Why should small churches give to seminaries?

January 21, 2014

A colleague came to visit me at my office. He had been asked to talk with all the Presbyterian pastors in our geographic area to see if we would add the Theological Education Fund (TEF) to our budget. They wanted each church to give at least 1% to the fund that would be disbursed to our denominational seminaries.

I have always given to my seminary personally, but when I imagined bringing the request to our local church board, I (literally) hit my head on my desk.

“You have to understand. We’re a small church. I’m the pastor, secretary, janitor, and plumber. Last week an elder instructed me on how to put termite poison in the piling foundations (that’s where I drew the line),” I exhaled and continued.

“You’re asking us to give money to seminaries, some of which have massive endowments. Do you know how many secretaries some of these seminaries have? Their secretaries have secretaries. And they keep adding Vice Presidents. The weirdest thing about the addition of all the management? The student body keeps dwindling. Many of these seminaries have residential student bodies that are the same size of our small church.

“The students they do have are coming out with more debt, which puts a greater burden on churches to pay us more. You see how we run. We’re on a shoestring here. You can’t ask small churches to give to seminaries. It makes no sense.” 

He left. He didn't return the next year, and I’m sure he was probably deterred from asking any more small church pastors to make room in their budgets.

It’s been many years, and I know I was wrong. I don’t think I was wrong about the VPs and secretaries. Since that day, I’ve only seen the student bodies dwindle with the addition of VPs, Deans, and attending secretaries. (When I’ve asked why, I get a strange response about how the office of the President has more power when he or she has more VPs.) This is not the case with all seminaries, of course. A couple of them have faced such dwindling endowments that they've had to become shoestrings as well.

But I was wrong about small churches not supporting seminaries. I guess I didn’t understand the academic ecosystem well enough. Gifts to institutions mean that we have a bit more of a relationship and a little more power in decisions. Seminaries have to care about what churches think. And churches have to think critically about what seminaries are up to (beyond the usual conservative criticism that the institutions are too liberal).

Am I saying that seminaries don’t care about small churches? No, I’m not. My seminary has worked hard build relationships with educational events and lunches with pastors. But I do think we have some challenging years ahead, and the more we can communicate honestly with one another, the better. Giving and receiving gifts opens up more conversations, it allows pastors to communicate what we need. That conversation with the TEF rep was an important one to have. He needed to hear what my session was saying behind closed doors. And we all need to keep having these dialogues.


I love you Carol but I definitely disagree

I don't think small churches should give to seminaries because the seminary system is catastrophically failing everyone but th seminaries themselves. Yes, graduates graduate with increasing amounts of debt. Not only that, but there are no jobs for four out of every five of those graduates. The last time I checked a week or two ago, there were 1700 people actively seeking a call and about 400 positions for them to fill. So this year, for 1300 seminary graduates, the system is failing them. They have debt and don't have a way to repay that debt, since it isn't like an MDiv is transferrable to another profession.

Meanwhile, churches continue to close in every Presbytery. A few of those 1700 might start an NCD, but even if all 1001 NCDs were started right now with current call-seekers, that still leaves a couple hundred out in the cold.

And then our seminaries will graduate a few hundred more people this spring, and there will be no jobs for them either.

If we encourage people to give to our seminaries, we only encourage this system to persist, and I'm just tired of hearing endless stories of seminary grads moving in with their parents, having to seek a new degree in order to actually find work, living with disappointment for year after year when they don't find a call, and giving up on ministry altogether.

Our current system is not serving the people who are called to ministry. There are so many better ways a church could spend 1% of its budget.

All good points, Doug.What do

All good points, Doug.

What do you think about the huge percentage of pastors who are over 57? Do you think we'll end up with a shortage in a few years? I worry about that...

Flush seminaries, inflated staffing???

While I am grateful for the encouragement of congregational support for seminaries, the impression that many, if not most seminaries are flush with cash and extraneous staff could not be further from the truth.  The great majority of US seminaries, particularly among the old Mainline, face severe financial challenges.  One of the seven United Church of Christ related seminaries - Bangor - recently ended its degree granting programs, and even Yale and Princeton made cuts in their administrative staffing within the last two years.  But an uncertain future sometimes requires investments, not just cost-cutting.  My own seminary, Chicago Theological Seminary, has added staff in the last four years, principally in the areas of recruitment, advancement, and distance education.  Since tuition at most seminaries covers only a portion of the cost of a theological education, fund raising is crucial.  If philanthropic dollars just arrived spontaneously, seminaries could save on advancement staff.  But that money comes only with careful, time consuming donor cultivation and enhanced communication.  Seminaries exist to educate students.  They don't come uninvited, either.  Identifying prospects and moving them through the application and enrollment decisions is also timeconsuming.  Seminaries know that understaffed recruitment offices translate to declining enrollment.  There's not much virtue in that.  And seminaries are hearing the urgent call for high quality, distance education, in part to respond to the needs of students in rural areas underserved by our current seminaries.  To ensure that the quality of an online MDiv is equivalent to a residential MDiv, seminaries need to employ highly skilled instructional technologists and IT support.  Meanwhile Presidents and Deans and Vice Presidents for Finance are constantly examining curricula - along with our church partners - to determine what will be needed by graduates ten or fifteen years from now.  And those same leaders are always on the hunt for creative institutional partnerships that can enhance program while reducing costs.  So, yes, some seminaries have increased staff, knowing that these investments are crucial not only for their survival, but more importantly in order to thrive as meaningful partners of the church in equipping leaders for the next years ahead of us.  For all of this CTS, like every seminary, is enormously grateful to its doners - wealthy and modest, large churches and small - who give not just to secure a place at the table but to secure a vibrant future for the church.

That's good to hear, John. I

That's good to hear, John. I hope UCC seminaries are doing things better. I just looked up a couple of PC(USA) seminaries... one had 1 administrator (President, VPs and Deans) for every 7 graduates, the other had 1 administrator for every 3.5 graduates. A couple of them are doing double duty (teaching and administrating), but those still seem like pretty surprising ratios to me... 

Seminary sea change

Carol, thank you for continuing to dialogue with seminaries. I understand there are some alums who are bitter for various reasons, but as one, like you,who studies this situation closely, I am convinced that mainline seminaries are in the midst of a sea-change. For those who graduated before or around 2008 and thought they knew how seminaries work, I encourage them to look again and more closely. Despite endowments, every mainline seminary knows they can remain viable for only a few years unless they respond to the Church and the needs of the world. I will name only a few changes I see at my own institution: numerous new degree programs and delivery methods (in addition to the standard residential M.Div.) including specialized M.A.s and online programs; intensified efforts to reduce student debt (including education, alternate financial aid, new scholarships, etc.); increased efforts to attend to alternate pastoral and ecclesial options--such as tent-makers, church-planting, etc; reaching out to denominations that have not historically embraced theological education; intense efforts to expand educational programs to congregations and laity. I am grateful that folks like you continue to spark rich conversations. I am confused by those who would rather see seminaries die. Of course I can imagine Willow Creek like programs for in house theological education, and I say "let a thousand flowers bloom"; but I think those who would do away with theological education are short-sighted. While the system that exists is not perfect it is important to remember that seminaries, with all their faults, have been the ground for rich research into important theological questions--that pertain to the poor, race, women, care of the earth, children and youth, war and global peace. Apart from seminaries there would have been no Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Niebuhr brothers, Jurgen Moltmann, Sally McFague, Schussler Fiorenza, etc. Of course it is crucial that seminaries remain connected to the needs of the church and the world and most seminary administrators and faculty get that and are adapting with great speed. It is far too soon to condemn mainline seminaries.