The kinship between mainline churches and their seminaries has fallen on troubled times, according to a new study of four theological schools. While these seminaries once enjoyed a privileged, honored partnership with their respective denominations, the survey finds, several factors in recent decades have pushed the churches away from them and lowered their prestige.

Dennis Anderson

The survey, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment and conducted by the Reverend Dennis Anderson, himself a retired seminary head, refrains from generalizing from the four chosen schools to assess the standing of all or most mainline seminaries within their church traditions. Nevertheless, one conclusion seems inescapable. A once healthy partnership that has been a cornerstone of trust and mutual benefit across an array of church traditions appears to have become badly frayed.

Leaders of the four schools express disquiet over the detrimental effects of the widening gulf on their finances and on their reputations for preparing candidates for the ministry. In response, the schools are striving in varying ways to rekindle the family ties. They are offering students headed for parish ministry greater exposure to the culture and routines of church life through internships and other programs designed to acquaint them with life at the congregational and denominational levels. They are striving to show the value of theological education in a church climate that has shunted it to the margins. 

One measure of the separation between the two spheres in the estimation of many seminary officials has been a sharp drop in funding from parent denominations. Twenty-five years ago, the report says, from 60 to 80 percent of the seminaries’ finances came from their sponsoring churches. That amount has shrunk to between 2 and 25 percent in denominations that offer any support at all. Though blame for the dip is traced in part to scarcer resources of denominations in decline, the reasons given for the reduction in seminary support go beyond financial belt-tightening. One factor slowing the supply of money, the report says, is that churches increasingly believe that seminary graduates lack the practical education needed for sustaining and broadening today’s parish ministry. 

Other evidence suggests that theology and theological education have suffered widespread neglect and a loss of respect within the church bodies. The days when these seminaries were reflexively looked up to, financed, and depended upon by the faithful appear to be long gone.

Uncoupled from Their Churches
Report author Anderson retired from the presidency of Trinity Lutheran in Columbus, Ohio, in October 2000. He conducted the four-denomination, four-school survey during a sabbatical year that followed. In the course of his research, Anderson interviewed the presidents, deans, members of the faculty, and members of the governing boards of the schools and officials of their parent denominations. Since the school he had headed is a seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he consciously did not include a school of that body in the study.

The schools he examined were Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.; St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri, of United Methodist Church; Western Theological Seminary, Hope, Michigan, Reformed Church in America; and Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, United Church of Christ.  

Columbia Theological Seminary graduation 2001 at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Atlanta.

Most striking of his findings, beyond the decline in denominational contributions to the schools’ budgets, is the widespread impression among those interviewed that the seminary has become virtually uncoupled from the parent body. The report refers to the denominations “moving away” from seminaries like galaxies retreating in an expanding universe. The distance has often caused stalemate, further complicating a strained relationship between the churches and American society. 

“The seminary was once embedded in the life of the church,” said David Greenhaw, Eden’s president. “Today it is peripheral to the life of the church. However, the church is peripheral to life itself. It no longer has the glue to hold it together. So the church is actually in multiple little fragmented places.”

To support themselves in this climate, the seminaries have had to rely more on tuition and endowment to make ends meet. Still, they report, their faculties are paid far too little and each year the president must scramble to cover a budget gap that averages about 25 percent of the whole. Efforts to tap church sources for additional income have, so far, been unavailing. Various voucher plans have been proposed to encourage giving to people rather than institutions, which tend to be unpopular, but seminary officials say that funding individual students wouldn’t substantially help the schools pay their bills. Lovett H. Weems, Jr., St. Paul’s president, put the matter succinctly: “The church has been making debtors out of students and entrepreneurs of presidents.” 

In Weems’s view the reduction in denominational financial support has a far more debilitating impact on United Methodist seminaries than whether denominational leaders think good or ill of their work. “The relationship between denomination and seminary is as good as it has ever been,” he said. There is less conflict and fussing now except from hard-right caucus groups. But it doesn’t matter. The bishops are all on our side. But, that doesn’t make any difference. That is not going to change one thing about the ethos of the denomination that has to do with money right now.... There may be a lot of interest in your program, but that doesn’t matter. The one thing they won’t violate is, ‘NO NEW TAXES.’ Once you have made that kind of decision that is the end of the matter.”

Douglas Oldenburg, former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, offered a more nuanced view of the drying up of denominational funding. “The denomination has moved away from the seminary in some very critical dimensions,” he said, and then added: “As soon as I say that, I must also say that Presbyterian individuals are still the primary financial supporters of the seminary. It is not done through the denomination like it used to be. We cannot say that the Presbyterian church has pulled away, but one can say that the judicatory has.”

The Reformed Church in America, sponsor of Western Seminary, made an unsuccessful attempt to offset its reduction in direct funding to the school with a grant based on a per-member formula. The stratagem backfired, said Dennis Voskuil, Western’s president, and “produced a backwash of negativity. People felt assessed and gave less. We would have been better off without it ... We are going well. They [the denomination] are proud of us. But, financially they have left us on our own. The denomination has difficulty raising money. The danger of this, from my perspective, and I speak as a church person, is the more we are unlinked financially the less we are likely to be sensitive to the church’s desires and needs.”

