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The Ending of Seminaries as We’ve Known Them

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

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  • Published Jun 02, 2022

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary recently announced its intent to sell most, if not all, of its 102-acre campus in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, in order to try to survive financially. This would have been unthinkable even 15 years ago.

I know because 15 years ago I was its president. 

A lot can happen in that length of time. Gordon-Conwell’s enrollment plummeted from 1,230 full-time equivalent students in 2012 to 633 in 2021. When I assumed full fiduciary responsibility as president in 2006, I learned that we needed to raise $1 million before year end to meet the budget. That challenge apparently only grew over time as tax records show that from 2016 to 2019, the school consistently faced a year-end deficit between $600,000 and $2.4 million.

But Gordon-Conwell isn’t alone. Other well-known evangelical seminaries such as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and Fuller Theological Seminary are facing similar challenges. Earlier this year Trinity was forced to slash its budget, eliminating multiple faculty positions. In 2018, Fuller closed three of its satellite campuses along with voting to sell its property in Pasadena, California. Its financial future is again in jeopardy as its planned relocation was recently blocked.

I don’t fault the decisions of any of these institutions. I know only too well what it’s like to be handed a set of financial realities in one hand, and the expectations of students and faculty in the other. And there are many other challenges facing seminaries today, as noted by a recent article in Christianity Today magazine:

"Many seminaries are facing declining enrollments with the declining birthrates and increased secularization in the US. There are about 4 million fewer people in Gen Z than in the millennial generation, and 44 percent of those born after 1996 do not identify with a religious tradition. Only about a quarter of those under 26 attend a religious service once a week or more.

"Evangelical seminaries are also grappling with the tensions and divisions within evangelicalism… [they have] struggled to maintain the trust of churches, donors, and prospective seminarians amid polarizing arguments over race, gender, abuse, sexuality, and the fraught political choices of the 2010s and 2020s."

This is all true. Also true is what Scott Sunquist, Gordon-Conwell’s current president, assessed as a leader: “You can’t cut your way to success. Either you do something as dramatic and radical as relocation, or you make incrementalized cuts and die.”

My challenge is the deeper reason why seminaries are struggling so mightily in the current day because increased secularization alone does not explain the widespread decline in seminary enrollment. When I became president of Gordon-Conwell, there were several challenges facing all seminaries that seemed apparent to me:

  1. Seminaries needed to offer courses and degrees online as well as in person.
  2. Many residentially based seminaries were located in areas where the cost-of-living was high, the local government was hostile, and the demographics of growth had long moved elsewhere.
  3. The curriculum of many seminaries was far more oriented toward pleasing the academy than serving the church and the practice of ministry.
  4. The doctrine of the church ran weak, and large, contemporary churches in particular were deemed suspect. There was less of a partnership with the local church than there was a condescending posture of superiority and judgment.

I think it is now safe to say that any attempt to broach these areas was filled with more peril than tackling the Arminian-Calvinist debate.

I’m rooting for seminaries. I’m rooting for their presidents and boards, faculty and staff. I’m rooting most of all for the future of the Church and the decisive role theological education – and the preparation for ministry in general – needs to play in that future.

But as with many areas of challenge, there is a time when “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. It will take more than right sizing, relocations and reductions to put seminaries on solid ground. They need to rethink seminary education itself.

As I’ve written about before, there are things seminaries can do to recapture the attention of students and the trust of the churches who send them. They include, but are far from limited to, the following: 

  • Go all-in on hybrid models of education, offering both in-person and online courses and degrees. See this as the new normal.
  • Actively seek out pastors and listen to what they feel a seminary education needs to hold for people they might send their way. In other words, listen to the customer.
  • Embrace the contemporary Church instead of being threatened by it. Rather than seminaries seen as places diametrically opposed to any and all new wineskins, let the seminary be in the vanguard of cutting-edge thought related to the practice of ministry in a post-Christian world.
  • Work collaboratively with churches to provide a seminary education, which means letting the Church truly contribute to that education in ways only the Church can. Seminaries need to work with churches to bring seminary education into the local church.
  • Help faculty and staff realize that they do not primarily serve the academy but the local church, and pray for appropriate passion among the faculty to that end.
  • Ruthlessly evaluate curriculum in light of what it is most trying to do, which is preparing men and women for vocational ministry. Yes, teach about the Council of Nicaea, but also teach about leading a council at church.
  • Lose theological agendas, but rather teach diverging viewpoints within historic orthodoxy with fairness, building faculties with robust diversity within the framework of evangelical thought. Translation: a pastor should feel comfortable sending their Arminian-leaning student as much as a Calvinist.

Again, I’m rooting for seminaries. I think seminary presidents are doing the best they can with the cards they have been dealt. But that is the problem – the cards.  

Maybe it’s time to reshuffle the deck.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Daniel Silliman, “Gordon-Conwell to Sell Main Campus, Move to Boston,” Christianity Today, May 17, 2022, read online.

Frederick Schmidt, “Navigating the Decline of America’s Seminaries,” Patheos, May 17, 2022, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.