Monday, February 04, 2013

Theological Education: Innovate or Die

These are challenging days for theological institutions—seminaries, theological schools, and divinity schools. Whether they are attached to denominations or larger institutions, they still must deal with declining enrolments, stagnant endowments, and increasing costs.  In a recent article in The Christian Century, Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, noted that enrolment in ATS schools has dropped about one percent every year since 2006 and that although “the level of financial stress is not boiling like it was in 2008,” most schools and especially those related to mainline denominations are continuing to experience financial stress.

How are theological institutions responding to these challenges?  One option is to consolidate with other institutions such as in the merger of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary with Lenoir-Rhyne College (also an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America school) last year.  Some sell their property and move to other facilities to cut cost such as St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist school in Kansas City.  Others choose to either go out of business or change their mission in such a way that they are no longer a graduate school.  This has happened with Bangor Theological Seminary which, as BTS Institute, will offer certification programs for clergy and laity.  Such moves are often controversial but they are taken to provide some continuity in established programs.

Hardly a week goes by without the news of another theological school announcing a creative way to survive, prosper, and even extend their mission.  Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary decided to limit enrollment, increase endowment, and move toward providing full scholarships and living stipends for students in an effort to cut student debt and bring the most promising students to the campus.

New degree programs that fill a particular niche can also breathe new life into an institution.  Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, is providing a new masters degree in church planting and a master of divinity concentration in the same subject.  Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, is offering a hybrid master of Christian ministries degree that combines online learning and intensive week-long classes on campus.  They hope to reach individuals who are already in ministry but who need theological grounding.  Iliff School of Theology in Denver is reaching out to the marketplace with the Authentic Engagement Program to provide assistance in employee development.

Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas, has concentrated on new programs to provide education for a number of unreached potential groups.  The Korean Contextualized Theological Studies offers theological education in the Korean language in the United States and several foreign countries.  The Foundations program offers non-degree studies to language groups such as the “Judson Communities”—resettled people from Burma/Myanmar—and urban pastors in St. Louis.

The common thread in all of these innovative approaches is not simply survival but a new commitment to  theological education.  Although the number of traditional students may be in decline, especially in mainline institutions, the church will continue to need qualified and equipped men and women to lead.  Even theological schools with a rich heritage are looking forward rather than resting on the achievements of the past and embracing new approaches to ministerial formation.

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