The rise and fall of the American seminary

NEW YORK (RNS) General Theological Seminary’s campus in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is everything you’d want in an urban seminary.

Handsome buildings, a chapel at the center, quiet walkways in a noisy city, calm places to read and pray. All serving a wonderfully diverse student body eager to minister in a changing world.

It’s like the best of historic church properties: harking back to a day of noble architecture and tradition and yet looking outward to a frenetic city and changing religious environment.

Why, then, is GTS on the verge of financial collapse and, now, paralyzing internal conflict? Its dean is under attack, 80 percent of its full-time faculty were dismissed, its board is floundering — all in the glare of press and blogosphere.

Why? For the same reason that historic churches and denominations are trapped in “train wrecks.” Their time has passed.

As other major denominations are finding, the days of the residential three-year seminary are ending. Fewer prospective ordinands can afford the cost and dislocation of attending a residential seminary.

Fewer church bodies are willing to subsidize such an education, because they, too, face budget shortfalls. Fewer congregations have jobs for inexperienced clergy wanting full-time compensation.

Episcopal dioceses have been seeking other ways, such as diocesan training centers, nearby schools run by other denominations and online learning. They’re seeking professional skills training, not academic prowess.

By my rough count, it appears fewer than half of newly ordained Episcopal clergy in recent years came out of the church’s 11 official seminaries. My alma mater — Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., also embroiled in conflict — trained an average of just eight ordinands a year, one-fifth the number when I graduated in 1977.

Does the Episcopal Church — or any mainline denomination — need all of its seminaries? Probably not. To judge by recent graduation rates, it probably needs only four. Two of the eleven have already closed. Hence the anxiety leading to conflict, as tenured faculty, cost-cutting deans and anxious trustees collide.

Many congregations are in the same situation. The needs they filled 60 years ago — neighborhood churches providing a mobile postwar world with a place to belong and to ground the family — have largely vanished.

Some congregations welcomed new purposes in a world of new lifestyles, new expectations, new family structures, new employment patterns and new attitudes toward Sunday morning, and they are thriving.

Most, sad to say, resisted change and now find that time and tide haven’t waited for them. Like GTS, they find themselves broke, conflicted, hoping for a future and yet mired in disdain and distrust.

Seizing a new moment is never easy. It requires entrepreneurial leaders who risk being shot down and declared “other.” It requires mold-breaking ministry providers who move beyond the “way things used to be.” It requires constituents whose drive to serve stirs voices for change.

The tragedy at General Seminary isn’t that its time has passed — for a new time is breaking in, if the seminary will let it. Nor is it that the seminary is trapped in dysfunction and conflict — for God can redeem such moments. Or that money is tight — for God’s work is never limited by money.

The tragedy is that stakeholders at the seminary are belittling each other, questioning each other’s worthiness and allowing hubris to be their guide. Such behavior cannot end well.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited GTS recently and did the right thing: She listened. As combatants issued lengthy statements, she modeled the holy restraint that all need to learn. 

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