The Future of Theological Education

Andover Newton to move, partner with Yale. So read the headline of the lead news article in the June 8 edition of The Christian Century magazine. Perusal of the article revealed that “the nation’s oldest graduate school of theology plans to relocate from Newton Centre, Massachusetts to New Haven, Connecticut…” where it will function as a kind of “school within a school” becoming the latest of seminary mergings, relocations, and reconfigurations.

This trend is happening, obviously, because of the high cost of seminary education these days due to high priced, tenured faculty; declining enrollments; and the cost of maintaining aging buildings. Of the nine (or so) accredited Episcopal seminaries, only one or two are financially solvent over the long term — Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and St. Luke’s School of Theology at the University of the South (the latter because of committed support from the owning Southern dioceses and being part of the small, but wealthy college of Sewanee).

Our oldest seminary, General in New York City, is surviving just barely because of having sold off all but a postage stamp sized piece of their property in Manhattan and turning some of the housing over to developers for outrageously priced condos in the rapidly gentrifying area of Chelsea Square. My own seminary of Seabury-Western formerly in Evanston, Illinois sold the whole block to Northwestern University in order to retire their debt and move into a partnership with another struggling seminary, Bexley Hall.

After an abortive attempt to run two small campuses in conjunction with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one in Chicago and another in Columbus, Ohio, Bexley-Seabury has now made a similar move as Andover Newton, nesting within the University of Chicago Divinity School complex in Hyde Park. Shared faculty and cross registration with other seminaries in the consortium will open up ecumenical and interfaith possibilities.

Rather than bemoaning these developments, I actually rejoice in them. We have known for forty years that we have too many denomination-specific seminaries for the number of students who attend. Unfortunately, in the Episcopal Church at least, each of the seminaries was a “stand alone,” private institution with its own uniqueness and loyalties. The usual refrain was, “Yes, we need to close some of these seminaries — any one but mine!” Hence, the situation we find ourselves in today.

I believe that the future of seminaries and theological education will likely be “divinity schools” with denominational distinctives nesting within the Religion/Philosophy departments of major universities and colleges. Cross registration will broaden the academic opportunities for seminarians, expose them to world-class faculties, and make ecumenical/interreligious formation the norm. This, while preserving the need for formation in a particular denominational heritage possible through the smaller divinity school and (as already happens) through extensive field work in local congregations.

It is also my hope that ways may be found for these fewer (but I would argue, finer) theological schools to partner with the many effective diocesan and regional schools to form more effectively lay leaders, deacons, and locally trained presbyters to serve the varying needs of a changing church and world. It will not be the first time that economic realities and financial exigencies have forced the church to do what she should have been doing all along.

God works in mysterious ways…wonders to perform!

Or, “let’s make lemonade out of these sour lemons!”

One Response to “The Future of Theological Education”

  1. Mary Ann Says:

    The correct name for the seminary at the University of the South is the School of Theology, not St. Luke’s.

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