Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are Seminaries Dying?

In a way, they are.  Some might return in another form becoming (like Obi-Wan Kenobi) "more powerful than you can possibly imagine".  However, they will be greatly altered by the experience. 

The traditional seminary is disappearing.  Really we shouldn't be surprised.  Most of them have been going along the same way they have since 1909 and quite a few things have changed since then.  I have written a bit here about the same dynamic in churches, themselves. What we are going through now is a semi-chaotic musical chairs of closings, mergers, and re-visioning that will eventually settle out in a much altered landscape.  How it will all turn out is up for grabs... 

The question I was asked in relation to yesterday's post had to do with the reasons why this is happening.  The short answer is that I don't know.  Still, I do have an opinion and to me it appears that seminaries are suffering from some of the same forces many similar institutions have been subjected to.  After all, the mainline churches are not growing.  Why would their professional schools be?

Here, though, are a few specific areas of stress for the traditional seminary model...

The Age and Lifestyle of Current Seminarians
I alluded to this in my previous post.  In my (unscientific) observation, the age of new ministers is dropping from the heights of just a decade ago.  However, this means that many people are entering in their thirties and forties rather than their fifties and sixties.  This is a demographic that is often "married with children".  There are fewer "empty nesters" to fill the classrooms in the traditional model.  These Gen X and Millennial folks are not able to leave their families for a year at a time to settle in some random town.  They need the seminary to come to them.  Or, at least, they need flexible points of contact.  Yes.  I almost said "TouchPoints" but I didn't, so give me a break.

"Technology" is a nice big word that includes complex things like the interwebs and more common things...like airplanes, DVD's and UPS.  You know how they work.  Today's seminary student has many more ways to be in contact with school and professors.  More of those "TouchPoints" (really, it needs a better name) are creeping in to real life at school.  This makes it possible for you to stay married, remember your kids' names, and even keep your old job while studying.  Who wouldn't want to do that?

Denominational Change
Look, I know that some of my readers just got back from GA.  Others are on their way to General Synod.  I am also very aware that many people think the whole UUA/UCC project that is my church to be beyond comprehension.  Still, I do believe that denominations don't matter as much as they used to.  Sorry.  It's true.  On the plus side we have the opportunity to re-imagine our faith in a collaborative atmosphere.  The down side, though (if you are a seminary) is that we don't need nearly as many schools if we are all talking to each other and training each other's clergy.

Also, weaker denominational ties mean that congregations (and other funding agents, like individual members) are less likely to fund the schools.  Yes, there were a great many congregations represented at GA.  However, there were also a great many that were not there.  They had other concerns.  If you are a member of a congregation and you are voting on that congregation's (always tight) budget, are you going to pay your minister or are you going to give money to the denominational school?  The minister wins most of the time.  Besides, if the minister is a UU, there is a good chance that s/he went to Andover Newton Theological Seminary (UCC/ABC).

The Ministry is Changing
This is really a conversation all its own, isn't it?  Still, it is true. There are many different ways to go with that, but from a strictly financial standpoint, things are certainly getting worse.  The salaries have always been low when compared to the level of education expected.  Now most settlements are likely to be part-time.  From a cultural standpoint, the ministry isn't as attractive as it used to be, either.  There are other ways to help people.  Many of these other professions garner more respect and are less socially awkward.  That people still wish to become ministers is a sign of the deep and abiding faith of those individuals.  They need help!

Sticking with the seminary issue, what I am trying to say is that this is not a profession that people should be entering with lots of debt.  Those of us in clergy families--young and old--are learning to live leaner and leaner lives all the time.  We were never high on the hog in the first place and it doesn't look like we will ever be.  It would be just plain wrong to choose an educational model that dooms new ministers to poverty.  Seminaries need to be leaner, too.

I believe seminaries are becoming leaner.  It's not just M/L.  Chicago Theological Seminary has moved into smaller, more efficient digs, for example.  Bangor Theological Seminary is renting from Husson College, a business school.  The "Theological University" that M/L decided not to join?  There will be one eventually.  It is inevitable.  In fact, it is a good idea.

One Final Note: There is one group of educational institutions that may have a different strategy in this downturn.  I don't really know enough about their inner workings to hazard a guess.  Those are the "Divinity Schools" affiliated with major Universities.  Could it be that these will become the last bastion of the old way? 


  1. One reason I chose my seminary -- Brite Divinity School -- was it skewed so young. The average age was 31, when I was 24. But that was exceptional then (1993), too.

  2. That is exceptional! I entered M/L in 1994 and that was so not the case. But, then, perhaps my memory is skewed.