In a recent private forum someone whom I respect greatly said something like this: “Graduate theological education should be reserved for the very best. Seminaries, on the other hand, should have room for everyone.” It was a passing comment and I didn’t get to discuss it at the time, but it’s stuck with me.
Is that true? Considering the state of the humanities today should we claim a stark distinction between university-related graduate programs and M.Div. programs at church-related seminaries? Are seminaries—functionally, whether they mean to or not—havens for those who couldn’t make the grade elsewhere?
First, it must be noted that church-related seminaries are struggling these days. It’s difficult to recruit students and keep class sizes up which also means it’s difficult to keep costs down. Students leave (and matriculate) with too much debt. Seminary budgets are increasingly difficult to balance.
Seminaries have responded to these challenging times in a variety of ways. In the ELCA, North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University recently merged with Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Luther Seminary (a.k.a. “the mothership”) in St. Paul, Minn. lost $4 million last year and now is in a significant time of transition. Many PCUSA seminaries have faced (or will face) financial turmoil of their own. I won’t post any rumors here, but suffice it to say: the numbers don’t add up.
Some say that the M.Div. itself, traditionally a degree requiring at least three years of coursework plus an internship, is the problem. Others point out questions about distance learning programs or the fact that mainline denominations simply don’t need as many pastors as they used to.
These complexities deserve much more than a blog post, but before I sign-off, allow me to jump up on my digital soapbox:
- The church desperately needs visionary, faithful, new (often young) leaders.
- The church desperately needs these new leaders to interpret the culture to many in our congregations and empower all members to follow Jesus beyond the church walls.
- The church desperately needs seminaries that are seedbeds for creativity, cultures of experimentation, and leaders of a new vision of life together.
Sure, slackers can get through most seminaries just fine. But slackers won’t be enough.