Financial difficulties and drastic changes in the role of the Christian church in society are prompting the leaders of the 11 seminaries connected with the Episcopal Church to reconsider theological education.
The seminaries' Council of Deans has met three times this year already, twice more than its normal annual meeting, to discuss issues facing the seminaries. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori joined the deans in their March and June meetings.
The Very Rev. Ward Ewing, dean and president of the General Theological Society (GTS) and convener of the Council of Deans, said the deans have realized that because of financial restrictions faced by all the seminaries, "every seminary can't provide everything for everybody." Thus, they are 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."
While the seminary deans have not always fully cooperated, Ewing said "the idea that we are going to start working together in a more significant way is simply building on a history of very mutual support over the last few years."
Jefferts Schori told ENS that she is "delighted at the work the deans are doing together."
"There has been a remarkable shift from a culture of competition to one of cooperation, a shift which represents the best of our tradition," she said. "Each part of the body, with its different gifts, and working together, can build up the whole. I believe that a new vision for the work of the Episcopal seminaries will include a variety of modes of providing theological education for a variety of ministries within and beyond the church.
"All of it is about an expanded sense of mission, and I expect that this church and the larger community will be abundantly blessed by the work of these seminaries and their leaders."
During their June meeting at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, the deans used the process of appreciative inquiry to consider each seminary's strengths. They then discussed how those strengths might be used "in a cooperative way that supports all of us," Ewing said.
He said distance learning and online education, Spanish-language ministry training, work with congregations and dioceses engaged in total ministry and shared-leadership models of ministry were high on the list. Church Divinity School of the Pacific president and dean Donn Morgan, who was the council's convener when these conversations began, said another fruitful place for collaboration was seen in the international networks some seminaries have established.
The timing for the cooperation over the future of theological education in the Episcopal Church is right, Ewing said. Many seminaries are engaged in long-range planning and many have relatively new deans. Furthermore, there is the financial pressure.
"Some of the seminaries' very existence is threatened; others are simply looking at long-term development," Ewing said. "Virginia and Sewanee are probably the most secure, but all of us are struggling financially."
The challenges facing the seminaries did not develop overnight, Ewing said, tracing a trajectory of change that began in the mid-1960s as U.S. society itself began to change.
"We're in the midst of a major sociological change about religion and churches," he said. "Call it post-Christendom or whatever you want to call it, but it's a major change in how the churches work â¦ and that affects the seminaries"
Ewing said the first "symptom" of change for seminaries was financial. He described a system of funding seminaries and seminarians that was a combination of solidly growing endowments, reasonably low costs for graduate-school education in general, and greater parish and diocesan support for seminarians coupled with "good friends" who could be called upon when a seminary's budget gaps.
"That begins breaking down in the mid-60s and by the early '70s, with Viet Nam, the relationship with the establishment begins to get shaky," Ewing said.
Mainline Protestant denominations, even those with strong official support for their seminaries, experienced the same change, he said.
Meanwhile, most people entered seminaries right out of college and had very little educational debt, and most, if not all, knew they had jobs waiting for them after graduation.
Ewing pointed to a 1982 General Convention resolution (Resolution A125) which said that congregations and missions "shall give annually at least 1%" of their net disposable budgeted income to one or more seminaries as the first visible recognition in the Episcopal Church that "the old funding system wasn't working anymore." The one-percent campaign, as it came to be known, was the first time Episcopal Church congregations or dioceses were called upon to support seminaries financially.
The 11 seminaries have very few official ties to the Episcopal Church, beyond General Convention's authority to elect six of GTS trustees. Even then, the convention does not budget money to pay those trustees' expenses.
Around the same time that seminaries' financial support was changing, Ewing said, ordination processes began to become more complicated. U.S. church membership began to change as the cultural assumption that a person belonged to and supported a church weakened. Dioceses no longer held out the promise of a job and the assumption that "the practical aspects of ministry would be learned on the first job under a seasoned rector" could no longer be depended upon, Ewing said.
Less than 25 percent of GTS graduates now go into assistantships in their first job, Ewing said, noting that General may well have a higher percentage than some of the other schools.
Seminary curricula have lagged behind that reality and that has added to what Ewing calls a disconnection of the seminaries from dioceses and congregations. Balancing the practical aspects of ministry with the seminaries' ethos of having been founded on a liberal-arts college model is important, however, Ewing said.
"The heart of theological education ... is still academic, biblical," he said. "Lord knows, given the controversies we have in the church today, I don't want to diminish that. The academic understanding of Scripture, ethics, theology is at the heart of those conflicts."
Still, Ewing said, the deans recognize that a new model is needed "and that new model needs to include bishops, dioceses, local congregations and local congregational networks."
Morgan agreed. Seminaries could change in all sorts of ways and develop all sorts of new programs and if the church didn't like the changes, they wouldn't mean anything, he said.
There are more challenges. Each seminary, used to being independent, is being asked to act more cooperatively than it ever has. Each seminary's student body and culture is somewhat unique. The traditional three-year residential model of seminary education is changing; not all students attend full-time, not all live on campus or even near-by.
Even the goals of seminarians are changing. Ewing said the Association of Theological Schools, an accredited agency, noted that mainline Protestant seminaries reached a milestone three years ago: the majority of their students did not expect to have "pulpit ministries." That trend has not yet been seen in Episcopal seminaries, Ewing said, but they must pay attention.
And seminaries can't be the only ones paying attention, Ewing and Morgan said.
The deans hope to meet with the House of Bishops during its March 2008 meeting. Ewing said the deans want to tell the bishops about their perception that a group made up of seminary officials, bishops, and diocesan and congregational representatives ought to look closely at the needs of the church; the kinds of leadership, expertise and experience required to meet those needs; and how to reshape theological education accordingly.
"We are very serious about wanting to set up a structure of that sort," Ewing said. "The deans present in June are all committed to doing that, understanding that this means we are going to change the way we do things back home. This is not a P.R. campaign to say we need to get the bishops to support us. This is about changing the way we do theological education and it needs to be a mutual process to get there, and it needs to be an on-going process."
The deans will also expand their conversations early next year to include the chairs of their boards and at least one bishop trustee from each board. Those people have been invited to the deans' January meeting.
"It still takes a board of trustees to say 'Go,'" Morgan said.
Ewing agreed. "We also recognize that just a conversation with the House of Bishops is not going do much change. We've got to get the boards on board."
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."