A few years ago, when I asked the head of Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan to name his top priority for the school’s faculty and curriculum, he said without hesitation: “We need biblical language teachers.”
When 85 new students enrolled this fall at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, the numbers were “beyond our wildest dreams,” said President Duane Larson. But the Lutheran school’s board, looking at a 35 percent drop in its endowment value and a similar decline in individuals gifts, also had to face up to stark financial realities.
As a German-trained medical doctor, Oliver Duku was director of health services for Southern Sudan until the government based in Khartoum forced him from his job. Duku turned to the Episcopal Church of Sudan for help. The church recognized his gifts for ordained ministry and sent him to Virginia Theological Seminary for formal training.
The entire faculty of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, have been notified that their jobs will end in a year, and nine staff jobs will be cut this month as the Episcopal-related school’s trustees face up to an insurmountable multimillion-dollar debt.
In American theological education, we are in the midst of recruitment season. Applications to M.Div. programs across the country have been read and argued over by admissions committees, and offers of admission have gone out in the mail. Now we are wooing our accepted students, making the case that our school is the right place for them to become the ministers God is calling them to be.
The deans of Episcopal seminaries warned bishops and other church leaders last year that their theological schools must deal creatively with hard financial realities. The schools can no longer function separately as “11 little grocery stores trying to sell the same products to the church,” declared Donn Morgan of Berkeley, California, then convener of the Council of Deans.
A Ph.D. student in religion veered off from his friends one morning to head toward the divinity school chapel. “Where are you going?” one of his colleagues asked. “To chapel for the Lord’s Supper,” he replied. His friend thought for a moment before responding with the critical distance beloved in the academy, “Well, that’s problematic.”
“How would your introductory course in your field help prepare students for ministry?” This question consistently stumped candidates fresh from graduate school who were interviewing for a faculty position in our theological school. The candidates were bright. They could map their disciplines with precision, and they cared deeply about the role of religion in society.