The State of Seminary Education

Professor giving a lecture.

by Randall S. Frederick

Editor’s note: This article is a revision of Randall Frederick’s previous article, The Future of Seminary Education. Given the recent shuttering of seminaries, Frederick wanted to revisit the failure of seminaries in America to address educational, financial, and religious concerns.

This week, Andover Newton Theological School of Newton, Massachusetts announced their decision to sell their 20-acre campus and relocate. The move, it is said, will launch “a bold new direction” for the 208-year-old school as it struggles with finances, faculty downsizing, lower overhead, and new partnerships.

“God is doing something new in this time,” said Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver. “We have to figure out what it is and get with the program.” Whatever God is doing, on the table are two options: partner with a more stable, reputable institution like Princeton Theological Seminary or Yale Divinity School, where discussions are ongoing, or downsize even more towards a cooperative learning model (like a “Bible College”) that would strip away elective offerings, focus on core subjects, and dispatch students to do much of their learning in local congregations. Expansion or new funding are avenues that have been entirely exhausted.

Andover Newton’s decision may not seem to be a big deal. After all, advanced education in America is caught between three major events: a new tide of disenchanted students, the decline of institutionalized religion in America, and the lost navigation of seminary leadership. Their decision this week is yet another jot and tittle in the proverbial handwriting on the wall of what lies ahead for an estimated 80% of America’s 100 mainline seminaries, according to Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. Built more than a century ago, Andover Newton relied primarily on residential education models that are fast becoming unsustainably expensive and ill-suited to current needs. “Andover Newton is a canary in the mineshaft on the issue of, ‘what is the future of mainline institutions?’” Aleshire says. “You’re going to see some mainline schools seek to affiliate with other larger institutions. And the primary reason for that is the reduction of their indirect costs.”

Andover Newton is not the only seminary seeking new life through restructuring and new efficiencies. The preceding week, on November 9, Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation announced that in 2016 it will shut down operations in Columbus, Ohio and consolidate in Chicago. An Episcopal seminary with a history of moving and merging, Bexley Seabury currently rents space in Chicago from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But Aleshire says Andover Newton is experiencing something new, namely the fallout from decades of declining membership numbers in mainline denominations. Since 2005, enrollment at mainline Protestant seminaries has fallen by nearly 24% and denominational decline has been a driving factor. Until recently, mainline seminaries could rely on a combination of endowment proceeds and tuitions from students who expected to land full-time ministry positions after graduation. But now part-time pastorates are increasingly the norm as congregations can no longer afford to pay full salaries with compensations, benefits, and healthcare. Potential pastors are less likely to incur five-figure student loan debt in exchange for a part-time job, so they don’t enroll. They feel “called” to either plant a church with a recognized model that will help fund the project, enroll in non-accredited centers of religious education, or simply go another direction with their lives. “But now the effect is prolonged enough and consistent enough and massive enough that it has hit the seminaries,” Aleshire says.

Andover Newton’s new direction comes on the heels of 10 years of declining application numbers, which have translated into less revenue to cover myriad fixed costs. Today’s enrollment is 225, most of whom are part-time students. That a proportionally precipitous decline from the 450 full-time students a generation ago. The school now relies on a mortgage line of credit to pay bills while trying to preserve an $18 million endowment. Even a shift to a cooperative education model might not be scalable or financially sustainable.

Know What You’re Taking On

Observers say today’s church needs something new in the form of well-trained pastors who are unburdened by debt and capable of managing their lives on a part-time church salary. If Andover Newton finds a model to meet those needs, others are apt to follow where it leads. “It’s just tough for schools that are freestanding,” said Don Richter, associate director of the Louisville Institute, a research center for revitalizing American Christian institutions. “Unless you’re Princeton Seminary and you’ve got a huge endowment, you’re going to be much better off if you’re a divinity school nested within a university… They’ve got the infrastructure and everything built in.”

