If Seminaries are any indication of where the church is either at or is heading, we are all in trouble.
Several weeks ago, the news broke that my alma mater, Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN mismanaged its assets and has overspent millions of dollars. It is a story that warrants telling and reflection. There are many particulars when it comes to the case study of Luther Seminary, but the reality is even without mismanagement many seminaries are facing similar problems. Enrollment in Mainline Protestant Denomination Seminaries (including Luther) is down across the board, which reflects the reality that the church bodies these schools serve are also getting smaller. As a result, the cost of tuition continues to rise, and there is less financial support from the supporting systems and networks. Students are coming out of school with large student loans. One new pastor revealed at our last year’s synod assembly a debt load of over $70,000. As the number of churches capable of supporting new candidates for ministry shrinks, it becomes easy to lose heart. Back on campus there is a growing sentiment that the church to which they were being prepared to lead – is believed to no longer exist. Morale is low. We have entered a new time in the church’s life and history in America.
What needs changing?
I loved seminary. I enjoyed the classes, the professors, and my classmates. I was even academically good at it. I enjoyed it enough that after a few years I went back for a second degree just to catch new ideas and be part of another campus experience. That I could go back while remaining in my call was outstanding. Who knows? I may go back again. It saddens me when places like Luther Seminary fail, and the talk about seminary is that it should move to an online/non-residential format – even though I’d be supportive of it. But these changes do not mean our future is bankrupt. We’ve been given the gifts and the know-how to be creative and faithfully think through the challenges that face us. The outcome of our best plans and the aftermath of our worst failures is not our ultimate future. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen. We start our future Easter morning.
I think it is time to change the narrative that pervades our religious institutional circles. I do not mean glossing over the truth of higher costs of doing business, fewer people to keep congregations and their supporting institutions going, or denying the sea change currently at work around us as the “spiritual but not religious” demographic continues to rise. There is no denying the social media outlets now possible at the dawn of the digital age change the way we live and operate, and the systems and institutions set in place to run and manage the modern world continue to falter and fade. I don’t believe we should run from those conversations or these realities at all. In fact, I believe the church needs to engage them head-on and name them if we are ever to do any creative problem solving. What we do need to change is the narrative that our future and ability to thrive in this new age and world is linked to the survival of the modern age. If that assertion is true we are hopeless. The modern age is over. Go ahead and update your status.
Our future is linked to a different reality than institutional viability. Our true future is born out of a story: When the end seemed inevitable; when death was certain; when there was no hope left to cling to and the only work left that remained was to bury the dead and go home; Jesus was raised from the dead. In the midst of those mourning their demise, this risen Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He still does; especially when things seem most dire.
As much as I love them, our seminaries are not the place to look for the church’s future vitality. I believe that the church’s referendum on the middle-ages at the dawn of the modern age was that the church locked its life in the bureaucracy. Now the referendum on the modern age at the dawn of digital age is that the church has locked its life in the academy. That is not to say we still don’t need administrative prowess or theological depth – of course we do! But the center of vitality and growth for the church has always been in the communities in which faith is centered; and the locus of that community life is in relationships. Don’t forget that the first Christians set out to change the world with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their witness that the grave was open, and Jesus was raised from the dead. What made the faith stick was the Spirit blowing forming congregations, developing leaders, and building networks and institutions to support them by the connections people were making with each other. Over time and space new relationships formed, mentorships grew, faith was passed on from one generation to the next, we learned the faith at home as well as in the community as practices and rituals codified common and shared experiences as we lived this faith in real terms. People lived bold enough that was both set-apart from the world around them and yet welcoming enough to actively invite others to join in. We are still part of that movement. The Spirit is still blowing. The tomb is still empty.
This digital age affords us the possibility of rethinking and retooling how we both share and live this message. We have greater accessibility into each other’s lives than ever before. We have a greater possibility to network across times zones, countries, languages, cultures and backgrounds than ever before in human history. The question we should be asking is not how can we save our sacred institutions and the stories they tell? After all, we all have to adapt into this new frontier. Will seminaries, structures and communities themselves look different in the future? Let’s hope so! But that isn’t the right question. The question we should be asking is – how do we draw one another into the only story that matters? Remember this – no matter what happens to us and no matter what adversity we face – Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And that truth, changes everything.
Christ is Risen!
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
For Further reading:
Tony Jones, “Obituary for the Residential Semnary.” Theoblogy. April 4, 2013. Online Available: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2013/04/04/obituary-for-the-residential-seminary/
Martin Marty, “Seminaries and the Future,” Sightings. April 8, 2013. Online Available: http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=6b2c705bf61d6edb1d5e0549d&id=b2996052a2&e=ef64dc6541
Wayne Meisel, “Changing Theological Education: Reforming from the Bottom Up.” Huffington Post. April 3, 2013. Online Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wayne-meisel/changing-theological-education-reforming-from-the-bottom-up_b_3007544.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000008
Elizabeth Rawlings-Wright, “Preparing for a Modern Church in a Post-Modern World, Part 1.” Feet in, Arms Out. January 4, 2012. Online Available: http://feetinarmsout.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/preparing-for-the-modern-church-in-a-post-modern-world-pt-1/