Twenty years after the birth of the ELCA and the initiation of the Study of Theological Education, its director, now a seminary president, assesses the current context for ELCA seminaries and the Study's continuing relevance.
If you attended on of the eight seminaries of the ELCA, or any theological school for that matter, you get mail. You get regular solicitations for support. Annual gifts from individuals provide nearly a third of the resources my seminary, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, received last year to pay salaries and keep the lights on. We are not unusual. In the last year those letters have become more urgent as the economic crisis has reduced endowments that provided a cushion for these schools in better years. Most of our schools are running significant deficits.
Those mailings you receive also tell stories of amazing men and women coming to seminary in answer to a powerful sense of call. They introduce you to gifted teachers and scholars who are probing the depths of Scripture and revitalizing our Lutheran theological tradition. They highlight special programs that reach out to youth and laity and learners at a distance, that span the globe and embrace diverse cultures at home, that make the practical work of ministry fresh and exciting.
What kind of impression do you get? Is this a system we can be proud of? Yes. Is this a system we need? Yes. Is this a system in trouble? Yes. Is this trouble new? Not exactly.
What the Study Tells Us
Twenty years ago we began the Study of Theological Education in the ELCA (1989–1995) for three reasons: (1) to find ways to keep the seminaries close to the church even as funding from synods and the churchwide organization was decreasing; (2) to keep them responsive to the changing needs of the church; and (3) to make them financially sustainable over time, even if that meant radically reducing or reconfiguring them to do so. I know because I was director for theological education in the new ELCA and I directed the study.
As denominational studies go, this one is generally regarded as a success. The fact that the editor of Partners wants to publish an update after all these years is gratifying. And there is much good to report. A required program of theological education in the first three years of ministry was one fruit of this study. Another was the Fund for Leaders in Mission, a churchwide endowment that has provided full or partial scholarships for ELCA seminarians (for the 2009–2010 school year, the Fund provided full or partial scholarships for 173 ELCA seminarians). All of the recommendations of the task force were overwhelmingly approved by churchwide assemblies in 1993 and 1995, and the seminaries have invested enormous energy and resources into realizing the goals set before them. (The final report of the study is available on the ELCA Web site. See "Theological Education Studies" on page 15.)
There is not a seminary of this church that has not put more emphasis on personal and communal formation, discipleship, and devotional life in recent years.
The heart of the study's work was the development of eleven imperatives for theological education in the ELCA. They remain strongly relevant today. Those eleven imperatives became imbedded in the planning documents of the individual seminaries. The first imperative was called "Depth in the Faith." There is not a seminary of this church that has not put more emphasis on personal and communal formation, discipleship, and devotional life in recent years, as a companion to our Lutheran focus on sound thinking and solid theology.
The second imperative was "Mission Outreach." Though each seminary may bring a different emphasis and interpretation of this imperative, they are all much more intentional about preparing leaders for mission, for reaching out across cultures, for starting new ministries, for engaging the public sphere, for turning congregations outward to serve the world beyond their walls. Mission outreach is woven into the public statements and brochures of our seminaries, and it is also alive in our classrooms, in our chapels, and in our ethos.
To the extent that we actually are a system of seminaries, some schools can take the lead in certain areas for the good of the whole. Luther Seminary has developed an expansive program of lifelong learning and has extended degree programs through distributed learning. Both were explicitly called for in the study. Gettysburg has regular programs for laity for their ministry in the world, another of the imperatives. Southern Seminary in partnership with all of the seminaries has supported the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta, which provides an outstanding environment for preparing people for ministry in African American contexts. The seminaries are working with ELCA synods and colleges and ecumenical partners to forge a wider network of theological education providers as the study called them to do.
Another imperative was oddly titled "Indigenous Lay Leaders." We envisioned that laypeople serving in congregations or worshiping communities without called ordained leaders needed theological education to come to them. All the seminaries now offer a way for candidates approved for the TEEM program (Theological Education for Emerging Ministries) to meet the academic requirements to be ordained without leaving the vital ministries that depend on their leadership.
The TEEM program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in cooperation with Luther Seminary, now enrolls 62 students from nearly every region of the church. Many are serving parishes in remote rural areas. Nearly half are of African, Asian, Latino, or American Indian descent, fulfilling yet another of the eleven imperatives. They study under the supervision of a local mentor and come to the seminary three times a year for three years for a series of fifteen intensive courses. They are taught primarily by members of our two faculties, who are energized by these dedicated and grateful practitioner-learners. TEEM graduates are ordained to ministries where they are desperately needed. Anyone who says the seminaries are not adapting to meet new ministry challenges simply is not paying attention.Interdependence
The Study of Theological Education was called for because just how the seminaries of the ELCA would survive in the new church was not at all clear. Since then these seminaries have formed a new generation of leaders serving in our congregations and beyond. They remain vibrant, faithful learning communities, central to the life of the church and responsive to its needs. Such a churchly system of seminaries is not something to be taken for granted. Many Protestant denominations are largely disconnected from or even distrustful of the schools that prepare their leaders.
