy) becoming an end in itself (i.e., seminary self-preservation by adopting new missions or alliances). In the meantime, seminarians will continue to graduate with burdensome debt loads and need to serve in well-paid positions to be able to repay that debt (i.e., not serve small, poorly funded congregations). This bodes ill for TEC with its growing number of small congregations. Fifty years into TEC decline, this approach is not working; no reason exists to think that the future will be any different.

Second, TEC could close nine if not ten or even all eleven of its affiliated theological schools (given the various relationships with TEC, closure in some cases may simply connote ending TEC’s affiliation):

• To the maximum feasible extent, TEC would begin by fully (legally and financially) incorporating all eleven seminaries into the national church’s corporate structure, disaffiliating any seminary that refuses to agree and strongly encouraging bishops not to ordain subsequent M.Div. graduates from noncompliant schools. Retaking control of theological education expresses a revitalized sense of organizational health by focusing on an essential resource for mission success (leadership) and our connectional polity. This emulates both the positive elements of the control that the Roman Catholic Church exercises over its seminaries and the control many professions (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) exercise over their professional schools through the accreditation process.

• Meanwhile, TEC should determine whether to have one or two theological schools and the location of the school(s). This move will substantially cut costs by eliminating most redundant overhead (administrators, e.g.), eliminating duplicative resources (basic libraries, e.g.), and improving resource utilization (physical fitness facilities and class size, e.g.). TEC might seize the opportunity to form an entirely new seminary using the assets of all eleven existing seminaries. One (or two) school will have a larger faculty, more varied course offerings, and build more connections between members of the next generation of leaders. A single seminary need not presume uniformity of theology or liturgical style. Controversies that once shaped seminary efforts to fill particular niches in the theological education market are now largely irrelevant.

• TEC could then liquidate all marketable assets of the schools identified for closing and use those assets to fund the remaining school(s).

• TEC should fully fund tuition at its seminary for all TEC ordination track students. Funding theological education is less expensive than subsidizing clergy stipends in small churches enabling debt burdened new clergy to repay their education loans. By making seminary more financially accessible, TEC may also expand the number and quality of potential ordinands. Contributions from diocese, parishes, and individuals on a single school (or even two of them) will provide greater results for every dollar donated because of the efficiencies already noted. Funds realized from liquidating the marketable assets of the surplus schools will provide a substantial endowment for the remaining seminary (or two seminaries). This will help to shift the focus from institutional survival to preparing the next generation of TEC leaders.

• Non-ordination track TEC students and non-TEC students should pay tuition, generating a revenue stream for the seminary analogous to that out of state students produce for state universities. Similar to TEC funding seminary education for ordinands, parishes or dioceses will beneficially subsidize the cost of lay education programs sponsored by the theological school(s), investing in their volunteers and members. Individuals who want to pay tuition can do so indirectly through increased contributions to their sponsoring organization. Unlike tuition payments, such contributions may be tax deductible, emphasize good stewardship, highlight the value the Church places on its lay volunteers, emphasize the importance of theological education, and underscore TEC’s connectional nature.

Consolidating formal theological education in a single seminary (or even two seminaries) shifts the institutional paradigm from weakness to strength and from survival to mission. Mainline denominations that do not make this shift fight a losing rearguard action, trying to sustain a nineteenth century model in a twenty-first century world. Consolidation will produce unanticipated consequences, freeing the new TEC seminary from the fetters that bind its predecessors.

These broad proposals leave many important details unaddressed. For example, how will so many seminarians in a single area have meaningful opportunities for field education? Yet, by creating this institutional and pedagogical conflict and ferment, TEC will beneficially unleash great creativity focused on mission to aid in revitalizing and reinvigorating the Church. For example, developing a new school, or consolidating existing schools, will force careful consideration of questions such as: What are the critical curriculum and experiential elements in forming and educating ordained leaders? How can the school best incorporate those elements into its degree programs?

Third, TEC could close all eleven of its seminaries, modify the funding proposals outlined as part of the second option, and pay for its seminarians to attend theological schools that are independent or affiliated with another denomination. This option shifts the burden of operating theological schools to other organizations, but at what I deem an unacceptable cost, that is, losing control over the content and formative processes associated with developing ordained leaders in seminary.

I, for one, refuse to accept pessimists’ claim that TEC is in irreversible decline. And I am tired of tactical moves that only prolong but do not reverse decline. The fiscal plight of TEC seminaries provides a strategic opportunity for radical change. I find option two the most attractive, but perhaps a fourth, even better, option exists. Obviously, many deeply entrenched constituencies will oppose any radical restructuring. However, continuing business as usual bodes ill for the Church’s institutional future. If not these changes, what is the right strategic move? TEC can no longer afford to act as if theological education is the responsibility of seminaries and seminarians.

Time for conversation is short and the need for bold action is pressing. No plan is perfect. However, embarking on a new course while remaining open to the continuing movement of the Spirit seems preferable to staying on a course that seems certain to lead to failure.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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