This post has been a long time in coming. Since 2008, like many of you, I’ve witnessed the conversations about the future of theological education online, in print, and in person…and specifically, have seen a lot of recent talk about the three Protestant seminaries of the Twin Cities (esp. on FB). Much of the discussion is doomsday, and I’ve wanted to counter it because I think it’s misguided (and maddening), but I haven’t taken the time. My reticence to say something changed the moment I read Tony Jones’s 9/9 post on Patheos, entitled “A Tale of Three Seminaries” … and so I decided it was time to speak up.
My Connection to this Conversation
I’m joining this conversation because I love Luther, Bethel, and United. I am a M.Div. graduate from Bethel Seminary (2011), and during my time there I took three classes at United Theological Seminary. Additionally, I worked in admissions at Bethel Seminary from 2005-2011 and then I moved to Luther Seminary and led their admissions team from 2011 until 2013 when I left to pursue my Ph.D. at Loyola University. I have friends, mentors, and colleagues at all three schools. Additionally, I am getting my Ph.D. because I am interested in being part of the future of leadership in theological education.
Introducing Jones’s “A Tale of Three Seminaries”
If you haven’t yet read the article on Patheos, then I’ll summarize it briefly. Tony begins by stating that he thinks that the story of the three Protestant seminaries in the Twin Cities can teach us something about the church in America. The lesson (*spoiler alert), we can learn from these three schools, according to Jones, is that the evangelical seminary is “waning” and the liberal seminary is “waxing” (I’m still not really sure where Luther fits, I’m assuming that from Jones’ perspective it’s more conservative/traditional). The rise of enrollment at United and the fall of enrollment at Bethel and Luther is provisional proof (the whole piece assumes his conclusion is correct, but he phrases it in question format) that “the conservative moment has passed” and that “progressive Christianity” is marketable.
Some Ground Rules for the Conversation
While I am actually interested in conversations about the future of the church and of theological education, I only take them seriously if they follow a few ground rules—rules that Jones doesn’t seem to be interested in (at least, not in this post!):
- If we are going to talk about the future of theological education and of the church…then let’s be honest about numbers.
- If we are going to talk about the future of theological education and of the church…then let’s take a long-view of history and engage in critical reflection instead of being provocative.
- If we are going to talk about the future of theological education and of the church…then let’s strive to fight against a scarcity mentality and/or a “winner takes all” perspective…this is not market capitalism (or is it?), it’s the church.
- If we are going to talk about the future of theological education and of the church…then let’s be irenic and hope for the well-being of the church and of theological education in its many forms.
These are the four principles that I’m both interested in following as we have this dialogue, and four of the reasons that I take issue with both the content and the tone of Jones’ piece. I’ll now spend some time addressing the particularities of my critique.
The Long-View of Theological Education
My first issue is that he doesn’t take a long-view…rather, he picks elements that support his claim that conservative Christianity has seen its day. Indeed, these are serious times in theological education and in the church. The mid-2000s saw the peak enrollment for theological education across the Association of Theological Schools (ATS—Note: some institutions have still grown since this time, but it has largely been in start-ups like Seattle School of Theology and Psychology or distance-heavy or distance-only programs like Indiana Wesleyan or Liberty). From the 1980s up until about 2008, seminaries were built around either dramatic increases in enrollment (fueled in large part by the influx of persons pursuing adult education, and the other growth trends in higher education) or upon some combination of growth / endowment reliance / maintenance of enrollment. Since 2008, our financial market experienced recession and theological education, which was built upon expected continual growth of market share, has largely flat lined and/or decreased.
Let me spell this out with the help of some data from ATS:
- ATS ENROLLMENT TOTAL (all programs, all ATS schools):
- 1993 vs. 2012= 3.5% total growth
- 1993 vs. 2005= 25% growth
- 2005 vs. 2012= 18% decline
Summary- While there has been an 18% decline in theological education in the past 10 years, if we take a longer view, we can see that in actuality ATS schools as a whole experienced overall GROWTH of 3.5% over 20 years. During this time some schools lost enrollment, but some grew…and overall it’s not nearly as bleak enrollment-wise as people think. Granted, there are HUGE issues facing theological education such as: evaporation of financial backing from church bodies, continued increases in the costs of health coverage for staff and employees, student debt, vocational possibilities are uncertain, new delivery formats and changes in accreditation requirements, etc. But let’s take a long view of theological education…it will continue to re-birth itself (as it should!), and even if this looks different in some ways than we had imagined…then so be it. Either way, I take a perspective of hope and goodwill for all of theological education and believe that it is a gift for the church.