The study developed structures to sustain this profound interdependence between church and seminary in the ELCA, and subsequent leaders in the church and the seminaries have continued to reinforce it. In this we are the envy of other denominations.
So why is this system threatened? Why is it in trouble? Where have the provisions of the 1995 Study of Theological Education proven inadequate? Financial Sustainability
None of the task force proposals for increasing financial support to the seminaries from the synods and the churchwide organization received enough support to ever come to a churchwide assembly for a vote. It became increasingly clear in the course of the study that the economy of church funding was changing. Congregations were keeping more money at home and the money passed on to synods and the churchwide organization was not sufficient for them to support the cost of theological education at the same level as they had in the past.
Instead, we formulated resolutions that supported the efforts of the seminary advancement offices to build endowments and to seek more funds for current expenses from individual donors. The Fund for Leaders in Mission, our most successful financial proposal, is a primary example of the church supporting theological education through the gifts of individuals.
This shift toward individual giving has proven realistic. Even though the churchwide office and many synods have protected the seminaries from cuts at the expense of other valued ministries, they have not been able to keep up with the increase in the cost of theological education. Through the 20 years of the ELCA, the total funding from all synods and the responsible churchwide unit has decreased as a percentage of seminary expenses from 36 percent in 1988 to 20 percent in 2007.
Greater dependence on the seminaries' own development initiatives, including the solicitation letters you receive, has been an effective strategy, particularly through the boom years of the nineties. Seminaries have developed more professional approaches to fund-raising. Endowments grew through gifts and market gains to such an extent that at least some of the seminaries seemed to have found solid financial footing. Their sustainability was sorely tested in the dot-com bust early in this decade and again more severely in the recent economic downturn. So sustainability is still a vexing question that will be addressed in a new study being conducted by the Vocation and Education unit at the request of the presidents of the ELCA seminaries.Number and Location
The Study of Theological Education came to the conclusion that we did not need fewer seminaries; rather we needed more theological education, more accessible to more diverse audiences and including more continuing education, more lay education, and more distributed learning programs. The vision of the study was that the ELCA seminaries, clustered in groups of two or three, were in the best position to lead the development of a broad network of theological education, drawing in the Lutheran colleges and universities, continuing education centers, retreat centers, and ecumenical partners. Savings and redeploying resources (faculty, facilities, and funds) through deeper collaboration within the clusters would enable them to get the wider work done.
The seminaries did in fact do what the study called for them to do. They chose partners and formed three clusters: Southern, Philadelphia, and Gettysburg in the East; Trinity, Wartburg, and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the Midwest; and Luther and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary across the West. They have developed governance structures for their common work. They have embarked on many joint ventures from shared library resources, internship programming, and recruitment to courses through interactive technology. Each cluster now has regular consultations with other providers of theological education on their shared territory. They have been very successful in attracting foundation grants for collaborative work.
The seminary clusters have worked hard to find savings, but those savings have largely eluded them. Real savings would have required cluster governance structures with the will and the authority to make radical changes, more closely approaching merger. Voluntary collaboration is costly in staff time and travel and, consequently, money. The seminaries have retained their autonomy and distinctive cultures, as they felt they must, both to maintain the integrity of their respective educational programs and for the effectiveness of their development efforts.
The clusters have put less effort into the idea of redeploying resources. This is objectively difficult when resources are scarce to begin with. These schools are able to do what they do because people at each place work sacrificially and stretch dollars very thin. None of these schools understands itself to have excess resources lying around to redeploy to new programs or other purposes. If clustering had really become consolidation, there would have been authority to move resources and some resources may have been released for new ventures.
There is a deeper challenge, however, that the 1995 study did not take seriously enough. The new, expansive forms of theological education the clusters were asked to take on are costly to develop, and they yield less in financial return than the core professional degrees that have been the seminaries' bread and butter. Fees for lay and continuing education programs rarely even cover the stipend for the instructor, let alone the related administration, facilities, and marketing costs. A new business plan needs to be developed for nondegree educational opportunities. Until then seminaries will find it difficult to redeploy scarce resources that have been invested in their traditional core mission of preparing men and women for ordained and lay rostered ministries. New Study
We in this church have an opportunity now to build on the solid accomplishments of the previous study, taking into account what we have learned in the meantime. The seminaries of the ELCA are not broken. They are essential and willing partners in the church's unfolding mission. They have shown they can stretch in amazing ways to meet the challenges of a new day. Together we must find ways to pay for the new ventures and the traditional ones, through some combination of fees from learners (degree students, pastors, and laity), grants from the church, and gifts from people like you, who respond generously when you receive those letters from your seminary.Phyllis Anderson is president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California. From 1989 to 1995, she directed the ELCA Study of Theological Education for Ministry while also working as the director for theological education of the Division for Ministry, ELCA (1988–1998). She has also served as a parish pastor, an assistant to the bishop in the Iowa District of the American Lutheran Church, and in other higher education settings.
This article appeared in the January / February 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 1).