A few years ago, I applied to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and that was probably the greatest mistake of my life so far. I always hesitate to say that because, whatever the challenges that came later, I’ve wanted to attend seminary since I was a small child and approached the prospect with a great deal of hope, optimism, even naivete. So did many of my classmates. Upon deciding to attend seminary, many of us were cautioned to find something else – anything else – and do that instead. Get married. Start a dot-com. Become an accountant. All of these were strong suggestions made to us in the first orientation class, even before we were given a campus tour. “Please don’t sign the paperwork unless you know the risk you are taking on.”

We should have listened.

Without minimizing the events taking place in the world right now, not all crises are  “out there” in some distant land. Some of them are occurring within education and seminaries, even in our houses of faith and community. The state of the world is both foreign and domestic, and one cannot be stretched too far from another. Accordingly, this is a time when the future of education in general and seminary in particular is being scrutinized. Many, like I did, believe that being exposed to profound ideas will help them change the world and repair the world in new ways.

In 2013, the president of my seminary, Dr. Richard Mouw, co-authored a report with Andy Crouch entitled The Seminary of the Future. The report indicated that the future of seminary education involved “augmented reality,” a creative way to express “online education.” Mouw and Crouch (a Fuller trustee) proposed that in our increasingly individualistic society, students could find freedom in private studies, though as they appreciate the perspectives that online cohorts provide. This shift in learning was – and is – not so much about technology, but a culture which consumes technology at a phenomenal rate and resists commitment to enduring relationships. “The dominant culture,” Mouw and Crouch wrote, “that once at least paid lip service to the importance of Christian institutions is simultaneously more secular and more attuned to faiths other than Christianity.” What they were saying then was that seminaries, even all Christian institutions, must embrace globalization to survive. Privatized content cannot long endure a free-exchange global economy. The “technology” of seminary education will eventually face a jailbreak of information that begins leaking out for free. Mouw and Crouch’s suggestion at the time was that seminaries, including and especially Fuller Theological Seminary, find a way to capitalize on these changes and find an avenue of profitability before the window of opportunity was broken open once and for all. It would be easy to tilt the light on this in such a way as to accuse them, even all seminaries, of giving up their ideals for profit. After all, my studies at Fuller cost me no less than $60,000 in tuition alone. If the gospel is “free to all who ask” then how could Mouw and his advisers place such a high pricetag on it?

By the time I graduated Fuller the following year in 2014, they had decided to offer more classes online and, without the debt of expansionary construction, do what Andover Newton has done – “streamline” classes (cut classes), adjust faculty (let senior members retire early, take on limited adjunct faculty, break up the possibility of tenure), liquidate assets (sell off dormitories to private agencies) and raise tuition (cha-ching). Once Mouw resigned as president of the school, newly installed president promised that tuition would not be raised. It was. He promised that student insurance would not rise. It was – and in fact, he had been friends with a new organization that now offers insurance to Fuller students (sidenote: as with most public universities, Fuller requires that their students have insurance or, upon failure to document an insurance provider, attaches a rider to your tuition). The coincidence went unnoticed, for the most part. Idealists do not want to believe that their newly installed leader is in cahoots with a “friend” who just so happens to be charging more. More, tuition has increased every subsequent term since Labberton’s installation as president. So much for those promises to keep the gospel affordable. Labberton’s position, and the official position of Fuller Seminary is that the rising pricetag is an effort compensate and retain intellectual talent, to stay competitive even as opportunities for professorships contract and new hires are not given the benefits one might see with full-time positions in academia. In this too, Labberton and Fuller, a private institution, maintain they are staying competitive with the trends of academia even as they exploit their position leaving the question of where these “lost” funds are that will save their school.

Times are Changing

The white, middle-class Evangelicalism that followed World War II gave way to new traditions, practices and theologies. Globalization, especially after the war, became synonymous with Americanization and Americans were given good reason to believe in their permanence. At this time, seminaries began to lose their monopoly as those returning from – congregants were repeatedly told they should only trust someone who could read the Bible in an ancient language and who can name theological treatises like some people tick off baseball statistics. It was a new form of Classical Philosophical Tradition. The only people worth knowing are the ones who could trace their line of succession back to the great names of history.