Jones on Bethel/Luther/United
Having situated some of the conversation regarding the state of theological education, I will turn to Jones’ claims regarding the three Protestant seminaries in the Twin Cities, and then I will offer my responses.
Jones spends some time situating the schools: Luther is the largest of the ELCA Seminaries; Bethel is a BGC seminary (now, Converge Worldwide) and broadly evangelical (he doesn’t say this, so I am clarifying); and United is a historic UCC seminary and a space for liberal theology.
While introducing the schools Jones begins to paint the picture he wants us to see, namely that the progressive seminary (United) is flourishing, and that the Lutheran and conservative seminary (Bethel) are struggling.
He makes his case by talking about all of the good things that are happening at United (they reduced the size of their M.Div., added new community classes on beer making and bee keeping). And by contrast, he states that Luther is “bleeding with lay-offs” and Bethel has “tracked hard to the theological right” and lost faculty and an admissions person to United.
Finally we come to Jones’ “gotcha!”…the story of the “60.” The tale goes like this:
- United is up to 60
- Bethel is down to 60 from 200
- Luther is down to 60 from 100
They are all the same enrollment, Jones tells us. For the first time ever…amazing!
I mean…if this is TRUE then his conclusion is obvious. This means that something good is happening at United over-against the other two schools.
BUT Here’s my issue with Jones’ tale of the “waxing” and “waning” of the three Protestant seminaries in the Twin Cities:
Jones gets it wrong.
Bethel/Luther/United: A Re-Appraisal
How exactly does he get it wrong?
- His data is wrong
- His comparison sets are wrong
- His account of the schools is wrong
- His stories are misleading (at best)
Here’s my commentary according to school.
Luther Seminary: Luther is the largest of the eight seminaries of the ELCA denomination. Jones notes that they used to have incoming classes of well over 100, but “due to falling enrollment and financial mismanagement, the president and CFO were let go and many faculty and staff were laid off.” He also claims that they are “bleeding with lay-offs” and have experienced the “cancellation of some degrees.” On a positive note, he acknowledges that morale has improved with the arrival of Luther’s new president, Dr. Robin J. Steinke.
- What he gets right:
- Luther has had a couple of hard years since the fall of 2012 when the President resigned and one of the VPs left
- The President resigned
- A VP resigned
- Some staff were let go
- What he gets wrong:
- His data regarding enrollment numbers
- His data comparison sets
- The issues surrounding finances weren’t due to “falling enrollment”
- No faculty were laid off (though some have retired or left- see for instance-and some of these positions are being filled and some aren’t)
- His phrasing of the “cancellation of some degrees” is misleading
- He gets the narrative of Luther’s history wrong. He said it began with a merger in 1917- its history goes back to 1869 and Bockman Hall (Luther’s iconic building) was built in 1902
- He ignores that Luther has also shortened their M.Div. and has a whole new curriculum
- He ignores their long-standing commitment to community education and conferences, etc.
Re-Telling the Tale:
Luther is one of the largest stand-alone seminaries in the country and is the flagship school of the ELCA. It has maintained a fluctuating enrollment over the years (from 1993-2005 it’s headcount varied but it ended with a net gain of 0%; it then declined by 7.7% between 2005-2012—so it neither saw the huge increases nor as large of declines as the ATS overall). In 2012 there were 120 new M.A./M.Div. students; in 2013 there were somewhere between 105-110 new M.A./M.Div.; in 2014 they will have about 100 new M.A./M.Div. over the course of the year (Note: their numbers always included the whole academic year, and right now we only know their summer and fall stats). All told, they will have over 120 new students this fall when you include non-degree, certificates, and M.Th. students (excluding D.Min.).
