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The Dickens of a Fix

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Anyone who has attended an event on the challenges facing theological education these days has heard at least one application of a title or a line from Charles Dickens.

"They were the best of times. They were the worst of times." That was the opening to one address. Of course, many of us will recall the title of Barbara Wheeler's Auburn Theological Seminary report on fundraising, "Great Expectations." There could be other Dickensonian allusions. "Bleak House" comes to mind. And we all know that theological education is in the midst of "Hard Times."

Someone recently contacted me to say that she had heard from a friend (who's "well-connected") that within the next few years only one-third of theological schools now in existence will survive. Her comment is a great example of what I call "The Peoria Effect" (i.e., once the news gets to whatever is your equivalent of Peoria, the reality has changed). There is significant lag time between the production of new information and its dissemination and digestion. And, usually, by the time the word has gotten around about a social change, the word is no longer accurate. When you combine "The Peoria Effect" with good old-fashioned exaggeration, you can get some pretty outrageous prophecies.

Yes, theological schools, some venerable ones with storied pasts, have been closing. Others have merged in arrangements that look more like acquisitions than actual partnerships. But, at the same time, new theological schools have been opening.

Indeed, new approaches to theological education have been emerging at an astonishing pace. These new approaches tend to involve fewer ivy-covered walls. They tend to be far more nimble than their predecessors in their educational programming and much more attentive to the contextual needs of those being educated. Largely because of the emergence of new schools, despite all the shifts, changes and school closures that have occurred over the past decade, the number of member schools in the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) has slightly increased. One might be justified in speculating that in contrast to the bleak forecast which tells us that we are witnessing the twilight of theological education, we may be seeing its Renaissance.

What is becoming clear is that theological schools will be characterized by considerable variety in the coming years, likely more variety than any of us have seen before. Apparently there will be a place for residential seminaries that focus as much on formation through community life as they do on academic prowess, and there will be degree programs that deliver theological education either entirely online or in some sort of hybrid arrangement. But there will be other models too, some of which are only beginning to be imagined.

Another message that lags behind the facts relates to the "overproduction of ministers to serve existing congregations." The word has gone out far and wide that because so many congregations have closed, there simply will not be enough jobs for seminary graduates in coming years. In certain denominational meetings, the sense of gloom forms a fog so thick you can't see through it. Certainly, there have been losses of congregations and congregants. Significant losses. However, data analysis conducted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) indicates that the recent patterns of more persons seeking pastoral calls than pastoral positions being available could reverse.

One more message that needs to adjust in light of the facts: Sometimes in conversations about the losses in membership of mainline congregations and the decline in applications to mainline seminaries, one will hear that the exception to these trends is among Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches and schools. In fact, according several sources, just about every Christian denomination and school has been seeing similar numerical stresses and declines despite their theological or ideological bent. The exception to this general trend, incidentally, has been in traditionally underserved racial-ethnic minority populations: African American, Latino/a, and Asian. We continue to see numerical growth among church members and seminary applicants in these socio-ethnic and cultural groups. Recent data from ATS suggests a modest growth again in seminary admissions; most of these new students are applying to new specialized professional degree programs.

So what the Dickens is going on? Where are theological schools headed? Do we still have options that will not undercut the quality of education we expect and need for those going into ministry?

This last question is the one that keeps me awake at night.

Dan Aleshire, executive director of ATS and the wisest analyst of theological schools in our time, in his address to participants in the annual Presidential Intensive Leadership Conference quoted something said many years ago by Dutch Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School. Dr. Leonard famously said: "The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable."

To which Dan said: "Maybe no longer is this true."

Dan is so right about this. Mediocrity is dead, as Tom Friedman said in one of his New York Times columns a couple of years ago (in response to which I wrote an earlier blog). If you want your organization to survive, whatever it does must be excellent. Just "good enough" is no longer good enough.

That is exactly where the rub comes. A mediocre school is not long for this world. Even great schools have failed. And most of the schools that have failed were still delivering a traditionally strong education to their students.

I would hazard to guess that many, if not most, of the schools that have stumbled and fallen in the past several years didn't fail because they lacked adequate analytics. Like most businesses that fail, they failed because they didn't do what their analysis told them they needed to do. Some failed because they jumped on what appeared to be a bandwagon headed to success only to discover too late that the solution wasn't the right one for them. Others have attempted to do "business as usual" in an exceptional era, and they simply ran out of operating capital. Others were unwilling for whatever reason to sacrifice their sacred cows for the sake of their mission.

The seminaries that have flourished have disciplined themselves to make tough choices based on their strategic vision. Furthermore, successful schools in the current environment do not think of adaptation as something they did, but something they do.

A few days ago a new graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary asked me if I think theological education has a future. I said emphatically "yes."

Seminaries, as schools dedicated to the preparation of people for pastoral leadership, were a result of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and seminaries as we know them today, as graduate-level professional schools, are less than two hundred years old. But provisions to insure the church has well-educated Christian leaders and ministers go back to the Church's patristic age. Delivered in a variety of ways over nearly two thousand years, theological education has undergirded the church's mission and ministry almost since the church's beginning. The form theological education takes, however, has changed over the centuries and will continue to change.

Theological seminaries are in the Dickens of a fix. But whether any particular school is about to fall victim to the doomsday prophecies of the Ghost of Christmas Future depends, in large measure, on a willingness to make tough decisions to further the school's strategic vision. So, if a guy in a black cloak carrying a scythe is lurking in the neighborhood, we shouldn't cower under the covers.

"2015 - 2016 Annual Data Tables," Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, accessed May 27, 2016,

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