Sunday, July 01, 2012

Whither the Seminaries?

Egg-reader and master photographer Mark Christianson offers some thoughtful reflections on the ELCA's budgetary priorities, and especially on how much (or little) it apportions for seminary support.  This well worth a read, and some sober reflection.

He also suggests closing and/or merging several of the ELCA's eight seminaries.  The idea is hardly new; we've heard variations of it for years.  The reason it has not taken place already is that each of the seminaries has its own constituency, militant in support of its particular history and minutely-nuanced variation on the common mission of all seminaries.  Fair enough.

But let's be frank.  Eventually, seminary closure is going to happen on its own, most likely through catastrophic failure.  Worse yet, it will happen slowly, as individual institutions wither away.  Some readers may recall the cautionary tale of the Hartwick Seminary, which helped to divide and embitter the New York Ministerium for several generations.

The real question, then, is whether the eventual closure of some seminaries will be directed deliberately, or left to chance.  This is, not incidentally, the question that faces many other church institutions, not least individual congregations.

At least in the case of seminaries, an argument can be made either way.

There is obvious logic to a denomination-wide master plan, such -- for example -- as one which would leave the ELCA with seminaries distributed geographically -- one east, one west, one north-central, one south-central.  (Since there is nothing fitting that last description, such a strategy actually involves the expansion of an existing extension program in Texas to the rank of a seminary.)

On the other hand, the invisible hand of the market is a powerful tool for discernment.  If it proves that there are not enough students and benefactors to support a new seminary in Dallas (or an old one in fill-in-the-blank), then perhaps it is best to accept that such a seminary does not really need to exist.  To the counter-argument that this leaves the ELCA lopsided, and unprepared for mission in a certain geographical region, one can only respond that Americans are wildly mobile, and that other graduate students routinely travel across the country to study.

We're not really sure what to do here, and nobody is asking us anyway.  But the merger of Southern Seminary with Lenoir-Rhyne and the situation which resulted from McCormick's threatened  withdrawal from LSTC both press the point.


Matthew Frost said...

Part of the problem is that the ELCA is not capable of closing its seminaries. I mean, structurally and constitutionally incapable; it doesn't have the administrative authority to do anything but let the "invisible hand" play god. Higgins Road can restructure itself all it wants, but it can't restructure us—it can only exert leverage with money. And from what I hear, once upon a time, it exerted that leverage for the express purpose of making LSTC into a redundant part, and here we are.

Plus, in our consortia, where we're supposed to be cooperating (and which is always proposed as though it were an answer to the problem), we're busy worrying about who's theoretically trying to swallow whom, or whose initiatives are going to "save seminary education as we know it" by onlining everything faster. We're afraid of each other, which is at least in part because the consortia are proposed as though our cooperation were supposed to solve the redundancy. "Here: you three work together. Only one of you can survive, but you three work together. Play nice!"

So Wartburg and Trinity treat LSTC as though it wanted to absorb them and steal their uniqueness (like we could afford to, when we can't even afford our own faculty); we treat them like they're derelict in their responsibilities, and complain when they don't help us (because they hit financial crisis just a bit faster than we did); and everybody looks over at Luther like they're the perfect ideal of a seminary and graduate school, which we should emulate or die.

Southern is meanwhile being digested, and its proteins repurposed to build new body parts for Lenoir-Rhyne. Which I've heard some people speak of as a solution to the problem—we should all get eaten by private institutions. And it seems like the Midwest pays no attention to Gettysburg, Philly or Berkeley unless we have to.

Father Anonymous said...

The fact that the ELCA lacks the power to close seminaries is extremely important. It mirrors the limitation upon synods, which (except in extreme circumstances) lack the power to close congregations, and is one of the frustrations of a comparatively decentralized church. (There are blessings as well, to be sure).

Your description of the mutual perceptions of the midwestern seminaries is very interesting; as an easterner, I know virtually nothing about any of them. (That "not paying attention" thing is largely mutual).

Daniel said...

One thing that I haven't read much about in these discussions is a historical perspective. (So your comment about Hartwick Seminary, about which I know nothing other than what I've just learned from glancing over a Wikipedia article, is a bit tantalizing.) How many of our present seminaries are the result of past mergers? How many American Lutheran seminaries have ceased to exist altogether? Can we learn anything from any of that? What has worked well or poorly in the past?

Father Anonymous said...

Basically, Hartwick was born to die, and its death was a slow, lingering one. Quite a number of other Lutheran seminaries have lived out their brief span and then folded, or in some cases merged, over the years. Some of the mergers have tracked with synodical mergers, others have not.

As for the existing seminaries, I'm no expert, but I believe that LSTC is the most-merged. It was created by the 1960s merger of five seminaries connected by LCA predecessor bodies; it was also the chief recipient of displaced AELC professors.

Trinity was formed by the 1978 merger of the former Ohio Synod's ELTS and Wittenberg College's Hamma Divinity School.

Luther was formed by a 1917 merger of three Norwegian synods and their seminaries; it merged with Northwestern in the 1970s. Since it retains the name of the oldest seminary in the bunch, you could call these mergers :acquisitions" if you wanted.

