What happened at Seabury

By Steven Charleston

Have you heard what happened at Seabury? That’s a question some of us have been asked a lot, especially if we are connected to theological education in the church.

But if you are one of the folks who may have missed the story, the question about “Seabury” refers to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, one of the historic Episcopal seminaries, located in Evanston, Illinois. After years of training priests and lay leaders for the church, Seabury has announced drastic changes for the future. Faculty are being let go and programs shut down. In many ways, they are closing up shop under great financial pressure in the hopes of being able to reopen after extensive remodeling.

So what happened at Seabury? That’s the question. Why did this have to happen and is it an omen of dire things to come in the Episcopal Church?

Here is my short answer:

What happened at Seabury was an honest effort to deal with a reality that affects 95% of the seminaries in the United States. If it is a sign of things to come, it is a good omen of long overdue attention to the critical issue of leadership development in our church.

The men and women of the Seabury Board, faculty and staff are facing the harsh truths of trying to sustain our seminaries as “mini-colleges” in an era when the rules of the theological training game have completely changed. This is not a “failure” on their part, but recognition of the future. The truth is, we are in an adapt-or-die evolutionary moment for theological education. It is not necessary for us to wonder what went “wrong” with the past: it simply is the past.

Theological training today can not be sustained by the old models of education. And I am not just talking about the need to adapt to technology. Eventually, in spite of the efforts to pretend that our kind of learning is so special we can not rely on technology, history will force us to keep pace with other educational institutions. The truly more difficult issues will be in our ability to redefine formation itself, and along with it, the meaning of ordination and community. Next to those issues, technology will be a piece of cake. Change is the underground current that has carried Seabury to the place where it finds itself. We are all on that river together.

The deeper question is not what happen at Seabury, but, what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives.

Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

What happened at Seabury? Something sad, yes, but also something good. Something to be proud of. Something hopeful.

Should we mourn the passing of the old Seabury? Yes, of course, but we should also celebrate the doors Seabury has just opened to the future. We may not like what that future requires of us, but change is never the first path we choose to follow. Seabury offers us a reminder that our leadership, identity and vision are not accidents, but the results of what we choose to invest in. For generations, we have invested in education that is the best we can create. It is time to do it again.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

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