Officials at the Claremont School of Theology, which has a long-term project to create a multifaith university and seminary campus, breathed a sigh of relief in late June when United Methodist Church agencies released about $350,000 in funding and reinstated the school’s standing in the church.
The notion that enrollments at theological schools rise in tough economic times did not hold true for Protestant and Catholic seminaries in North America this academic year. In fact, over the past three years, the total student population slipped about 6 percent—down to 75,500 from a three-year plateau in mid-decade when more than 80,000 students were studying theology.
Abraham haunts me. When I wrote my first Faith Matters column in 1997, I began with those three words. At that time I was in transition—moving from Maryland to North Carolina, and from a faculty position teaching undergraduates at Loyola College in Maryland to a position as dean of Duke Divinity School.
The United Methodist Church is withholding funds from two of its seminaries until they submit updated financial reports, and one campus—Claremont School of Theology in southern California—will also have to defend its proposed reconfiguration into a multireligious university.
Andover Newton in the Boston area and Colgate Rochester Crozer in upper New York State—two seminaries with American Baptist ties—have agreed to end merger talks, saying that plans fell short of being “financially viable” due to “economic realities.”
If church leaders had the chance to fashion a seminary from scratch, what would it look like? Would it have its own campus? Would it be tied to a denomination or be fully ecumenical? Would the classical academic subjects be taught and, if so, how would that learning be correlated with the work of forming spiritual leaders and training them in the practice of ministry?
When Boston area artist Paula Rendino needed fresh inspiration more than a year ago, she sought her muse in an unlikely place: seminary. Art school would have been “too boring,” Rendino explained. She yearned to bring fresh depth to her work by pondering spiritual themes.
The recession has forced seminaries to undertake cost-cutting measures that affect people, projects and their own best-laid plans for sustainability. “The current economic environment has magnified any weaknesses present in seminaries,” according to Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.
On the verge of losing accreditation in 2006 during its third straight year of bleeding red ink, the Claremont School of Theology faced an uncertain future. Some faculty members left the United Methodist–related seminary nestled near scenic mountains in southern California, and a new president was hired whose expertise was primarily in directing seminary and university libraries.
Many pastors remember struggling in their first ministerial position—isolated geographically or professionally, lacking ready access to mentors and peers. The first person to greet young Daniel Aleshire after he led his first worship service “told me my sermon was ‘the worst damn sermon’ he had ever heard.”