Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Demise of Mainline Seminaries...As We Know Them

Eden, Lexington, Seabury-Western, and many other seminaries in the US are going down. Cue the music from Titanic. It's that serious. The financial crunch in seminaries is demanding drastic responses by the boards of trustees. So they are laying off staff, firing tenured professors, and selling their buildings. In fact, my alma mater, Eden Theological Seminary, just sold it's library! Not good.

The financial decline (demise?) of Mainline seminaries is happening for many reasons. Denominations continue to shrink, reducing funding. Education costs continue to rise, increasing spending. The theological gap between seminaries and congregations continue to widen, causing a major disconnect between the ivory tower and the Sunday pew. And the list goes on and on. The outcome is clear: many seminaries are in a major financial crisis.

Enter the economic recession. This has squeezed hurting seminaries that were already just getting by. The recession has caused seminaries to face their financial realities in direct and difficult ways. No more denialism. The "downsizing" that seemed to be years in the future are occurring right now. It could be said even more strongly. The downsizing is turning into a capsizing. And everyone has a sinking feeling about this emergency. But maybe there is a silver lining in these storm clouds.

Perhaps (and hopefully), this is the demise of seminaries as we know them. Not the end of seminaries, but the end of the current era. And the birth of new things. Instead of just offering traditional lectures, there might also be online classes. Instead of a singular dedication to the academy, there might also be a dedication to local churches. Instead of a singular emphasis on abstract theology, there might be emphasis on practical theology. Instead of only publishing academic books, there might be more assessable (and useful) resources produced. Instead of being cordoned off from the popular culture, there might be more theological engagement with the popular culture. Instead of focusing only on deconstructing people's theologies, there might also be attention to helping students reconstruct their theologies. Instead of emphasizing singularly on academic formation, there might also be an emphasis on spiritual formation. Instead of teaching people to imitate "good ideas," folks could be encouraged to develop fresh, innovative ideas for ministry. The list of possibilities are endless - and important.

It's time for change. Existing structures and strategies are failing. It's time to explore the "new thing" (Isaiah 43:19) God is calling us to. Actually, God might be calling us to many new things. It's time we listen to God call us toward innovation and reformation as we pragmatically face this financial emergency. Not to act would be like standing on a sinking ship. And it's going to pull many people down with it. But we can choose to act. We can choose to rebuild and remodel the ship so that it can sail on ever-changing waters.

Seminaries, as we know them, must change. It's not just about survival - it's about faithfulness to the God that is constantly doing a "new thing." As Isaiah 43:19 imagines, God turns emergencies into opportunities: "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." God can guide us out of this storm.

Hope is all around if we only dare to embody it with our actions.

1 comment:

  1. Holy One - You call, now guide each step from opening our hearts and minds to inspiraton and innovation to the sweatbreaking work of reformation - no matter where it is that You have called us to serve.