A year after I finished my studies, in 2015, Fuller Theological Seminary had begun phasing out their Hebrew language component, created a modulated Masters of Divinity program for online education, cut off their Islamic Studies program and Ancient Near Eastern Languages program, and still trying to find ways to make significant cuts to their Theological and Intercultural Studies programs. They have “adapted” to the very real changes taking place in education by admitting more students who pay higher rates and perform at lower levels. It is symptomatic, I suppose, of the changes taking place in all industries. Those who survive “sell out” and lower their standards. Nirvana begat Foo Fighters begat the freelance work of Dave Ghrol; the loud, badass bikes of Harley-Davidson gentrify until they become one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. This is the way it works in America, unique edges buffed out to find new revenue streams of least resistance and highest yield. As a commercial enterprise, seminaries either change to homogenize differences or continue to become more obsolete.

This, in effect, is what happened with Andover Newton and Bexley Seabury. By remaining constant to their original beliefs and not changing, they ensured their demise. This same attitude can be seen in Christianity’s factious denominations as well as religion in general – by refusing to accommodate new members who come from outside their tradition, by staying true to who they have been, their membership declines. We can speak of a “revival” among liturgical faiths but when liturgy becomes commercialized and popularized, it is a commodity still at the behest of the customers. Like all screwings, all you can do is take a deep breath and make peace with it. It’s gonna happen. And when it doesn’t go well, when it’s not what you wanted, or it hurts like hell the next day, people tend to complain.

In 2013, when Mouw and Crouch’s report was still fresh, I said that online education was important to the future survival of Fuller and all seminary education, but that it was “also a reduction of genuine issues. Education cannot magically be fixed by going online anymore than your relationships can. There are genuine issues of fact that must be addressed, ways that culture must be confronted and questioned. Are we better now that we were ten years ago? Are we proud of who we are becoming or are we pleasantly contributing to our own epidemic?” I stand by those questions. In “adapting” are seminaries and churches taking on forms and models of delivery that are lucrative, or are they adapting content to better interact with the issues at hand?

Money, it’s the Gas

The biggest issue for Fuller’s survival, as they have put forward, is money. Where will their future endowments come now that the Chang family of Forever 21 has been put upon with lawsuits for copyright infringement and labor relations? I’m focusing on Fuller, of course, because that is where I attended seminary and where I have been privy to “behind the curtain” information for years. The school’s financial crisis began when the Changs could no longer invest expendable assets with Fuller. But these are concerns shared by other private religious schools and public universities. Money is always in short supply – it’s what makes money valuable. And without funding, religious schools need to cut everywhere they can even, at times, to their own detriment even as more capital is directed toward the appearance of success. It is classic Los Angeles – the more a project stinks, the more air freshener you buy and Fuller’s marketing department is one of the best. But the Christian Evangelical world has begun telling, even insisting, that students desiring serious academic study of the Bible go to secular research schools outside the Christian context. Directly, Evangelicals will only support those schools and students who do what they say, believe what they tell them to, and “maintain the faith” by academic, intellectual, and relational restrictions canted to illuminate the “truth” as they see it. An ecumenical school is in constant danger of being either too liberal or conservative, too unpredictable for a safe investment of capital. Secular universities are better able to diffuse these tensions, absorbing costs by the buffet of other programs and courses where the name of the game is a competition of ideas to make a better abled, more well-rounded individual. Seminaries do not share this goal. This has the long-term benefit of supporting a narrative where seminary graduates love God and those who studied religion at a public university are “liberal”, their studies diluted by embracing and learning about the religions of another instead of devoting electives to further insular study. It is the ever-present monopoly. Evangelicals are traditionally conservative, so in a way they have orchestrated the demise of the seminary by taking the wrong end of Nash’s Economic Game Theory. There is the pretense of working together towards a shared end where each of the players – Evangelicals, investors, seminary faculty, administrators, even the students – work towards their individual interests. In the end, all must lose so that one may win. Currently, Evangelicals in toto are winning at the margins by celebrating radicals like Kim Davis and breaking up the monopoly of seminary education, even bible colleges, for bible schools hosted within local communities to ensure “doctrinal purity.” What this means is that a disgraced pastor like Mark Driscoll can become a teacher or lecturer to propagate a particular message – namely, that pastors are above the boards who oversee them. What this means is that a disgraced evangelist like Jimmy Swaggart can use the skeleton of a buildings intended for a regional seminary for his World Evangelism Bible College where the only textbook is the Bible and –  you guessed it – commentaries written and dictated by Jimmy Swaggart. What this means is that instead of a focused concentration on theological development, classes become topical. Prayer, Evangelism, or Romans replace Historical Survey of Prophetic Literature, Development of 20th Century Theology in South America, or The Messiah in Jewish Mystical Literature. But Evangelicals are not alone in this. Other seminaries of other faiths share this same dilemma, cutting away the inessentials until the value of all courses has sufficiently been reduced to make it impossible to survive without the changes demanded by influential investors. It’s the nature of Stockholm Syndrome – starve your captive and concurrently insist you want the best for them, that starvation is a “purifying process” to release all toxins and poisons until they are either too weak to resist or too eager for any nourishment that they accept anything you give them. It is also a cultic practice. As Proverbs 27:7 notes, to the hungry heart every bitter thing is sweet.

