The leaders of the 11 seminaries connected with the Episcopal Church have agreed that the schools they head will consolidate their efforts in four areas of theological education.
The agreement came during a January meeting at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Attending the meeting were deans and trustees -- including many board chairs -- from nearly all of the 11 seminaries, along with many of the bishops who serve on some of the seminaries' boards. A list of the 11 seminaries is available here.
The collaborations will be distance learning, Spanish-language ministry preparation, Anglican Communion partnerships, and seminary-diocesan partnerships for local ministry development education.
"The spirit of cooperation" that was present during the meeting is "critically important" to the success of the plans, and marks a major change in the way the seminaries relate to each other, the Very Rev. Ward Ewing, dean and president of the General Theological Society (GTS) and convener of the seminaries' Council of Deans, told Episcopal News Service.
"This is a big deal because we say we're not going to be Lone Rangers anymore," agreed Donn Morgan, dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and Ewing's predecessor as convener.
Yet, such collaboration is a change for the seminaries and its success "depends on the seminaries being willing to work together in new ways," said Morgan, who added that everyone involved has to work in ways that serve the church rather than their schools alone.
"Maybe we could even develop a spirit of cooperation between churches" to replace the spirit of competition and thus "change one of the values that sneak into the church from time to time," Ewing added.
He and Morgan predicted that the collaborations will eventually make for greater flexibility for seminarians, possibly reduced educational costs for seminarians, greater efficiency and cost reductions for the seminaries, and, for the members of the Episcopal Church, "more effectively trained priests" and greater access to theological education for all.
Among the possibilities foreseen through the collaborations are sharing resources and curricula for certain classes and degree programs, developing certificate (as opposed to degree) programs and continuing education offerings that would span a variety of seminaries, and expansion of online course offerings.
The participants in the January meeting agreed to respond to a request from Anglican Communion officials that the seminaries will explore the possibility of offering a collaborative Doctor of Ministry degree in Africa. The seminaries would seek partnerships with an existing theological program or programs in Africa. A long-term goal would be to help build capacity within the African theological educational system.
Such a partnership, Ewing said, would add to the already-impressive international focus found in some of the seminaries connected with the Episcopal Church.
Working out the details of the collaborations is the next step in the process. "We said we are delegating smaller group of seminaries to look at these things and see how they should go," Morgan said, adding that the deans understand that they won't venture into these territories or create new programs on their own.
While previous discussions about the collaboration effort involved only the deans -- with input and support from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori -- bringing seminary trustees and bishops into the conversation was important. Each seminary's trustees have to agree to such a major shift in the way the schools do business, and the church's bishops, especially those who are connected to specific seminaries, need to the part of the discernment of how theological education must change, both Ewing and Morgan have said.
The deans will be seeking the approval of their boards for the ventures, as well. GTS' trustees recently gave their OK. Many seminaries host boards of trustees meeting in the coming weeks.
The January meeting was the latest in a conversation that began in the seminaries' Council of Deans last year. Financial difficulties and drastic changes in the role of the Christian church in society prompted the deans to reconsider theological education.
The seminaries' Council of Deans met a number of times in 2007 (normally the council meets once a year) to discuss issues facing the seminaries. Jefferts Schori joined the deans in their March and June meetings.
Ewing said in 2007 that the deans had realized that because of financial restrictions faced by all the seminaries, "every seminary can't provide everything for everybody." Thus, they began exploring how to develop "the kind of coalition so that each seminary becomes a gateway to the resources of all the seminaries."
The deans' goal is not simply to improve and strengthen their own seminaries, Ewing said.
"The seminaries exist primarily as servants for the Church," he said, and are called work together to "provide the resources of the seminaries for the whole Church" so that the seminaries are seen as "adding value to the leadership of the Church."
Ewing said all the deans' conversations come down to two questions: "How do we work better among ourselves?" and "How do we really serve the Episcopal Church and build a structure that provides mutual insight into how we do theological education in the church that's emerging today?"
At the House of Bishops meeting in September, Ewing and Morgan briefed the bishops on the council's efforts to collaborate on ways to make the 11 seminaries "more efficient resources for the education in and for the church."
"Seminaries are in the midst of a major transformational change," Ewing told the September meeting of the House of Bishops. "I want to affirm that this is all seminaries," not just Episcopal ones.
Morgan said the deans had to face the fact that they either had to change or become "11 little grocery stores trying to sell the same products to the church."
Ewing told ENS that he hopes that the steps agreed to in January are part of an effort that marks a new beginning for the seminaries, one that is filled with many more opportunities.
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as in the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey.