Theological education in North America: Crises and faithful creativity
Dr. Philip Thompson
April 8, 2019
This is the first of a series of articles surveying the current crisis of theological education and one school’s response to it. Perhaps it is fitting that the series begins in Lent, with its call to “repent.” Scott Cairns, a poet and Orthodox Christian, says repentance “turns without regret, turns not so much away, as toward, . . .”[i]Theological schools in North America are facing a time when they must turn toward new models and philosophies.
It is indisputable that theological education in North America is in the midst of a time of change, even crisis. It has been for some time. Nearly fifteen years ago, at Bethany Theological Seminary’s one hundredth commencement, Stanley Hauerwas delivered the address. The title he chose was not celebratory: “Seminaries Are in Trouble.” He began, “Seminaries are in trouble. Seminaries are in trouble because churches in America are in trouble. Freestanding seminaries . . . are particularly in trouble.”[ii]
It is indisputable that theological education in North America is in the midst of a time of change, even crisis. It has been for some time.
The decade and a half since Hauerwas delivered that message has brought only a deepening of the problem. Across the spectrum of schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the principal accrediting agency for theological schools in North America, the figures are sobering. From the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2014, cumulative enrollment declined 9.5%, from 73,978 students to 66,914.[iii] While enrollment has plateaued overall since 2014, among Mainline Protestant schools, enrollment has decreased a further 6%. Evangelical schools during the same period have experienced a modest growth rate of 3%.[iv] This latter number taken alone, however, obscures the fact that most schools across the theological and denominational spectra continue to endure numerical decline and financial instability. Of roughly 270 member schools in ATS, only 20 have shown a pattern of growth in multiple programs since 2014.
I do not believe that the solution is simply to find strategies to increase enrollment, however. Rather, enrollment is symptomatic of a deeper, two-fold problem requiring attention. For lack of better terms, let us call these problems “relevance” and “cost.” While they do not overlap entirely, they are bound together in many ways.
Theological education, sadly, is often perceived as being disconnected from the life and ministry of local churches. In a recent book, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun note that while Mainline denominations most often require theological training of their ordinands, “such denominations are a dwindling category with declining congregations . . . bereft of financial means to actually hire seminary-trained ministers.”[v] Many Mainline congregations are by necessity served by licensed lay ministers pursuing alternate paths to ordination developed by the various denominations.
A different situation obtains in many Evangelical churches that come from Baptistic and other free church traditions. Volf and Croasmun correctly note, “Many vibrant and growing churches . . . don’t see themselves as needing academically trained ministers. They find theologians and the education they offer at best useless and at worst harmful.”[vi] These churches are often the descendants of the conservatives of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies and heresy trials of the turn of the previous century. They are often suspicious of “the academy” more generally due to the employment of critical methodologies and engagement with intellectual trends perceived to be hostile to the faith. As a result, many of these churches begin “in house” training programs, or train ministers through informal apprenticeship programs.[vii] Thomas Graves has noted that this suspicion has long been present among Baptists in the United States.[viii]
The second problem came home with some force as I worked on this article. A former student posted on social media, “Made my last payment. Seminary is paid off!!!!” She graduated eleven years ago. It is unsustainable for students, a significant number of whom may already have several tens of thousands of dollars in student loans from undergraduate studies, to leave jobs, possibly uproot family, move for a relatively brief period of time, and take on another $30-60,000 in debt for theological school, only to be called to a smaller congregation that pays poorly. It is little wonder that the attrition rate in ministry is so high. Many cannot afford to remain in ministry very long, carrying such a burden of debt. Many decide not to attend seminary or divinity school at all.
More will be said in an upcoming issue about the institutional factors driving costs. For now, suffice it to say the situation is largely untenable for students, churches, and schools alike.
While not every theological school is equally engaged in addressing these problems, no school is oblivious to them. For some time thought and energy have been devoted to reconceiving theological schools and the teaching that takes place in them. With reference to the first, schools are thinking together, guided and assisted by ATS. The effort has been mutually enriching as schools continue to think together about their common challenges. Some themes have emerged with particular strength as integrating motifs of theological education. The idea of mission is one, for instance. There has been realization that the paradigm of theological schools has been shifting. Theological schools are coming to understand themselves more in terms of apostolate.[ix] Conceiving theological education more in terms of mission has found wide Baptist resonance, and is only to be encouraged and embraced.[x]
Regarding theological teaching, the most widely embraced approach has been a “distance” model by which the teaching content of the school is “delivered” to the students either online or in person at off-site centers.[xi] Data show the M.Div. is growing only in schools which have approached theological education differently, most often a distance-oriented approach. Still, while some schools realize gains from one or both of these delivery approaches, others do not.
Daniel Aleshire has made the sobering observation, “Financially stressed schools are making decisions by triage . . . .”[xii] Decisions are driven by financial pressure rather than re-envisioning theological education, but the consequences are educational. A number of schools are merging and/or selling their buildings. A few examples are Luther, Colgate-Rochester, and Sioux Falls Seminary, who have either sold portions of their assets or relocated. Andover-Newton has merged with Yale Divinity School, as have Seabury-Western and Bexley Hall. Others, such as Fuller and Bethel, are closing or consolidating campuses. Perhaps the most recent and saddest chapter in this story is Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, which sold its campus and relocated, only to close at the end of January 2019.
In the midst of this situation, some schools have begun to realize that fundamental questions have not been addressed, that turning toward a more thoroughgoing re-conception of theological education is necessary. One of these schools is the Kairos Project of Sioux Falls Seminary. Sioux Falls Seminary, formerly North American Baptist Seminary, began its existence in 1858 under the leadership of August Rauschenbusch (father of Social Gospeler, Walter Rauschenbusch) as the German language “department” of Rochester Theological Seminary at the University of Rochester. To this story we will turn.
Dr. Philip Thompson is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage at Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] Scott Cairns, “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia,” in Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 93. Italics original.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, “Seminaries Are in Trouble: Chastened Reflections on the Centennial of Bethany Theological Seminary,” Brethren Life and Thought 49, no. 1–2 (2004): 80.
[iii] See The Association of Theological Schools, Annual Data Tables. https://www.ats.edu/resources/institutional-data/annual-data-tables Accessed March 28, 2019.
[iv] Association of Theological Schools, Annual Data Tables. https://www.ats.edu/resources/institutional-data/annual-data-tables Accessed March 28, 2019.
[v] Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), 37.
[vi] Volf and Croasmun, 37.
[vii] Volf and Croasmun, 37.
[viii] Thomas H Graves, “Freedom of Academic Inquiry Drives Authentic Theological Education,” Baptist History and Heritage 39, no. 1 (2004): 37–38.
[ix] Lois Malcolm, “Teaching as Cultivating Wisdom for a Complex World,” in The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002), 140.
[x] Molly T Marshall, “Do Baptists Really Want an Educated Clergy?: Vocation and Charism for Theological Education,” Review & Expositor 103, no. 3 (2006): 613–15; Toivo Pilli, “Finding a Balance between Church and Academia: Baptist Theological Education in Estonia,” Religion in Eastern Europe 26, no. 3 (August 2006): 40–41.
[xi] See Volf and Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, 38.
[xii] Daniel O. Aleshire, Earthen Vessels by Aleshire, Daniel O.. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 89.
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