Expanding our scope even more, this is not a simple matter of competing interpretations of holy texts. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in his 2008 The Post-American World, “Whatever people thought of American foreign policy, they all agreed that the United States was the most modern, sophisticated, and productive economy in the world – with the most advanced capital markets. As a result, it held the hegemony not just in military power and diplomacy but in the realm of ideas… American ideas and institutions were made all the more attractive by the country’s economic success.” Money talks, and as we see happening all across America, conservatives excel at unifying behind a common cause. Liberal individuals are too busy tilting their own windmills to pool resources and unify. The National Rifle Association is a great example. When the NRA began in the 1950’s, their founding purpose was to educate citizens on gun safety. It was like the YMCA – the goal was healthy living and a safe space for fathers and sons, even fatherless men, to learn social skills and find encouragement. Nothing more. The NRA’s early publications were related to safety of firearms and a safe, demilitarized space for young men and the average citizen to learn how to fire a weapon in a safe way. The focus – and I cannot express this strongly enough – at their outset was entirely foreign to what the NRA became later. By the 1980’s, the organization was divided and on the brink of collapsing. A new interest had come along in the aftermath of Vietnam, choking the last dying gasps of Communism from Russia. After the collapse of American interests abroad, especially the fall of Saigon and Iran’s capture of American diplomats as hostages in Iran under the direction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the NRA began pooling their resources. Under the direction of Wayne LaPierre, formerly a lobbyist, the NRA began to publish literature and tracts focused on the Second Amendment. Though then-President Ronald Reagan distantly supported their cause, the NRA was “preparing” for theoretical Kennedy-esque liberals who would seek to disarm the American people in the quest for peace. After all, Reagan has been convinced to reduce nuclear armament in America because of the liberals and there was no telling when the “Liberal Agenda” would seek to disarm the American people. Then came President George Bush who also turned a blind eye to the heightened rhetoric of the NRA under LaPierre, allowing LaPierre to continue down the path to what we now know as a militarized faction in America. After several school shootings and a pushback by the American population to set down requirements and background checks, LaPierre’s conservative rhetoric went into the stratosphere. He encouraged then-president of the NRA, Charlton Heston to say those famous words, that guns could only be taken out of an American’s “cold, dead hands” with the implied ultimatum that if any government or private agency sought to prevent the escalation of gun manufacturing for private citizens, there would be another Civil War. In like manner, religions became increasingly nationalistic and wed to the idea of American expansionism. If America paused to rethink their nationalism, that was a setback. Thinking and reflecting was for “navel-gazers” or worse, Communists. The real work was done at the grassroots level, and institutionalized religion began to break up at the same time. That is, there is a correlation between the antitrust efforts of conservative Evangelicals who insisted that they knew what was best for themselves (the “Moral Majority”), over and against the German-taught theologians in their ivory towers of seminary. It is an idea only hinted at in Max Weber’s essay on The Protestant Work Ethic and, ironically, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Non-denominational churches became the new norm, insisting that individuals could best ascertain the will of God on their own apart from the high-mindedness of the educated philosopher and while many denominational hierarchies remained intact for another decade or so, the cracks had become leaks which are now sinking their boats. This is, in large part, part and parcel why so many people reject organized religion today. They are either far too rigid or far too loose to develop a sustainable community which can and sometimes already has developed naturally, organically, outside the ecosystem of a church, mosque, or temple. But again, as long as the resources of these outliers are devoted to local concerns, the vested interest of a seminary will continue to diminish without the support or usability of an end product for the denomination.