Like Luther, Warburg was founded with its present name and location, but has "acquired" several other congregations over the years -- St. Paul, Trinity (Blair) and part of Seminex.

PLTS has not merged, although it is part of the GTU, which is an especially tight consortium.

Gettysburg is the oldest remaining ELCA seminary, until recently followed by LTSS. Philadelphia was created in opposition to Gettysburg; neither has merged or split. Their once-fierce theological differences have dwindled, to the point where they are distinguished more by the fact -- of dubious importance -- that one is in a city and one is not.

Matthew Frost said...

That was true of me, growing up. My grandparents are Metro NY, and my father has spent his entire career so far at calls in NE Penn. He went to Gettysburg, and until I went to Valparaiso, I had no idea there was a world outside the East Coast ministeria that became LCA.

Daniel said...

How many seminaries does a denomination need? Why do some have many and some have few?

We have 8. LCMS has 2. PCUSA has 10-12! (D&FMSot) PECUSA has 11! (Are the Piskies and the Presbyterians having this conversation also?)

Were there institutional loyalties to be overcome when the predecessor seminaries of LSTC merged in the 60's? How were they overcome? If LSTC as it presently exists is really only ~50 years old, why couldn't it (from its own perspective and that of its alumni) merge with Wartburg and Trinity to become ULSLM (United Lutheran Seminary of the Lower Midwest)? I can see why that would be a harder pill to swallow for Wartburg and Trinity, given that their histories are less fractious. But might the merger that produced LSTC be instructive for today?

Father Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, the United Methodist Church has 13 seminaries, including two with regrettable acronyms: Boston University School of Theology and Duke University Divinity School.

Thank you. I'll be here all week.

Seriously, though, the UMC is much larger than the other denominations you mention, so its seminary-to-faithful ratio is probably in the middle range. And, relevant to the questions at hand, three of its best-known schools (BU, Duke and Drew) are incorporated into larger universities.

Among Roman Catholics in the United States, the ratio is a bit different. Per Wikipedia, there were 189 seminaries in 2009, with 5247 students. (Some of these may be "minor seminaries," which are undergraduate institutions.)

Matthew Frost said...

The Roman Catholic number boggles the mind. The wikipedia page listing Roman Catholic seminaries certainly overbalances the LCMS number.

We know the LCMS has two, but ... let's just put it this way: they have control issues, and being anti-Catholic, they refuse to deal with them in any truly magisterially hierarchical fashion. Just one big flat loyalty-oath structure, controlled even today by the attempt to keep a firm hand on the education of their leaders.

For the rest of us wild-eyed crazy liberals who will let you be educated basically anywhere, as long as you spend some quality polity time, I don't think there can be a "magic number" of necessary seminaries. The question is what the value proposition is.

And in the ELCA (and I'm sure it's happening elsewhere, b/c it's an economic fact), part of the pressure on the seminaries right now, and the idea that we have "too many," is that we have a glut of non-retiring older pastors in congregation. We don't presently "need" as many new pastors, because vacancies aren't high across the board. Yet. (Locally is another matter.)

But vocational enrollment never follows social necessity in religious vocations. It's not like technical education. People aren't like, "oh, looks like there's a growing market for pastors, maybe I'll train for that," or "wow, that looks like a hard field to get a job in, maybe I'll look for something that will pay better." We may be producing certified vocational labor, but we align with the graduate-school curve, not the two-year degree market. Steady variable production that rarely peaks or valleys in response to economic stresses. So the question of how many seminaries we "need" is kind of useless, because it has no direct connection to production demand. What does, however, is the question of how many seminaries a church is willing to support at any given time, and at what level.

Matthew Frost said...

And as to the LSTC merger, the Trinity merger, and even the merger that formed Luther as it presently exists, if you do a little reading, and I mean a very little, like you can find it in the history pages of the respective institutions, you will quickly notice that these seminaries merged because their church bodies merged. It wasn't an economically motivated consolidation effort within one church body.

Different seminaries in one area becoming one seminary in the same area because you have now become one church together is one thing; closing seminaries in different areas and consolidating their resources somewhere else is quite another.

Father Anonymous said...

Remember that seminary websites are publicity organs; they aren't going to describe the nitty-gritty details of negotiations and mutual resentment.

Again, I'm no expert. I do know, though, that in the early 20th century, there was a considerable degree of mutual envy between Hartwick (by then vestigial) and LTSP, specifically regarding how much support they would get from the synod. Much more recently, I've seen other church organizations display a little of the same sort of muted-but-genuine rivalry, more so when they feel their survival is at stake.

So I suspect there may be more to some of these stories than tranquilly following their sponsoring bodies into a comfortable union. But it would require somebody who knew the history better to confirm this.

Father Anonymous said...

By the way, the math on the Roman Catholic seminaries averages out to 28 students per seminary, which raises all sorts of questions about how they are funded and staffed.

Based on a rough guesstimate of 77.7 million Roman Catholics in the US, it also means something like one ordinand for every 14,000 Catholics. The equivalent ratio in the ELCA is closer to 1:3,000.