The relationship between theological schools and their associated church bodies has a distinctly familial feel. And similar to the dynamics within human families, the relationships are complex and unique to each church body.

Theological schools associated with mainline Protestant denominations are part of large, extended families. Others schools are the only child of a doting mid- to small-sized church family. A few seminaries have family ties on both sides of the U.S./Canada border and are caught in a tug-of-war between two cultures. And then there are the interdenominational and nondenominational schools, seminaries that define their family simply as the Church with a capital “C.”

Drawing upon her conversations with a sampling of denominational representatives and seminary personnel, author Kathryn Sime explores the question: How do these family members understand their mutual expectations and mutual accountabilities to each other?

Every family encounters the occasional conflict and disagreement, but at the core of any healthy relationship is the capacity to find common ground. And so it is with the Evangelical Congregational Church, where Bishop Michael Sigman describes the relationship between the denomination and its sole seminary, Evangelical School of Theology, as “very positive and growing.” He says, “When we have a difference of opinion, we meet, we talk, we pray, we make a decision and we move forward. We work hard at consensus building—it means building relationships, cultivating trust, communicating clearly.”

Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary of the United Methodist Church (UMC), refers to a “tradition of honoring education and its role in the denomination, not only for seminarians but for laity as well.” In addition to managing the distribution of funds to theological schools, Moman convenes seminary presidents or top administrators twice a year for conversation and reflection on issues facing UMC seminaries and constituent churches.

Mutual discernment is another essential in any family, as is a spirit of cooperation woven throughout the life of the relationship. Gary Peluso-Verdend, director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a UMC school in Evanston, Illinois, affirms this current spirit of partnership, yet also recalls times in which the denomination and its seminaries “have made some major decisions independently of each other.” Working interdependently rather than in isolation from each other has been critical to furthering the relationship. Now, when changes to church or seminary policies are being considered, “you can get your partner to respond on how that change is going to affect their life,” he says. “It’s a collaborative approach where we understand that we’re all part of an ecology of ministry together.”

Comments like these suggest the ties binding theological schools to their churchly parents are not as frayed as some have feared. Indeed, the majority of denominational and seminary leaders describe a relationship based on mutual expectations and shared joys and concerns. Family squabbles, sibling rivalries, and even major differences in opinion can bring tension to the complex web of family relationships, but at the heart of those relationships is a deep commitment to shared faith — and to each other.

Yet the question remains: How do the family members understand their mutual expectations and mutual accountabilities to each other?

Beyond the Money

There once was a time when the relationship between theological schools and their church sponsors was demonstrated in terms of dollars and cents. Denominational subsidies provided a significant portion of many schools’ operating budgets, tuitions were relatively modest, and student debt was a thing of the future. But direct support to theological education by church bodies isn't what it used to be.

Take for example the United Methodist Church, where seminary funding comes through the Ministerial Education Fund, which is raised in the Annual Conferences, the regional judicatories of that denomination. Three-quarters of the fund is distributed directly to the thirteen UMC seminaries, with the remainder employed by the Annual Conferences for other discretionary education-related purposes. In 2003, the Ministerial Education Fund provided about $15 million to the theological schools, a nice sum to be sure, but just one percent more than in the previous year and considerably less than ten years ago.

At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Jonathan Strandjord, director for theological education in the Division for Ministry, reports that funding from ELCA sources covers 20 percent of total expenses for theological education. Again, a nice contribution, but less than it once was.

Denominational support of the seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is collected via the Theological Education Fund, a voluntary initiative in which congregations are asked to direct one percent of their budgets to benefit theological education. According to Cynthia McCall Campbell, president of McCormick Seminary, the PC(USA) school located in Chicago, Illinois, “Back in the 1960s, 30 percent of the seminary’s budget would have come from direct support from the denomination. Today it is about three percent of our operating budget. The whole financial model of theological education has changed dramatically.”

And so it goes across churchly lines and on either side of the Canada/U.S. border. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, wrote in the Spring 2004 issue of Seminary Development News, “Denominations are not going to vote anytime soon to return to the levels of funding they had in the 1950s and 1960s. Schools need to develop new patterns of funding.”

Toward Leadership Development

Despite lingering disappointment over the decline in financial support, theological schools and their church families are optimistic about their shared work on the issue of leadership recruitment and development. The questions driving both seminaries and denominations, says Cynthia Campbell, underscore the critical need for engaging candidates for ordained ministry: “How do we find the best candidates? How do we prepare them in the best way? How do both the denomination and seminary understand what the needs of the church are for which students are to be prepared?”

In many quarters, the focus remains on forming and educating professional church leaders for congregational ministry. Vincent Cushing, consultant to Catholic theological schools and a member of the In Trust board of directors, explains that the Roman Catholic Church “expects that the seminaries will educate a student who is thoroughly familiar with the contemporary Catholic tradition and is willing to undertake the ministry of the church in an enthusiastic and committed way without reservations about the church and its directions.”

Similarly, Mary Ann Moman notes that “the UMC’s Annual Conferences expect that our seminaries will provide the kind of education and skill sets—preaching and pastoral care—that equip a person graduating with a Master of Divinity degree with the basics needed to begin ministry.” Garrett’s Peluso-Verdend adds that churches want “competent, educated clergy for parish ministry. What that involves is an understanding and appreciation for the denominational heritage—being a keeper of the denominational tradition, the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition. That’s really important to the denomination.”