What Must Be Done

Dr. Philip Clayton, dean of Claremont School of Theology, takes another approach. In his essay, “An Emergent Seminary for an Emergent Church,” he writes that the future of seminary education is directly related to whether a seminary will embrace Emergent theology. The dilemma of our future is not, he argues, about seminaries at all but how the Church is transforming into something as yet undefined. Culture, he argues, drives what the Church is becoming and seminaries are making changes much too slowly out of fear. In some ways, we can move with the changes. In others, we must wait to see what we are adapting to. Such a position would have been worth blogsophere buzz a decade ago when “Emergent” was a trendy, but as contemporary Christianity continues to become post-Emergent, Clayton’s position must be scrutinized. At Claremont, he says the directive is now to educate students and succeed in

becom[ing] leaders for the emerging forms of the church. A smaller number of these new leaders will stand in pulpits and read sermons to congregations, watching their parishioners holding bulletins and thumbing through hymnals. Many more will be ‘hosts’ of discussions, spiritual directors, community organizers and Christian participants in interfaith collaborations.

In other words, religious leaders need to know how to facilitate dialogue and share the oracles of God, rather than boom from a pulpit. Brass tacks, an intelligent adherent to a religion will see that the future of their education lies outside traditional educational models that seminaries provide or that the offerings of seminaries are no longer worth their high (and inflating) pricetags. Towards this end, Clayton reasons that students need to know the traditions of the Church and devote themselves to life-long experiential learning (not the fixed point of traditional education with their stodgy degrees, robes, and titles), but in equal measure a leader must be “able to read contemporary trends in global culture more profoundly and accurately than others.” Progressive (and prophetic) as we imagine ourselves to be, this is a quality worth developing some more. To this, provost of Fuller Seminary Doug McConnell has been addressing himself in a series of articles and letters to the Fuller community. McConnell admits that Fuller, facing new opportunities, has taken on more endeavors than their respective components can manage. “[O]ur capacity has limits,” he says. Fuller must navigate this desire for broader studies and various opportunities while facing budget restrictions. Decreased enrollment and “budget concerns” revolving around a $2.5 million shortage caused the seminary to institute mandatory vacation time for all departments at the holidays, cutback of non-essential staff after dramatic program cuts, and other efforts at downsizing. While exploring “all options, including departmental expenses, travel costs, vacation liability, retirement contributions, increasing revenue, etc.”, McConnell insists that “layoffs are not being considered at this time.”

In a follow up interview with student publication The SEMI in December of ‘13, McConnell admitted that, “We’ve really kind of lost some of our momentum for fundraising,” and that Fuller Fuller was seeking to expand their efforts. He was adamant that termination of faculty was not being considered.

Which is, of course, exactly what the board of trustees for Fuller decided to do, before deciding to sell off more immovable assets (residential housing), rent out their facilities to outside parties (classrooms, lecture halls, and auditoriums), and aggressively campaign for new donorships from current students and their families, individuals who were already being saddled with the inflationary $60,000 in tuition costs which continued to rise as a result of mismanagement of assets by the board of trustees. At the end of 2013 and start of 2014, the campus bookstore began experiencing a spike in theft of saleable textbooks. McAlister Library at Fuller also experienced a high volume of theft, and one cannot help but wonder whether desperate times call for desperate measures on the part of students and faculty who feel their futures are being jeopardized by the failed promises and outright lies of such a “godly” institution.