A Sense of Estrangement
If churches pay little heed to the seminaries, the seminaries, in turn, appear to have largely removed themselves from the life of the denomination. A sense of estrangement permeates Anderson’s report. The fall has been dramatic. “The presidents remember when the seminaries were a protected class in the church,” Anderson said. “They were unique in providing leadership. They were in close contact with the church. Now they’re just one more agency with their hands out.”

It has also produced a stalemate, with each side stuck in its assumptions. The Reverend William A. Hulteen, Jr., a former official of the United Church of Christ who is a long-time observer of church-seminary trends, urged a breaking of the deadlock in his interview with Anderson. (Hulteen was executive director and minister of the UCC’s now-defunct Office of Church Life and Leadership.)

“We have to get beyond the usual dialogues, ‘Seminaries need more money. The church does not like the kind of leaders prepared in our seminaries,’ “Hulteen said. “This is pathological. We must focus on the mission of relationships. Seminaries need the church. The church is the grounding for their mission. The church needs seminaries for theological education in order to do their mission. What is lacking is the conversation where the church is saying, ‘We have a mission which engages the seminaries.’ The relationship has been highly functional. It is a quid-pro-quo, transitional relationship. It has been an exchange of services, rather than an engagement in common mission.”

Theology itself appears to have been demoted, even ostracized. The report recalls H. Richard Niebuhr’s call to the seminaries to do much more than supply ministers to the churches. Niebuhr envisioned them as centers of theological research for the sake of the church. But just the opposite of what Niebuhr hoped for appears to have happened—theology has become more marginal and irrelevant in the church. “The social sciences have played a significant part,” Anderson said. “Now theology is just one more category of knowledge rather than the lens through which all things are understood.”

The study report states: “There is a need to nurture higher functioning levels of valuing theology and theological education on the part of denominations. This is a critical vocation for seminaries and denominational leadership that is deserving of intentional work.” But denominational structures often hamper that purpose, the report notes. Likewise, there is no evidence that denominations desire a greater role for theology. Many churches clearly want ministers who can revive dying churches and exert corporate-style leadership, but they don’t necessarily associate those competencies with master of divinity degrees or in-depth theology. Though the study doesn’t explicitly mention it, the M.Div. may, by contrast, have suffered guilt by association. The major slump in mainline church membership has coincided with the creation of that degree. It has been the educational model for a preponderance of clergy who, in the face of trends they were powerless to reverse, nonetheless presided over a period of loss. Inevitably, perhaps, the master of divinity has been unfairly, even unconsciously, linked to a program of failed preparation for the ordained ministry. 

Searching for a Bright Future
The consensus in the study is that a brighter future for theological schools depends significantly on the ability of seminaries to re-integrate themselves into the life of the churches. Eden’s president, David Greenhaw, pinpoints the challenge in a grant request he’s made to the Lilly Endowment. Referring to “ecclesial culture”—or church climate—in which seminarians were immersed in the past, Greenhaw wrote that it has “atrophied and the role it played in forming students prior to, during and after their seminary education has withered with it.... As the ecclesial culture changed and the seminary was no longer embedded in it, theological education became institutionalized.”

Greenhaw continues: “Frequently church leaders urge seminaries to correct the problems of pastoral leadership by offering courses in the ‘crisis du jour’... pastoral counseling, evangelism, stewardship, contemporary worship, pastoral sexual ethics, congregational administration and many others.... It is not so much that the master of divinity educational program is broken and needs to be fixed, it is instead that alone it is insufficient preparation for ordained ministry.”

James Brownson, the academic dean at Western, proposes a simple test: “Do congregations flourish under our graduates?”

The root problem between seminary and church, therefore, is what kind of education future ministers need in order to serve the church best. As the findings make clear, churches have become increasingly displeased with what they see in master of divinity degree candidates produced by academically respected institutions such as those in the survey, preferring instead pastors with stronger leadership skills and a firm grasp of parish practices. The findings note the growing popularity of alternative, less academically demanding programs that prepare ministers part-time to fill pulpits that may be part-time themselves. United Methodists, for example, offer the “Course of Studies” designed for busy lay people. According to Anderson, enrollment in the program has doubled since 1980.

Shortages of ministers in the mainline churches, together with the growing number of dwindling parishes that cannot afford full-time pastors, has prompted the search for alternate means of training students to fill pulpits that might otherwise go empty. Understandably, perhaps, the emphasis within such curricula is more practical than theoretical. 

But Anderson says that the on-the-go education afforded by the alternatives for lay people often allows students to retain vital contact with the church life that they might otherwise leave behind when they enter the seminary. How do you provide a quality seminary education, Anderson asks, “in a way that doesn’t de-culturize these people?” By the same token, he adds, the decline in mainline church culture may be caused in part by the reduction in denominational support for theological education. 

Restoring theological education to the family table of church bodies that are fighting for their own survival seems, from the Anderson report, complex, difficult and crucial. While a return to the old pattern of close family ties (referred to as the “old contract”) is ruled out, the report suggests that a new model may be achievable on different terms. A consistent message is that theology itself needs to be at the heart of the church and that the seminary remains the vehicle to deliver it.

John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, laid out the case from the denominational side. Stating that his goal is to “draw the seminaries closer to the life and work of the whole church,” Thomas said: 

“I want us to take theological responsibilities more seriously. I want us to have a core of people who reflect on the work of the church from a theological base, not only from sociological or political [bases]. Therefore, seminaries are key partners in this effort.”

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