The reason for Luther’s financial “crisis” is that they were continually overspending the budget. This hadn’t historically been a real problem because they kept receiving more grants and monies (it’s more complicated than that, but this will suffice). The tough decisions made by the board and leadership of Luther were made in order to ensure that Luther has a strong future for generations to come. For instance, until 2012, when compared with other seminaries of the same size, Luther had a faculty to student ratio of 1 to 8 with a total of 45 faculty members; the average ratio for similarly sized schools is 1 to 18!
As for “canceled programs”: The Ph.D. program was put on hold in order to ensure that they could make it financially sustainable (by the way- it’s the only of the three seminaries in the Twin Cities that had a Ph.D. program—one where Luther covered all tuition AND pays students a yearly stipend!).
This being said, Luther is a strong institution that has a new curriculum and a new President along with very strong backing from within (its board) and without (it has amazing support from donors, etc.)…along with a lot of amazing students and innovative programs and opportunities both for students, ministry leaders and community members such as the Working Preacher, Center for Stewardship Leaders, God Pause, Kairos Continuing Education, the Lay School of Theology, Celebration of Biblical Preaching, an amazing art collection, etc.
As for where he gets the number 60? I’m baffled. Luther has historically welcomed more than 100 new students every year, and while their numbers are down, they are not anywhere near the numbers that Jones suggests. The only thing that I can figure is that Jones is claiming that there were historically 100+ M.Div. students and now there are only 60…well, if this is his argument then I would counter him by noting that any account of new M.Div. included students from the entire year who enrolled in the MDiv (along with “Lutheran Year” folks), and while over time Luther has seen less M.Div. students enroll, it has experienced gains in its M.A. programs in the past 10+ years that have aided their total enrollment numbers. Honestly, I think it’s more likely is that Jones is trying to suggest that Luther historically had 100+ total new enrolled students…. in this case, his numbers are incorrect as it relates to their new students for this fall—which, as I noted above, are going to be over 120 new students.
Bethel Seminary – Bethel Seminary is a part of Bethel University and is the historic evangelical school in the Twin Cities. Jones is concerned that Bethel has closed their Seminary of the East campuses, laid of faculty, and has taken a conservative turn. He also notes that in its heyday Bethel welcomed over 200 new students every year but is now down to 60.
What he gets right:
- Bethel has declined in enrollment since its peak in 2008.
- Bethel has laid off many faculty and staff
- Bethel is deciding on a vision for its future (he doesn’t actually say that, instead he just says that they are taking a conservative turn, which still (!) counts as a vision and direction)
What he gets wrong:
- His data
- The significance of the Seminary of the East closing (it was a few very small campuses of a handful of students that had been unsustainable since it was acquired)
- Edit 9/15 based upon commentary from a BSOE professor: I realize that my wording here is too dismissive of the work and ministry and mission of SOE, and for that I apologize. I was hoping to counter Tony regarding the total number of students who are a part of SOE and what that means for Bethel Seminary as a whole. The entire time BSOE was a part of the larger Bethel Seminary community, it was a true gift and I was deeply impacted by some of my colleagues from SOE. Though I believe I’m representing the official narrative re: BSOE correctly in terms of finacials, please see Brian’s comments at the bottom to see his counter to what I present here.
- He ignores institutional factors that impact Bethel Seminary as a part of Bethel University (unlike Luther and United which are both stand-alone seminaries)…Bethel being a part of a larger institution means that what happens at the seminary is tied to larger trends then he acknowledges (he assumes any decline is just evidence of the demise of conservatism)
- He ignores that Bethel has also shortened their M.Div. and has a new curriculum with new degree offerings
- He ignores Bethel’s connections with many churches and national non-profits
Re-Telling the Tale:
In the 2000s, Bethel expanded aggressively, acquiring what became known as Seminary of the East, adding degree programs, and becoming the first Seminary to pursue distance-mediated education through its innovative InMinistry Program. Like many other ATS schools, it has faced challenges since its peak enrollment in the fall of 2008. Some of these changes are due to market realities (lack of credit or realization of the legacy of debt, changes in church life, etc.) and others are due to transitions at the university and seminary (new President, requirement that the seminary become revenue neutral, the fact that Bethel is tied to an undergraduate institution and the decline in enrollment there negatively impacts the seminary).