Clayton’s positions assumes people of faith are not leaders. Richard Dawkins and the deceased Christopher Hitchens did an excellent job demeaning and belittling the efforts of religious people to move countries, communities and individuals forward, but history does not agree with this migration. As we look to the future and renew our investment in considering our course, Drs. Mouw and McConnell were resolute that Fuller had always been at the vanguard of creating leaders who can change the world for the better. Which was, of course, optimistic. That’s a much harder sell under the leadership of President Mark Labberton and the fault shifts within academia compounded by the migration of Evangelicals away from education and towards. Any time an institution of ideas begins to focus on money instead of innovation, they are admitting a delay in some part of the process. Maslow’s lowest common denominator of survival, that primal instinct, may allow an entity to survive but it does not necessarily move it forward. We must keep in mind that any conversation about the future of seminary in general or Fuller in particular is only part of the larger one taking place concerning the place of higher education and global economy. With celebrities creating a new social media or perfume/fashion line every three weeks, higher education is not as prestigious or valuable as it once was. Among Christian education in particular, leading televangelists and authors like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, even Brian McLaren are proving that you do not need to attend seminary to lead or even influence the faith – something that McConnell says that Fuller must keep in mind as they move forward. “Corruption of the gospel such as this,” he wrote in 2013, “combined with threats of violent persecution from fundamentalist Islam, makes sound teaching in ecclesiology, public theology, ethics, biblical studies, marriage and family studies and trauma counseling critical for the church’s maturity.”

But who has time or money for that? Most institutions, including seminaries, face the economic crisis by roundtable debates over whether to lower admission standards (and dilute academic quality) or raise tuition (setting a new barrier to entry). Northwestern State University in Louisiana, my alma mater, provides a readily available case study in this regard. Faced with impending budgetary concerns, NSU decided to raise admission standards to maintain their credibility instead of lowering them, as Fuller has done. Though praised at the time, Northwestern’s decision was met with extensive cuts to their operating budget by the state, mass severance of faculty (who are now in litigation for termination of tenure) and decreased enrollment in flagship programs that have since been restructured under the supervision of seemingly unrelated fields. Physics, Engineering and Marketing are now overseen by Mathematics, for example. It is easy to speak of what a seminarian should study and of an illustrious future, but who will be there to fill the desks? The future of the seminary, it could be argued, is not so much about what is taught and the medium in which that education is transmitted as much as to whom. To make seminary education viable again requires a united effort which (and on this, history does agree) Christianity has not collectively been noted for. Bounded-set thinking prevails and the modus operandi for education becomes implicit: we’ll take who we can get. Namely, anyone who will pay. Barbara G. Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary puts it simply, “Almost anyone who has a college degree can gain admission to some seminary.”

They Went In Dumb…

As observers of culture, we know seminary is not the only realm in which lower standards are becoming acceptable, even praised. Rick Perry, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination in this election cycle, briefly ran for the executive office before dropping out of the race for lack of funding. In the previous election cycle, he once said at a debate the Dept. of Education would be one of three agencies he would “end” as President. When asked what the other two agencies would be, he forgot what they were. Ironic, no? Such an egregious error was lampooned and forgotten with a simple “Oops.” It should be disturbing to most of the American population that a presidential candidate who wrecked his state’s educational system went on to dismiss national education entirely, claiming all the while that God ordained his election (sidebar: he has dropped out of two presidential campaigns now, supposedly contrary to God’s plans), and forgets huge sectors of the economy (turns out he also wanted to end the Dept. of Energy). As ridiculous as Perry’s viability is on the political stage, he together with former governor of Arkansas/former television personality Mike Huckabee is the face of Evangelicalism. Oh. And both are proud members of the NRA. Even though, together, they have been “called of God” to become President and failed at four major campaigns for the Presidency. Even having left the race, Perry’s approval ratings remain high. This is and continues to be evidence of general apathy towards education, especially among Evangelicals, and confirms that America now exalts the ignorant. We are no longer a reservoir of intelligent thought.

