Institutions

The rise and fall of the American seminary (COMMENTARY)

General Theological Seminary in New York.
General Theological Seminary in New York.

Photo courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr

General Theological Seminary in New York.

NEW YORK (RNS) General Theological Seminary’s campus in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is everything you’d want in an urban seminary.

Handsome buildings, a chapel at the center, quiet walkways in a noisy city, calm places to read and pray. All serving a wonderfully diverse student body eager to minister in a changing world.

It’s like the best of historic church properties: harking back to a day of noble architecture and tradition and yet looking outward to a frenetic city and changing religious environment.

Why, then, is GTS on the verge of financial collapse and, now, paralyzing internal conflict? Its dean is under attack, 80 percent of its full-time faculty were dismissed, its board is floundering — all in the glare of press and blogosphere.

Why? For the same reason that historic churches and denominations are trapped in “train wrecks.” Their time has passed.

As other major denominations are finding, the days of the residential three-year seminary are ending. Fewer prospective ordinands can afford the cost and dislocation of attending a residential seminary.

Fewer church bodies are willing to subsidize such an education, because they, too, face budget shortfalls. Fewer congregations have jobs for inexperienced clergy wanting full-time compensation.

Episcopal dioceses have been seeking other ways, such as diocesan training centers, nearby schools run by other denominations and online learning. They’re seeking professional skills training, not academic prowess.

A view on the campus of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

Photo courtesy of Tim Sackton via Flickr

A view on the campus of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

By my rough count, it appears fewer than half of newly ordained Episcopal clergy in recent years came out of the church’s 11 official seminaries. My alma mater — Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., also embroiled in conflict — trained an average of just eight ordinands a year, one-fifth the number when I graduated in 1977.

Does the Episcopal Church — or any mainline denomination — need all of its seminaries? Probably not. To judge by recent graduation rates, it probably needs only four. Hence the anxiety leading to conflict, as tenured faculty, cost-cutting deans and anxious trustees collide.

Many congregations are in the same situation. The needs they filled 60 years ago — neighborhood churches providing a mobile postwar world with a place to belong and to ground the family — have largely vanished.

Some congregations welcomed new purposes in a world of new lifestyles, new expectations, new family structures, new employment patterns and new attitudes toward Sunday morning, and they are thriving.

Most, sad to say, resisted change and now find that time and tide haven’t waited for them. Like GTS, they find themselves broke, conflicted, hoping for a future and yet mired in disdain and distrust.

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Seizing a new moment is never easy. It requires entrepreneurial leaders who risk being shot down and declared “other.” It requires mold-breaking ministry providers who move beyond the “way things used to be.” It requires constituents whose drive to serve stirs voices for change.

The tragedy at General Seminary isn’t that its time has passed — for a new time is breaking in, if the seminary will let it. Nor is it that the seminary is trapped in dysfunction and conflict — for God can redeem such moments. Or that money is tight — for God’s work is never limited by money.

The tragedy is that stakeholders at the seminary are belittling each other, questioning each other’s worthiness and allowing hubris to be their guide. Such behavior cannot end well.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited GTS recently and did the right thing: She listened. As combatants issued lengthy statements, she modeled the holy restraint that all need to learn.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

KRE/MG END EHRICH

About the author

Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com.

10 Comments

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  • Arrrgh, one thing I know as a scarred survivor of academic politics is that when stuff like this happens, its never as it seems.

    As far as the denominational train-wreck goes, and congregations that have “resisted change,” what were you thinking of? Congregations that sing hymns? Congregations that resist the use of A-V equipment?

    I’ll agree that the church has to change, but I doubt that we agree about how. I’d say abandon the model of ‘church membership’ in favor of ‘church use’: religion as a consumer product.

  • Tom Ehrich’s column raises a couple of questions from one of his seminary buddies. One, who is the faith community listening to? If the example of the PB’s listening is taking place in the small confines of the tradition itself (the GTS Chapel of the Good Shepherd) then, as they say, ‘good luck with that’. I think I remember that windows were an important element in the foundational story of the ecclesia. Two, and this goes to the third last paragraph where Tom tries to fix it, making grand assumptions about a common understanding of the one who,”can redeem..”, “whose work is never limited…”, assumptions that are presumably shared with the readers of this press, but which are, as I see it, lying like broken pieces of shattered glass, on the floor. The real question is who or what is behind this shattered word God and will we allow them to be heard?