While the exact future vision of Bethel Seminary is unclear at this moment, the vision is in the works (the new VP/Dean has solicited feedback from alumni, students, and other constituents and is building a vision of Bethel as a center for theological leadership). Many of my colleagues who are progressive evangelicals or post-evangelicals have lamented some of the changes at Bethel Seminary and while I might want to fight for Bethel to be as progressive as I’ve become, the reality is that it is an evangelical school of the BGC/Converge and the leadership is being intentional about cultivating the relationship with their denomination and re-focusing on service to the church. It is a time of transition, but their leadership is carving out a future that they feel called to and one that they can sustain in a university setting. Additionally, I would remind us that back in the early 1990s Bethel Seminary was at risk of closing. Through innovation, leadership, and vision it grew from being a regional, BGC-specific seminary to one of the 15 largest seminaries in the nation (and the forerunner in distance-mediated education).
With this in mind, I both wish and pray for the best for Bethel into the future. Right now, I’m not sure what that future will be; I don’t know if the seminary will become a part of the graduate school (total conjecture on my part), or if it will hone-in as a resource for Converge Worldwide (the former BGC) and other evangelical leaders…regardless, I wish and pray the best future for Bethel.
As for where he gets the number 60? I’m baffled (again). Bethel has historically welcomed more than 200 new students over the course of the year, and while their numbers are down, they are not anywhere near the numbers that Jones suggests. I have no idea what he is counting (note: Bethel’s numbers aren’t yet available because the final count comes in on Friday. I’ve spoken with some folks at Bethel and they don’t know how he arrived at his numbers). What I can say for sure is that there were NEVER 200 new M.Div. students, rather there were more than 200 TOTAL new students (which have ALWAYS included the MFT program…something Jones excludes when he arrives at 60 new students for Bethel!)…so either way you look at it, his numbers are incorrect and misleading.
United Seminary- United has historically been the progressive seminary in the Twin Cities. They hired a new president in 2012. As Jones reminds us, this year they brought on board two former Bethel faculty members and one person who used to work at Bethel Seminary. They have started new programs and have increased their enrollment dramatically this fall. They have also begun offering some programming at their warehouse location and have a new bread oven. There is renewed vision, positive energy, and opportunities available through United. Jones is very happy to highlight all of these positives.
What he gets right:
- United has dramatically increased their incoming student numbers
- United has hired new faculty
- United has a new bread oven and a new bee keeping community class
- United has a new location that they are using for programming in the warehouse district.
- United has 60+ total new students (though it’s curious and problematic that he is willing to include any and all new students for UTS and not do so for the other two schools)
What he gets wrong (or ignores):
- He ignores the financial situation of United Seminary and that they are actually in a precarious financial position, and are at risk of closing in the next couple of years if things don’t drastically change
- He ignores the ways that they have increased enrollment through scholarships funded out of the endowment and the number of students who have transferred in and/or are following the former Bethel faculty
- Edits/Commentary from 9/14 due to feedback from Thorsten Moritz at United:
- Regarding Scholarships: Thorsten said I misunderstood that the scholarship support came from the endowment, and that the scholarship support has actually come due to donor excitement about the new vision (which is great news!). I was under the impression that this money came out of the endowment based upon prior conversations with Thorsten and the UTS Director of Admissions, Maria French. The point here was that an increase in scholarships and scholarship amounts directly impacts admissions and the ability of students to matriculate. Let me be clear: I’m glad for this increase…just wanted to say that the scholarships impact enrollment increases and declines.
- Regarding the transfer of Bethel Students: Thorsten said that I mis-represented the increase in enrollment as being due to Bethel connections. Two responses here: 1) I should have been more precise in my language, and for that I apologize. I meant to communicate that there are many people (namely, progressive or post-evangelicals) who with the shift at UTS and the arrival of Thorsten and Kyle Roberts at UTS, and the challenges and changes at Bethel, now find themselves connected to UTS. Even a year ago this wouldn’t have been the case. The point is that UTS has experienced a boost because the progressive and post-evangelicals are finding a new home at UTS and would have historically enrolled at somewhere like Bethel. Their numbers are significant for enrollment numbers and thus I included them.