Reflecting this, education, as much as Christianity, is in a state of flux. Perry’s disappointment in the Dept. of Education may have been uninformed at the time, but American educational reform continues to be restricted by tenure, poor instruction and allocation of intellectual capital, unionization, resistance to new paradigms, resistance technology (which changes as soon as educators are themselves educated on how to use it) and the malaise of low expectations regarding the outcome of education. What use is high school biology in a factory town or Scholars English in a multi-lingual region after all? Specialization is considered the cure-all, as reflected previously by McConnell’s statements. If we educate a student towards a particular field and create a division of labor, even behave so bold as to regionally engineer it, our economy will be fixed. Or so the hope goes. This fundamental assumption about economics, proposed by Adam Smith in the 18th century, continues to inform the educational debate. This assumption is what causes academic advisors to nudge students toward choosing their major as soon as possible – schools need to produce specialized students and allocate resources accordingly. It is an assumption that brings a student to their respective seminary, institutions specializing in religious education. But Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College since 1987, disagrees with this assumption. As part of the TED lecture series, Coleman puts forward what worked for her restructuring of Bennington College, which was considered the most expensive university in America at one time. In a 1994 report, Bennington’s Board of Trustees confessed to “a growing attachment to the status quo that if left unattended,” could have proved “lethal to Bennington’s purpose and pedagogy.” Coleman took on the specialization of education, challenging any effort to compartmentalize studies as though they had nothing to do with one another. The destructive dominance of this educational model was and is, she asserts, “enormous” given that “subject matters are broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, with increasing emphasis on the technical and the obscure.” She challenged Bennington College to see the broad implications of instruction and time has shown her model of integration worked well for the school. So well, in fact, that the Bennington model was exported to Eastern Europe and Russia where it continues to see success as American education, including seminaries, continues to decline.

Coleman continues to argue against the “progression of today’s student to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less […] despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things.” Instead of leaving the matter to “the higher powers” or even waiting expectantly for the wisdom of our scholarly instructors to bestow on students their pre-packaged reductive knowledge, perhaps it is time that students begin to pursue creative ways to collectively balance the future of their chosen profession.

… And Came Out Dumb Too

Naturally, this is where hecklesome ideas like, “Think better” and “Don’t blow it” come to mind. But assuming reductive intelligence is the best, fastest avenue towards the future, seminaries should obviously take a page from Coleman, the Occupy Movement and Proverbs, to find wisdom in the multitude of counsel. The fact is, seminaries are uniquely positioned to make theology and, broady, religious discussion good again. But, as more seminaries shut their doors or lower their academic standards, the possibility of this happening continues to shrink. We, as a society, continue to look for simple answers from specialists, continue to look for that one key component that was previously overlooked. Adam Smith’s long-dead hand continues to stroke our cheek, encouraging us to specialization. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad idea, except where it regards ideas. The truly legendary poets have always been informed on the creative decisions they are making – they are not reducing ideas to pentameter because it sounds good but because they know precisely what to cut. Put another way, a skilled butcher knows what to cut, how to cut, where to cut, and why to cut. They don’t just drop the cleaver. In like fashion, when it comes to ideas like theologians trade in, one must know the extent of the idea before they reduce it. Too much value can be lost otherwise. Modules of seminary education that produce leaders but not theologians should offer a degree in leadership, not theology. Last year, Fuller Seminary decided to dismiss the head of their Leadership Studies (effectively “downsizing” the program in preparation for cutting it entirely) and, as stated previously, changed their Theology program to look more like their diminished Leadership curriculum. This will inevitably produce pseudo-theologians who are experts in sound bytes and podcasting but not the complexity of ideas that religious traditions are known for.

The future of seminary is not about what pundits, professors or administration say it is, but what students make of it, the kind of education they demand, and the kind of things they are willing to put their money behind. Again, if $60,000 for a LEadership degree sounds feasible when taught by unqualified professors, more power to you. But let’s not kid ourselves – it is something radically different from the rigorous theological studies programs that can be found for lower pricetags at secular, even “liberal” universities. Whether they engage in distance learning through wires or smoke signals or local uncomfortable close-talking, students must insist that their faith is not some distant thing but instead is here, now, among us – the mythology they wish to sustain come to life.