  • In today’s fast-changing world, formal educational training is outdated faster than accreditation standards can keep up.

    The problems at GTS are faced by many church-sponsored organizations, institutions, and agencies. It boils down to economics and is symptomatic of universal church problems.

    All of church structure is built on the offerings of laity. Each regional body, seminary, camp, and social service agency turns to laity to raise “development” funds for their good work. Congregations cannot afford pastors much less full-time development offices!

    Congregations are seeing that their offerings, spent in this way, are no longer effective. They are already less inclined to give!

    Tom Ehrich is right. Their time has passed. Time to think about how to transition to new times.

    I hope this crisis and the many less publicized religious crises lead to a rediscovery of “church” for a new age.

    We don’t need the old structure anymore. We need the message delivered in new ways to people who live in today’s world. Not the 1950s and certainly not the 1550s.

    Eventual solutions will come back to the laity. Their skills are more valuable today than their offerings!

    How would Paul and Silas approach mission today?

  • Evangelical Seminaries like Dallas, SBTS in Louisville, Covenant Seminary, RTS, Gordn Cnwell, Denver Seminary, Western, Greenville Pres. Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, Wake Forrest (Southeastern), the list goes on and on are doing well…

    Why is this? Because Evangelical Seminaries typically honor the Bible and take it seriously. Jeffords-Sciori, pictured in the article believes in “plural truths” to use her words, she punishes congregations who do not march lock-step with her agenda, even selling their places of worship from which they are evicted to other religions (usually mosques—just use google search).

    The Episcopal Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and their institutions are all in decline… go figure. They’ve become social clubs… nothing less and nominal Christians would just as soon spend Sunday morning in the gym and give to political causes such as PETA, Green Peace, etc… than spiritually atrophied and self-perpetuating “mainline denominations” living on the endowments of long dead senior citizens who would turn over in their graves to see how far the mighty have fallen away from their God and the Bible.

  • In an effort to make sure we stay honest, let us perform a translation:

    “… Evangelical Seminaries typically honor the Bible and take it seriously.” means “treat gay people like trash as that is what the Bible teach us to do.”

    “… punishes congregations who do not march lock-step with her agenda, even selling their places of worship from which they are evicted to other religions (usually mosques – just use google search).” means “stopping people from persecuting gays is persecution. And, she sells the haters’ church buildings to muslims!”

    “The Episcopal Church … and their institutions are all in decline… go figure. They’ve become social clubs… nothing less and nominal Christians would just as soon spend Sunday morning in the gym and give to political causes such as PETA, Green Peace, etc… than spiritually atrophied and self-perpetuating “mainline denominations” living on the endowments of long dead senior citizens who would turn over in their graves to see how far the mighty have fallen away from their God and the Bible.”

    means

    “As they are not allowed to treat gays like trash anymore, true Christians have left these institutions. All are left are people who don’t hate, so they are nominal Christians. These nominals leave these institutions to support other institutions whose mission is to stop animals and the environment from being treated like trash. The prior donor of these churches would turn over in their graves to see that their progeny have tried to stop treating people like utter garbage.”

  • With all due respect, “Oh, puh-lease!” If the mainline seminaries weren’t giving their students a broad and deep knowledge of the various “-ologies” attached to the Christian faith, as well as of Greek, Hebrew, Biblical, and contemporary sociocultural exegesis and practical theology, then, indeed, they were not worth the tuition, temporary relocation, and institutional costs required to attend or continue operating. I’m not saying they weren’t — rather, I’m saying that these are some of the basic things that the on-goingly successful “evangelical” seminaries do provide their students today. As someone who relocated her life (and her husband’s) to attend such a seminary at 46, it was worth it — even if I am not currently serving in a church. My experience with pastors and other “Christian” leaders who have not immersed themselves in a community of scholar-practitioners and students that is studying all of the above is that they are too often dangerous to their congregations and to the reputation of Christ and His church. I pray that all of this anti-seminary ink and talk are but a swing of the pendulum between depending too heavily on the intellect and philosophy, on the one hand, and depending too heavily on one’s personal “inspiration,” inductive/deductive reasoning, and charisma, on the other, in understanding, proclaiming, and living as a follower of Christ who also pastors a congregation.

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