Wednesday, July 08, 2009

More Signs of the End Times

Mainline decline? Or something worse?

Back in 1975, McCormick, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA, shacked up with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. McCormick moved its campus to be next to LSTC, and they began to share facilities, while keeping an independent administration.

Now, there's nothing really remarkable about this arrangement. Seminaries are not large institutions, and various cooperative relationships are commonplace. These range from fairly distant (opening a few classrooms so that an out-of-town school can offer extension classes) to the nearly symbiotic (San Francisco's GTU, or McCormick).

Sharing facilities is an especially reasonable strategy, because of the peculiar nature of many seminaries. They require exactly the same resources, including the same specialized libraries (and chapels). But, because of their denominational connections and theological perspectives, they can't just merge. (Although mergers within a denomination are not unusual, even those can be problematic; just ask Hartwick.) And of course, they are generally small -- and shrinking. So they share.

Anyway, after 35 years of so, McCormick is "disengaging" from its relationship with the Lutherans. Why, you ask? Hint: Not because it has finally saved up enough money to strike out on its own.

In 2003 McCormick constructed its own administration building on the campus, but now that building will be put up for sale.

A report in Crain's Chicago Real Estate Daily said McCormick's capital program, which included construction of its administration building, left the seminary $30 million in debt with annual bond payments of $1 million.

"We are simply spending a disproportionate and, unfortunately, growing share of our resources on occupancy-related costs," said the Rev. Cynthia M. Campbell, McCormick president, on the seminary's Web site. In addition, McCormick funds 70 percent of its budget from the school's endowment, which recently lost about 30 percent of its value, she said.

We aren't sure yet what's actually going to happen to McCormick. We expect they aren't either. But it probably doesn't involve going forward as a property-owning, degree-granting institution. Which makes us wonder whether there is room for another Auburn Seminary in the world, much less in the PCUSA.

So. Is this just more of the same, as the so-called mainline churches shrivel up and die? Is it further fallout from the financial mess? Or is it the result of the wishful thinking that too often governs church affairs -- did it really make sense to fund 70 percent of your budget from an endowment? (For comparison, the average for endowed institutions is 20%, but much higher among seminaries -- Harvard and Yale run 35-45%; and Princeton a whopping 76%).

Or is there a fourth possibility: that the PCUSA, with about 3 million members, doesn't need ten denominational seminaries and two "seminaries affiliated by covenant." The ELCA, with almost 2 million more members (at least until the schism next year), probably doesn't need its eight seminaries and two extension centers. And that's not about decline; that's about efficiencies of scale, resulting from the mergers which created the current church bodies, but didn't address the surplus sems of the predecessor bodies. In which case, the end of McCormick (like the end of Wartburg, Trinity, or either of the Pennsylvania schools) is really just a case of Darwinian economics doing what bureaucrats didn't.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The financial figures you quoted interest me because two of my Lutheran loved ones went the Princeton Sem for $0 for tuition. One also got room and board, plus a monthly allowance. Which is why they didn't go to a Lutheran Sem. And they studied under a Luther Scholar and did an internship at a Lutheran church. 'Course, that internship didn't count toward Lutheran ordination. :-(

Father said...

Princeton's endowment has been a tremendous blessing both to the seminary and to the greater church. I myself am an alumnus, and a grateful beneficiary of the seminary's stunning financial aid.

All of which is why the condition of Princeton's endowment is a serious concern, and not just to Presbyterians. According to Dr. Torrance's letter, linked in the post, it appears that they will cut back on a lot of other things before they cut back on financial aid. But math is math; when 76% of your budget comes from a fund that has dropped by a third -- well, there's gonna be trouble.

And yes, it took longer to go the non-ELCA-seminary route. I spent almost six years in seminary, from start to finish. No complaints, though -- I wound up knowing more that way. (Not to mention meeting my wife.)

Be careful about terminology, though -- there is a difference between doing field education in a parish (which Princeton requires of all M.Div. students) and doing an actual internship, or "vicariate" -- a year of full-time supervised work as, in effect, an assistant pastor (which is required of nearly all ELCA seminarians, typically in addition to prior field ed and CPE). Apart from the more rigid supervisory standards, there is simple bulk -- typical field ed amounts to 360 hours, versus an internship of 1920 hours.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Thanks for the clarification. Yes, the time in the Lutheran church while at Princeton was part time. They were also required to do another field education stint, for which they were able to use their paid summer positions, fortunately.

It is really too bad that we don't do more to give credit for certain kinds of experiences. One of these people had 6 summers of various ministry experiences and leadership before entering seminary at age 22. But at least the "call" was obvious.

Your point, however, is valid. The actual full time internship is much more demanding.

Diane said...

wow. I never thought of going to a non-Lutheran seminary. Luther was in my backyard, and I had spent 3 years out of the country in Japan and thought I would like to stay close to home.

But I would have loved to go to Princeton.

And not have all this debt, either.