But is religion still important?

Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and the guide of documentary Religulous says “the plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people.” Maher has historically taken an extreme position. Immediately after the 9/11 Attacks in 2001, ABC cancelled his late-night talk show Politically Incorrect when he said the American military was made up of cowards and that the 9/11 terrorists were heroes.

While we may be inclined to dismiss Maher as a heretic or even a naughty rascal, he together with scientists Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, atheists Ryan Bell, Richard Dawkins, and Tracey Moody, and humanists like Chris Stedman speaks for a large demographic of Americans who feel the same way. Religious disinterest is at an all-time high. This month, over 2,000 Mormons publicly left the LDS Church. The Associated Press reports

The proportion of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell even more, to 63 percent in 2014 from 71 percent in 2007.

The percentage of Americans who pray every day, attend religious services regularly and consider religion important in their lives are down by small, but statistically significant measures, the survey found.

The trend is most pronounced among young adults, with only half of those born from 1990 to 1996 absolutely certain of their belief in God, compared to 71 percent of the “silent generation,” or those born from 1928 to 1945.

Those who challenge religious influence in culture and society continue to draw crowds, sell books and participate in lectures, interviews and conferences, all questioning what right religion has to speak to the challenges of our time. It would be easy for to imagine the world is what we theorize it to be from the hallowed halls of an educational institution, but there is a harsh reality “out there” that many seminaries fail to address in constructive ways. Bluntly, religions are defined more by what they are against more than what they are for and without an alternative or “space” for those not of their tradition, the “others”, organized religions push out members over doctrinal disputes, then raise the barrier to entry at a time when seminaries homogenize doctrinal dispute and welcome anyone who will pay. If religion is to continue to seem relevant, they must first address a wide and growing incongruence.

Buddhism and Mormonism have both done well in proactively pursuing positivity. The LDS Church continues to promote family more than family values and Buddhism has found multiple channels of appeal through healthy living, yoga, meditation and the quest for peace. But, again, they recently saw over 2,000 members leave the church over doctrinal issues (the condemnation of children raised by same-sex couples) and even Buddhism has begun to take a sharper edge. Under the current Dalai Lama, Buddhists are beginning to find traction in armed resistance in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, in response to terrorism, now openly embraces fundamental tenets of Humanism. Regarding the attack on Paris, he said “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” Evangelicals, meanwhile, continue to be fascinated with leaving the sublunary terra behind for some triumphant orchestra above the chaos. Some of the best selling Christian titles of recent years have been about whether there was a hell and who may be there when Jesus returns. Their “glorious” apocalyptic visions evoke Nero with his fiddle as they idealize a time when they shall leave friends and neighbors behind to play harps above the flame.

If we truly believe this is the kind of life Jesus died for, that Moses went up the mountain to write down, that Muhammad went to meditate on, and that the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree to achieve, then Maher is right for condemning religion as field of study and he is right for mocking religious people who proclaim that kind of piety. Focused and directed religious studies need to correct the corruption of their gospel even as they face the changing global crises externally as much as internally. This requires a better caliber of student which they are not attracting, retaining, or producing. 

In short, seminaries are a trash fire of education in need of a long, sober look at their current state even if it means being extinguished. There is simply no return on the investment with such a widening gap between diminishing intellectual capital and competitive advantage for those who devoted their time to another course of study. Without a serious study of theology, they fail the most basic requirement for education: to educate. The situation is equitable to an MBA program that teaches advertising or a Juris Doctorate program that prepares students for legal procedure but not law. Advertising is important, as is legal procedure but without a mastery of business and law, the degrees do not prepare one for the field’s most basic exams. A seminary graduate who can lead but knows nothing of Biblical translation, modern theological insight, or interpretive lenses has wasted time, money, and remains unprepared for any further area of study. This is unacceptable and seminaries in these conditions, neglecting the looming crises of our time, cannot be fixed by capital campaigns. They must practice t’shuvah and turn around, repenting of their ways and continuing down a new path entirely devoid of their former offenses.

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