Seminaries feel the crunch of a changing faith

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Students Rebecca Wicker (right) and Justin Lingenfelter are led in a prayer during class at the Lutheran Theological Seminary.

For decades, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and its denominational counterpart in Gettysburg tried to repair the 153-year-old split that created two religious-training institutions 140 miles apart.

Efforts to join the schools under one banner in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repeatedly fizzled -- until the pressures of declining enrollment, dwindling finances, and rising costs were too powerful to fight.  Between 2005 and 2015, enrollment declined from  420 to 275 in Philadelphia, and 305 to 138 in Gettysburg.

In July, they will become one: United Lutheran Seminary. The new entity will maintain two campuses, though each is likely to shrink to a fraction of its current size in the not-so-distant future. The staff and budget will be smaller, the curriculum transformed to reflect new demands on clergy and  lay ministers.

The merger is part of a tumultuous makeover of seminary education in which theological schools nationwide are consolidating, selling off property, joining universities, and revamping courses of study.

As church attendance has diminished, theological school enrollment in the United States also has declined, from 73,100 in 2005 to 67,000 in 2015. With fewer members, denominations are less able to offer financial support to their seminaries, creating budget pressures that lead to rising tuitions and difficulties in maintaining facilities.  

Last summer, Palmer Theological Seminary moved onto the campus of Eastern University in St. Davids, which started in 1925 as a department of the theological school. Palmer’s move is the final step of a four-year transition that began when the school, an affiliate of the American Baptist Churches USA in Valley Forge, sold its Wynnewood campus in 2012. Between 2005 and 2016, enrollment slid from 423 to 311.

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, an independent school sponsored by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is planning to sell its 72-acre campus in Wynnewood, partner with a local Catholic university, and move its operation near that college. The 150-seminarian school, which recently experienced an uptick in enrollment, expects to announce its new partner in May.

Officials at Biblical Theological Seminary, a 45-year-old interdenominational school in Hatfield, Montgomery County, agreed in January to sell the school’s 14-acre campus. They are looking for a new building in or near Philadelphia. 

Seminaries are having to adapt to a changing educational landscape, one being shaped by the new ways in which religion is being practiced beyond the pew, said Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an organization of 270 graduate institutions in the United States and Canada.

As young people find faith and meaning outside of church and synagogue walls, in charitable work, volunteering, and community activism, the traditional congregation has lost its status as a “spiritual destination,” said the Rev. David Lose, president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. “This generation doesn’t just do things because their parents did.” 

“We have to earn the right to speak into people's lives,” said Frank James, president of Biblical Theological Seminary. “We just can’t assume that they will listen.”

Any focus on change linked only to handling financial challenges is shortsighted, said Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of St. Charles Borromeo.

Founded in 1832, the seminary is moving not only because it uses just a small portion of an expansive campus that is difficult to maintain, but because partnering with another Catholic institution offers the chance to share courses and student programming that will enrich seminary studies, he said.

“We don’t mean to diminish the significance of the place, its history or sacredness,” Senior said. “But we want to be good stewards and improve the program.”

As seminaries tinker with curriculums, they are increasing online offerings and satellite class locations. Some are experiencing a bump in enrollment.

Palmer is offering a new degree in Latino/a/ Ministries, and expanded opportunities to customize study in its master of divinity program, said F. David Bronkema, the school’s interim dean. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote has added a course in race and racial justice in recognition of an increasingly diverse Jewish community.

“Rabbis are a multiracial group who will lead multiracial congregations in multiracial settings, and that is an important set of contexts for people who will be leaders in the public square,” said Elsie Stern, the rabbinical college's vice president of academic affairs.

At Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Lose said that training must expand beyond developing good teachers, preachers, and pastors to helping clergy and lay leaders coach their flocks on how to live out their faith in everyday life.     

United Lutheran Seminary will offer increased online coursework and internship-style training. An expanded scholarship program will fund tuition -- $16,500 next year -- and room-and-board expenses for students affiliated with the ELCA, and matching scholarships for students who receive financial support from their own church and denomination.

The school will operate with a new board and bylaws, and a reduced budget (from $12.7 million to $9.5 million) and staff (24 to 20). A search is underway for a new president. Last fall, both the Philadelphia and Gettysburg schools experienced substantial increases in applications for their master of divinity programs.

Both campuses are considering how to repurpose their properties. In Philadelphia, the school uses only four of its 14 tree-lined acres in Mount Airy; officials have been meeting with architects and community members to discuss redevelopment. Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, the nation’s oldest Lutheran seminary, sits on 52 acres in a historic small town; administrators are in preliminary talks about “the potential of real development,” said the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, Gettysburg’s president.

However, a leaner, more efficient operation is not enough, he warned.  

 “We have to be more creative as the church,” Cooper-White said. “We need more schools making bold moves to teach our students how to lead through the radical changes and challenges the church is facing.” 

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