Illustration by Pâté
When I became president of Winebrenner Theological Seminary in December 2015, one of my first observations was how similar seminaries appeared in terms of curriculum, operational models, and the myriad assumptions that guide daily decision-making.
For example, most seminaries view the master of divinity degree as the “core” program, despite declining enrollment. There’s a “niche” program or two in place to carve out some form of distinctiveness from other seminaries. And, although a high percentage of students are preparing for pastoral ministry, the administration and faculty likely believe this percentage is higher than it actually is.
Another similarity is that many seminaries are in an unsustainable economic model built on rising organizational costs, market-driven tuition, an over-reliance on donors, and poor budgeting.
It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that despite a focus on organizational individuation it seems that most seminaries, sadly, look alike.
That’s sad because each school has a unique historical and theological story and some, like Winebrenner, have a direct relationship with a specific denomination. Yet, if you remove the names of 10 randomly selected seminaries it’s likely you won’t be able to tell them apart based upon a brief review of curriculum and areas of focus. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that as seminaries look more and more alike, the students we engage are looking more and more unique and different, which only adds to the gap between students and seminaries in terms of affordability and accessibility.
There are inherited internal and external forces, passed down from administration to administration, that lead many seminaries in North America to follow a similar template. It’s time for a disruptive change to that pattern.
The story of this pattern could begin in many ways, but I’ll start with managing rising organizational costs. Like many seminaries, Winebrenner Seminary has lowered operating costs by nearly $1 million since 2015. I’ve had multiple conversations with seminary leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to keeping fixed costs low by cutting up to several million dollars from previous years’ budgets. These items may include over-staffing – “administrative bloat” is a real issue at many schools – as well as generally inefficient systems.
Schools have limited ways to pay for these costs. Tuition is one of the primary ones. Current tuition is almost overwhelmingly market-driven: schools identify a set of peers and establish a price based upon what others are charging. This phenomenon was confirmed for me through research and several conversations during Winebrenner’s “tuition reset” discussions in early 2019. As a result, students are often charged the highest price the market allows.
Students, however, often can’t afford to pay that amount. Schools don’t see themselves as part of the problem, so they ask students to find other sources to pay for the high cost. Students then look to the federal government or private sources for student loans, to donors or family members, or to churches.
Schools also try to increase revenue to meet the rising costs through donor support, which can be thought of as an internal way to offset or even “outsource” rising costs. Instead of addressing rising costs or tuition that burdens students, schools seek out churches or individual donors who serve as “angels” to pay for bad stewardship decisions.
Before Winebrenner adopted a “revenue first” budget approach, trustees would simply add more funds to the anticipated revenue from philanthropic sources. I’ve been to enough ATS events and have spoken to enough presidents to know that Winebrenner was not alone in this practice; I can gladly say that we moved away from it several years ago.
Like many, Winebrenner was veering toward a disconnect and disregard for the finances within the overall academic unit. I have observed that there is often a significant dis-integration of academics and finance when looking at overall operating costs.
The similar ways seminaries respond to these internal items often lead to similar appearances to external markets. Before Winebrenner, I was a tenured faculty member at a Catholic university in Pennsylvania, where I served on the “Student Success Committee,” which placed great emphasis on retention. We spent many meetings discussing how to attract and retain students.
One particular meeting stands out as it focused on how we could become more distinctive in the larger marketplace. We turned to the university’s agenda for remodeling existing facilities and building new ones. The director for student success said that according to his data most prospective students decide to enroll at a university like ours because of athletic and personal workout facilities, followed closely by having updated student residential options. He was adamant that the priorities of the university should be to build a new workout complex (which it did) and build new – and remodel existing – student living spaces.
I asked what I thought was a relatively obvious question: “So, you’re suggesting that we become more distinctive by doing exactly the same thing as every other school you identify as our competitors?”