Yet as Jean Stairs, principal of the United Church of Canada’s Queen’s Theological College (Kingston, Ontario) observes, graduate-level theological education must also equip pastors to relate to the broader communities in which they will serve. “In Canada, all the studies are showing that we have the highest educated workforce. People in our pews are going to be highly educated people. So, if our ministers are not able to address that kind of context, I think it’s a recipe for problems for the church, for the revitalization of the church,” she says.

Ecumenical Pioneers

Within the context of leadership development, many seminary and denominational representatives point to the value of grounding that education within a multicultural and ecumenical setting. Mary Ann Moman suggests that pastors “need to be well-versed in not only their own religious traditions, but in the multitude of religious traditions in which they will find themselves.” Seminaries have brought tremendous value to the wider church as “ecumenical pioneers,” notes Jonathan Strandjord, by nurturing and maintaining cross-denominational relationships with students, faculties, and academic consortia.

The experience of Evangelical School of Theology, where the majority of students come from denominations other than the supporting one, is the norm rather than the exception these days in seminary settings. And it is a trend that Bishop Sigman applauds. “The Evangelical Congregational Church has the satisfaction and joy of knowing that the work of the Kingdom of God is being advanced because men and women are being prepared to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. My message, when speaking to EC churches is, and will continue to be, ‘Let’s forge a unity such that we can truly be a Kingdom-minded seminary without concern about labels,’” he says.

Such a spirit of ecumenism is foundational to the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), located in Atlanta, Georgia, where six independent denominational seminaries share faculty and students in common academic community. ITC was born from a recognition that many key historically African-American denominations were not able to sponsor accredited theological schools on their own. The ITC centralizes the resources of these denominations and their seminaries in one academic center, says President Michael Battle. While students enter through the seminary of their sponsoring denomination, they take classes with other students and faculty from each of the affiliated denominations.

Battle explains that this cross-denominational experience impacts students’ future ministry: “Ecumenism on campus is advanced because students share faculty and engage in classroom discussions and debate. You have the benefit of these six distinct perspectives. It also creates a context where the students learn in their theological education the benefit of collaboration with different pastors of different denominations.”

The impact of ecumenical encounters in seminary will yield benefits broader than church boundaries, suggests Battle, as seminarians learn that “social problems that are faced by our communities are so large that they transcend denominational divisions. You have a student that graduates from ITC very inclined to collaborate with other denominations that address community issues.” The ecumenical and multicultural environment fostered in seminaries becomes a gift to the wider church.

More Questions Than Answers

Significant issues hover on the horizon for theological schools, and at the moment, there seem to be more questions than answers about the future. “The ongoing challenge of recruitment remains absolutely paramount,” Jean Stairs notes. “As mainline churches are in decline, where is the future pastoral leadership going to be coming from and how are we making alive again the passion for pastoral leadership?”

Stairs also points to the importance of sustaining current leadership. “A lot of our ordained ministers are feeling devalued and demoralized — that ministry is an unattractive profession. Our levels of burnout are higher than they’ve been before. How do we address that?”

Another area of future concern is increased requests for lay ministry education. As Gary Peluso-Verdend explains, a strategic initiative in the United Methodist Church to further develop lay ministry has led to an “explosion of interest in ministry of the laity. Adult education has grown a lot in congregations.” While exciting, the issue of lay education raises challenges as seminaries face tough choices in tight economic times. “What resources can we devote to that and still offer the graduate programs that we’re here to offer, that we’re funded to offer?” Peluso-Verdend asks.

The expectation that seminaries will provide additional lay ministry training is compounded, according to Cynthia Campbell, by the decreasing capacity of denominations to provide resources to congregations. “Within the Presbyterian Church (USA), we’ve experienced several rounds of downsizing at the national level and there are fewer and fewer resources produced by the national church for lay education. So congregations are turning to the theological schools. To what extent are we interested in and able to move into some of those vacuums?”

A Call for Board Leadership

In the midst of all the questions, heightened expectations and expanded definitions of the seminary-church partnership, there is a special role for members of theological school boards. As Peluso-Verdend puts it, “Board members will need to ensure that they focus not only on oversight, but that their sight lines go out to the horizon.”

Vincent Cushing concurs with this call for prophetic leadership among trustees. “They have to come to some kind of informed judgment of what the ministry will be in the next ten to twenty years in the particular niche of the church that this seminary serves.” These challenges will demand strong leadership, Cushing notes, and call “for deeper thought, better analysis, and imagination in funding and staffing.” Similarly, Jean Stairs encourages board leaders to “evaluate how mission is strengthened by the partnership or how the mission may be held back by the partnership and what else might need to take place for the theological institution to flourish.”

While new challenges loom large and will require forging strong, creative, and faithful partnerships, many of the core trustee responsibilities remain unchanged. In her advice to theological schools, Mary Ann Moman echoes other denominational leaders in advocating the vital role of trustees as ambassadors for their seminaries. “Strengthen the relationship with trustees and the denomination so that board members become interpreters in the denomination for the work of the seminary,” Moman says. “Keep those ties to persons who may be not giving the most money but who have ties with the denomination. Know that that’s a way in which the trustees can honor the rich histories that schools have had within denominations.”

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