Are We Entering the End Times for Mainline Seminaries?

What does it mean when a school of God shutters?

Students and faculty at Episcopal Divinity School in Boston are still reeling from the announcement that it would cease granting degrees after 2017 and is exploring options for its students, faculty, campus and remaining endowment. This announcement followed the similar, but more startling, May news that the country’s oldest graduate school of theology, Andover-Newton, would sell its campus, phase out most of its faculty, and merge a remnant with Yale Divinity School. It is not news that the Protestant mainline in America has been declining since the 1970s. Yet markers of the tradition’s slide continue to make headlines.

Institutional change of this magnitude comes as a body blow to seminary constituencies. Tenured faculty lose their jobs or, if they’re lucky, merely their offices, seniority and accustomed teaching load. Students who enrolled under one academic paradigm must scramble to graduate under another. Graduates and donors may feel that their investments of time and talents have come to naught. Many mainline seminaries were modeled architecturally after European universities to foster a sense of permanence. It simply feels wrong for these institutions to go away. Stonework isn’t supposed to fizzle.

Without diminishing the grief felt at the shuttering seminaries, or the anxiety experienced by all of those who wonder if their school might be next, it is useful to take a longer perspective on the recent headlines. These institutional changes are neither as unexpected nor as unprecedented as they seem.

Frankly, it’s remarkable that so many mainline seminaries are still around. The denominations most commonly labeled mainline—United Methodist, Lutheran (ELCA), Presbyterian (PCUSA), Episcopal, American Baptist, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ—peaked in membership in the 1960s, two generations ago. Downward trends in membership have affected seminaries in multiple ways, financial and missional.

“Rich endowments can stave off the inevitable so long that, when closure comes, it feels sudden rather than inevitable.”

On average, sponsoring denominations provided nearly half of their seminaries’ operating funds in 1970, but that percentage fell as denominational budgets shrank. By 1993, individual donors were providing more financial support to seminaries than were denominations. Tuition also became more important as a revenue stream, prompting schools to vary their degree offerings and delivery methods. A three-year, residential Master of Divinity degree remained standard, but online and low-residency versions proliferated, as did other master’s and Doctor of Ministry degrees, as well as lay ministry certificates.

In terms of institutional mission, seminaries that had once existed mainly to train full-time pastors faced reductions in both the number of churches that could support such positions and the number of people eager to take the more challenging, but lower paying, church jobs that remained. Some seminaries shifted their missions to serve the academy or society more broadly, while others trained more part-time, second-career and lay pastors. These shifts were less abrupt than decisions to close or merge a seminary, but they were often quite jarring for faculty and administrators who felt the ivied halls heaving beneath their feet.

Church members also have questioned missional shifts. In 2013, a conservative Methodist magazine asked why four of the 13 Methodist seminaries received more than $100,000 from the denomination for each of the six or seven ordained Methodist ministers they produced each year. The fact that the schools produced many other kinds of graduates—three of the four even granted PhDs—did not impress the article’s author.

Some church members are unaware of the varied work of their denominational seminaries. Others resent what they see as far-left ideology and politics emanating from ivory towers that their dollars built, a common complaint in many sectors of higher education these days.

After decades of diminished funding and shrinking churches, why haven’t more mainline seminaries shut down? Diversified degrees and delivery methods have softened enrollment declines slightly, but the short answer for many schools is legacy funding. Led by Princeton Seminary (Presbyterian), with an endowment of $1.1 billion, mainline seminaries tend to have significant investment resources, built through long years of serving well-to-do constituents. Many of these schools also own impressive buildings on coveted plots of land. According to the Association of Theological Schools, denominational (a category roughly equivalent to mainline) Protestant seminaries derived 37 percent of their revenue from investments and depreciation in 2013, a substantially higher percentage than either Roman Catholic or inter- and non-denominational seminaries.

“Even when change has been a long time coming, and even when change has been part of an institution’s history, the end of a seminary as its constituents know it is painful.”

Legacy funding can only go so far, however, with enrollments dropping 24 percent in the past decade. Episcopal Divinity School still held $53 million in investments, plus its campus, at the time of its announced closing, but it was losing $133,000 a month. Andover-Newton’s campus alone was assessed at $43 million, but trustees deemed its future as a free-standing institution unsustainable. Rich endowments can stave off the inevitable so long that, when closure comes, it feels sudden rather than inevitable. At the board meeting that determined Episcopal Divinity School’s fate, the (non-voting) student and faculty representatives entreated trustees for more time. This impulse is understandable, but the representatives were well aware of long downward trends in enrollment and funding. When trends don’t change, institutions must.

Although the current rate of change in theological education is exceptionally high, seminary identities have not been set in stone. As Andover-Newton’s name indicates, the institution was already the product of a merger. Its history includes relocations, too. Andover was founded in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1807 by Congregationalists who feared that Harvard had become overly Unitarian. About a century later, Andover reconciled with Harvard and moved its faculty back to Cambridge. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court disallowed a merger between the two schools, Andover instead moved in with Newton Theological Institution, an American Baptist seminary with a campus in Newton, Massachusetts. After more than 30 years of this arrangement, the schools united in 1965. The present iteration of Episcopal Divinity School was formed even later, in 1974, when Philadelphia Divinity School joined EDS in Cambridge.

Even when change has been a long time coming, and even when change has been part of an institution’s history, the end of a seminary as its constituents know it is painful.

Beyond those constituencies, institutional upheavals are reminders that big trends like mainline decline don’t just affect poll numbers, but actual people in actual places. That school you’ve heard of—though no one you know attended it—and that church you drive by daily—though you never entered it—might one day be gone, or converted into lofts, or have its sign replaced by one in a language you can’t read. Seismic waves are lessened the farther you stand from the epicenter of a quake, but they can still be felt, leaving everyone a little less sure of their footing.