- Edits/Commentary from 9/14 due to feedback from Thorsten Moritz at United:
- He ignores that the reason for so much new programming is because it’s “do or die” and so they are giving it everything they have so that they can have a future (which I respect!)
- He ignores that there has been significant turnover in staff and faculty since the new President’s arrival
- Edits/Commentary from 9/14 I made a change to this sentence because it was overly specific when I wasn’t that specific with the other school, and since my intent is to ensure that both the challenges and opportunities are being lifted up, I’ve changed the wording.
- He ignores that United also is facing some internal turmoil regarding its new direction
Re-Telling the Tale:
There truly is some great stuff going on at United! And if I’m harsh in my critique, it’s only because Jones’ piece AND the narrative I’ve been hearing around the Twin Cities (including from a lot of post-evangelical/progressive Bethel alumni and former staff/faculty) is overly positive about United, ignoring the deep challenges that the institution is facing. They are in serious financial waters…and the President and her leadership team are doing all they can to turn the ship around, but it isn’t going to be easy, and it’s not assured. There is also internal strife about where the school is headed and not everyone is on board for the changes. At the same time, there is also much excitement and hope for the new students and people who are rooting for a great future ahead for United.
A Vision for the Future
So here’s what I wish. I wish that Tony Jones would have been more careful…I wish that he could have just uplifted what is great at United, instead of simultaneously putting down the other schools, and misrepresenting them.
Can we instead just say that there are great things about all three schools? AND there are some very real and serious challenges too. But one school is not THE place over/against the others.
I say this because pieces like the one Jones published not only obscures the realities that all three schools have strengths and challenges to varied extents, but also ignores much of the differences between the schools in terms of mission, size, finances, etc. For instance:
- United has historically operated on about a $2-3 million dollar yearly budget (I don’t know their current one) and their enrollment for Fall of 2013 was 127 with a Full-Time Equivelancy of 75.2 (FTE). This fall they are going to start about 60 total new students.
- Note form 9/14- I didn’t include the UTS endowment because I’m unsure the precise amount.
- Luther has a $70+ million dollar endowment, a $20-something million dollar budget (I don’t know the exact number for this year) and their enrollment for Fall of 2013 was 695 students with a FTE of 498.9; This year they are going to start over 120 students.
- Bethel shares an endowment with the University that is about $35 million, a $5+ million dollar budget (last I knew it was $8 million, but I’m not sure the exact number) and their enrollment for Fall of 2013 was about 785 students with a FTE of 327. I don’t know their current budget, nor their current fall enrollment but we can all find that out after they, along with Luther and United, report the data after their “10th Day In” numbers (For Bethel that is this Friday- the “10th Day In” numbers are an industry standard that captures total enrollment, including new students).
My fervent hope/desire is that all three schools would be strong into the future. And, this tale would look like (if they were asking me!), one of a thriving city with three (at least!) Protestant seminaries: The first would have a three-centers approach to training and a focus on formation rooted in the pietistic/evangelical tradition (Bethel); one would be rooted in the intersection of interfaith discourse, liberal and progressive theology, and arts and culture (UTS); and one would train leaders for the church and world who are rooted in the Protestant reformation tradition (Luther).
For my part, I will continue to recommend students to all three of these schools (and others!) dependent upon what that student is looking for (I did this when I worked in admissions at Luther and Bethel as well!); I will try to share honestly about the challenges and promises of each institution as these are both times of promise and risk for everyone involved with theological education. What I will NOT do and what I refuse is this continual celebration of one seminary’s victory at the expense of other schools…this has to cease.
I would challenge Tony and others to be more thoughtful and intentional before posting and making such claims in the future. Let’s have the conversations we need to have about theological education and the church, but as we do so, let’s aim at holding to a few ground rules:
- Let’s be honest about numbers.
- Let’s take a long-view of history and engage in critical reflection instead of being provocative.
- Let’s strive to fight against a scarcity mentality and/or a “winner takes all” perspective…this is not market capitalism (or is it?), it’s the church.
- Let’s be irenic and hope for the well-being of the church and theological education in its many forms.
And for my part, I will keep praying that all three seminaries and their leadership find positive ways forward as they continue to live out their missions and train leaders for the church and for the world.