I had been exposed to enough wise people to be able to ask this question. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet have a broad enough understanding or vocabulary to name what I was identifying. In Designing the New American University Drs. Michael M. Crow, President of Arizona State University, and William B. Dabars, a senior research fellow for University Design at ASU, introduced the term “isomorphism” to identify the impulse of many higher education institutions to imitate others. As leaders we somehow fool ourselves into thinking that we can be distinct by simply implementing what another school has successfully built.
Much like the internal economic forces leading to similarities among theological seminaries, these external isomorphic factors begin to constrain the creativity and risks that seminary presidents or boards are willing to take. Specifically, when similar external market forces are experienced by organizations in a similar industry, isomorphism identifies the reality that these organizations often begin to look alike. Counter-intuitively, when every seminary begins to look for the same “differentiation,” they actually don’t differentiate—the principle of isomorphism suggests that we all begin to look alike.
Two connected remedies help make the application to theological education. First, we need to recognize that our environments and organizations are built, not given. Second, we need to consider the kinds of environments that are created by our decisions.
For example, few have ever taken a moment to consider something as simple as double-entry bookkeeping, the invention of 15th century Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, who, incidentally was also a Franciscan friar. Something as simple as our accounting systems have a great influence over how we view partnership and collaboration.
Double-entry bookkeeping requires that every expense be matched to a line item on the revenue side. Whenever expenses need to be zeroed out by revenue, we come to believe that only so many resources exist to fund our existing expenses and our plans. This gives rise to a mindset of competition. In God’s kingdom, there is no competition. Double-entry bookkeeping tends to create an environment in which “zero sum” understanding limits creative thinking, collaboration and partnership.
Next, embrace the unique history of your school, including its denominational heritage. I fully recognize that there is a declining amount of funding flowing from denominational bodies to seminaries; Winebrenner is affected by these trends as well. However, now is the time to define and embrace the unique relationship with individual denominations. For example, Winebrenner is the only seminary of the Churches of God, General Conference. That’s an opportunity. For readers on the denominational side of the conversation, this is also a prophetic call for to embrace the seminaries that are unique to your denominational heritage and history.
As a conclusion, I offer the three guiding coordinates we are focused on at Winebrenner to spur discussion among your Boards and seminary leadership. I am not offering these as a template – your operational model will look different – but as a starting point for further conversation about your institution.
Students are often charged the highest price the market allows. Students, however, often can’t afford to pay that amount.
First, we are committed to keeping our overall fixed costs, including building facilities and personnel, as low as possible. Too often schools want to immediately add staff or faculty during a good season of enrollment and giving, which can create longer-term problems once a financial commitment is made to an employee and revenue begins to flatline or decline. We also need to honestly assess the role that physical structures and buildings will play in the future of theological education. A deep commitment to collaboration may shift the emphasis from buildings to a more distributed model of learning.
Second, Winebrenner continues to explore a creative curriculum that intersects with students’ lives and ministries. I’m ashamed to admit that in the past Winebrenner Seminary was somewhat antagonistic toward learning that took place in a localized ministry or workplace context. Students were actually forbidden from using “in context” experiences as part of their “regular” course work. This was, in part, built upon the faulty belief that faculty members and academic administrators were keepers of all pedagogical truth.
Fortunately, we’ve broken down these silos and now acknowledge that students can have quality learning experiences in many contexts. We are moving in the direction of what we’re referring to as “context-specific theological learning.” Regardless of the name, we need better understandings of the rhythms of life and ministry as they relate to theological education in the current era.
Finally, Winebrenner has shifted to subscription-based tuition because we believe in a mission-based tuition model as opposed to market-based tuition. Too many students are burdened with a high cost of education, preventing them from pursuing God’s call on their life. We need to work with students and churches to create educational systems that have greater kingdom impact.
Unity will be found in our common purpose of providing discipleship and theological education, even though we may all look very different.
For more on Winebrenner’s approach to facing the future, visit: winebrenner.edu