Reflections on the Luther Seminary crisis and the state of the church (or Now that Easter is over…Now What? – Part 2)

Luther Seminary, January, 2012

Luther Seminary, January, 2012

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.

Now What?

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!
Pastor Geoff
__________

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/

About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Volunteer Firefighter, Teacher, Mission Focused Church Leader, Camp Lover, Change Proponent, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
This entry was posted in Church & Mission, Church by Perception, Lent/Easter, Lent/Easter Posts, Martin Luther & those strange Lutherans. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Reflections on the Luther Seminary crisis and the state of the church (or Now that Easter is over…Now What? – Part 2)

  1. Jonathan Strandjord says:

    I’m glad to read this thoughtful, passionate witness to the power of the gospel and the reality of the resurrection of the crucified Christ. And your post is absolutely to the point in reminding all of us who have been unsettled by recent events that the limits and fragility of institutions do nothing to diminish that power and reality of the gospel; that “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”; and that the primary question is not how to restructure institutions but rather “how do we draw one another into the only story that matters?”.

    I agree completely. At the same time I hope that you don’t see that last question as the only one that needs your attention. For I believe it’s precisely people who know that the last question is THE big question who can be most helpful in the conversations across the church on how we reinvent all of our institutions (congregations, synods, churchwide organization, seminaries, social ministries, ecumenical structures, global partnerships, interfaith dialogues and collaborations).

    I believe that human beings invent institutions precisely because we are relational and imaginative, that we develop institutional forms so we can cooperate in sustained efforts to shape a future. At the same time, institutions easily ossify and become closed to either new participants or new imagination required by new challenges and opportunities. To me, one of the most interesting characteristics of the Lutheran movement is that Lutherans tend to be order-productive anarchists–which is one way of saying that Lutherans believe that that all concrete forms of human order are contextual, less than ultimate, historically conditioned and fallible . . . AND at the very same time that all life-giving human relationships need to be ordered in some way and that we’re all responsible for producing the new forms of order needed to live out the freedom of the Christian

    One of the basic forms of human relatedness is the learning community (Augustine goes so far to say that absent humans learning from other humans, there can be no community at all). And like all forms of relationship, learning communities take some sort of institutional form. The digital age is bringing all sorts of new possibilities for learning communities (along with disruptions of our existing institutional structures). It will definitely continue to reshape how the church does theological education. It’s too soon to know what that future will look like for ELCA seminaries –but I believe that the most promising (and perhaps even most likely) outcome will be a much more broadly resourced theological education network that includes seminaries as key, connective partners. And this network will not only help prepare a increasing range of kinds of mission leaders but will help keep them connected in over-lapping learning communities throughout their service. Seminary will become less of an episode in a person’s life and more an enduring fellowship.

    So, all this is to say that I hope that you (and many like you) join the conversation about the future of seminary education and help re-imagine and build the institutional patterns that will serve the free course of the gospel in this time.

  2. ERW says:

    Geoff, what can you tell me about the financial mismanagement? I really, really love Dr. Bliese (he was my teaching parish supervisor at LSTC and his book about Lutheran Evangelism is freaking brilliant) and I thought he was taking Luther in a good direction, curriculum wise. What say you (feel free to answer me via email or FB msg as well)?
    Also, thx for the tag back 🙂

  3. Stephen Bouman says:

    Geoff,

    We need generative conversations like this throughout the church. I think we need to look hard at movements already happening at the grassoots: “seminaries of the streets and prairies,” lay centers for missional leadership, other grassroots efforts at theological education and formation. We learned years ago in the Bronx, for instance, that leaders would not be coming from the seminaries, but that they were already in our pews and neighborhoods. How do we bring many instance of “home cooking” to this conversation? And how do we have some conversations of national scale? It matters to all of us when THd programs close because they have been a way in which we have been able to accompany and learn from burgeoning global leadership. Anyway, thanks for loving this mysterious Easter creation of the Body of Christ in the world.

    Stephen P. Bouman

    • Thanks Stephen. I’m always appreciative when you chime in.

      I shared this with a friend earlier today – ultimately it doesn’t matter what seminaries are doing / going to do / have done – if there are no pulpits to fill or people in the pews to engage we are toast. We need less clerics and more missionaries. It starts with congregations, our leadership, our people harnessing the resurrection wind the Spirit is blowing. However we prepare them, we should be training leaders to help us do just that – harness the Spirit blowing among us and cultivate that faith with others. We need missionaries. Home grown and widely trained. We need them both. We need them NOW.

  4. Kathy Suarez says:

    I was surprised to see your comment on Clint Schnekloth’s blog post. He is suggesting that lay persons should be able to consecrate the Host in a house church setting. Doesn’t this contradict the Augsburg Confession?

    • I like Clint a lot – we were sem classmates. I don’t agree with him on everything – nor he with me I’m sure – but what I like about him most is hat he pushes people to have the conversation and think through their positions rather than just accepting them as they are. I prob wouldn’t advocate for house church eucharist – but if I did, what would it look like? I dunno – hadn’t thought of it before.

Comments are closed.