There is a lot of navel gazing going on in seminaries across the country. Hands are being wrung and studies written. I found this piece on the Future Shape of Theological Education by Andy Crouch to raise some good points. Here are a few excerpts from the beginning and the end of his article in which he outlines the challenges we face as well as some ways forward.
Only the most confirmed optimist could say that these are cheerful times for North American seminaries. In the five years spanning 2007 to 2011, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reported a decline in its schools’ full-time-equivalent enrollment of 5.3 percent (from 49,883 to 47,244), even though the ATS added 11 additional member schools during those years. Notably, the degree program with the greatest percentage decline was the M.Div., the centerpiece of seminary education. Over 75 percent of the ATS’s member schools enroll fewer than 300 students (including part-timers).
Meanwhile, the cost of graduate theological education, like all higher education, has been increasing faster than inflation for a generation — the average M.Div. costs $41,580 over three years. And seminaries have the dubious distinction of offering one of the few graduate degrees (the other that comes to mind is the M.F.A.) that on average decreases the lifetime earning power of its recipients.
Not so long ago, a seminary degree was at least a pathway to a relatively predictable career, akin to a degree in education — not well-paying but fairly secure. This is no longer true. Fuller Theological Seminary Provost D. McConnell relates a conversation with a denominational official who observed that the denomination offers essentially three options to new graduates from seminary. If they are one of a handful of the most talented in their cohort, they may find a position at a large, multi-staff church. Or they can pastor a church that is probably aging, in a neighborhood that no longer reflects the backgrounds of the church members, and spend ten years trying, probably unsuccessfully, to turn it around. Or they can be a church planter and start from scratch with limited denominational support. These are daunting alternatives.
No seminary can expect to grow in the coming decades without investing in “edgy” efforts. Almost all organizations grow best at their edges. And yet the consistent response from past, present, and potential students we have interacted with confirms that the “core” is surprisingly important, even for groups that might be attracted to seminary by features of the “edge.” The challenge is to connect the energy at the innovative edge with the depth of the traditional core — and to find ways to make the edge just as rigorous and deeply rooted as the core, while the core becomes just as entrepreneurial and vivid as the edge.
Seminaries that invest too heavily in exciting new projects at the edge, without committing to deep excellence at the core, are likely to find that students (and even faculty, institute staff, and donors) who arrive excited about interdisciplinary work will leave feeling that their seminary career was like the seed sown among the rocks, springing up quickly, but then withering without depth of soil. Seminaries that neglect the need to experiment and explore how to serve new audiences and address pressing questions in church and society at the edge are likely to find that students (and eventually talented faculty, staff, and donors) will never arrive and, thus, never have the chance to discover the richness at the heart of theological education. The seminary of the future will nurture deep roots and expansive and innovative branches at one and the same time.
You can read the full article here.