America’s Top Evangelical Seminaries, and Seminaries in General, Face Critical Financial Issues — GetReligion
Some will cite the 1942 formation of the National Association of Evangelicals by conservatives – many of them in the mainline Protestant churches – fleeing the old “fundamentalist” brand. But The Guy argues that it was these Chicago shows that led to a nationwide “parachurch” organization with Graham as the charismatic leader.
The media and their audiences tend to see evangelism in terms of star preachers, mega-churches, media, music, missions and, more recently, immersion in Republican political wars. Oh, yes, and scandals.
But the movement cannot be understood apart from its beliefs as offered by the thinkers of university-level theological schools and the students they trained. Their impact has been profound and global in scope.
Three multi-denominational seminaries have paved the way, and their current woes — part of the negative trends in theological education as a whole — deserve serious journalistic analysis.
* Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, was the pioneer, founded in 1947, with Graham as a longtime funder and board member.
* Evangelical Trinity School of Theology outside Chicago is the Free Evangelical Church Seminary, but reconfigured to reach a broad evangelical constituency beginning in 1963.
* Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside of Boston was created in a 1969 merger of two schools brokered by Graham and his friends. (Disclosure: Guy’s daughter earned a Gordon-Conwell Master’s degree as a part-time lay student while pursuing a lay career.)
One doctrinal point has been particularly controversial within the movement. Although staunchly evangelical, Fuller has long since changed his original Bible creed as “free from error” to be “infallible” for “faith and practice”. The other two schools assert the inerrancy of scripture, all history included (but only as the books were originally written, thus allowing for manuscript variations and unexplained puzzles).
After an expansion that contrasts with the inexorable decline of liberal Protestantism and its institutions, the three seminaries fell on difficult times, not in terms of academic weight and influence, but financially despite the rise of online courses at low cost. The urgent difficulty, as related by Christianity today magazine, is down listing. Due to part-time students, the “full-time equivalent” enrollment number is the best number to track trends. Since the turn of the 21st century, Gordon-Conwell’s FTE total has declined by 34%, Fuller’s by 48% and Trinity’s by 44%.
The latest shock, announced last week, is the dramatic Gordon-Conwell bailout, after previous cuts failed to stabilize things. The school (current 633 FTEs) will sell its prized 102-acre main campus and relocate to yet-to-be-chosen neighborhoods in Boston, hoping to end dangerous deficit spending, increase staffing and reduce overhead. .
Last month, Trinity (FTE 491) cut seven or possibly more faculty positions with further budget cuts of nearly $1 million. The school challenged assertion of a licensed teacher that the finances are “almost catastrophic”.
Fuller (1,077 FTE) will appoint a new president next year and has announced a major overhaul it’s vague on funding. The school has reduced campuses and expanded programs. The biggest blow came with the 2019 collapse of a strategic move to Pomona stalled by a property sale dispute with Pasadena plus balloon construction costs for the new campus.
Evangelical seminaries with narrower denominational or ideological identities fared better, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (ETP 1,936), Asbury Theological Seminary (ETP 1,150; Methodist-Arminian-Holiness), Reformed Theological Seminary (ETP 429 ) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ETP 1,194; premillennial dispensationalist in eschatology).
Some entrepreneurs run their own small schools rather than supporting more established seminaries, and some mega-churches abandon seminary altogether in favor of training local apprentices.
The media could also take a broader look at the many issues beyond evangelism. Some precisions.
* The most liberal or “mainline” Protestant schools often shrink and merge. A dramatic example was the 2017 closure of Andover Newton Seminary, the nation’s oldest, continued as a program within Yale Divinity School, where the FTE is just 295.
* St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (FTE 64) released a Gordon-Conwell-style plan last November to leave its Yonkers, New York, premises for a new location not yet determinedbut closer to the growing networks of Orthodox parishes.
* The 147-year-old Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati announced in April that its full residency rabbinical program will end by 2026 due to declining enrollment and income, with the training of Reform rabbis concentrated on campuses in New York and Los Angeles. Also note this GetReligion post by Ira Rifkin on this topic: “Steady Decline of Liberal Religion Shuts Reform Jewish Seminary. How about some elite press ink? »
* And the Catholic seminaries? look at this state-by-state list of closed seminariesincluding more than 20 in New York State alone.
Virtually every religious seminary and college in America is dealing with the birth crunch and secularization of this generation, so add this to your list for the future: Is a severe clergy shortage happening?
A good global source on trends is Executive Director Frank Yamada of the Association of Theological Schools (412-788-6505, ext. 258 and [email protected]). The association accredits North American graduate seminaries and compiles statistics year by year, useful for trends and comparisons.
FIRST IMAGE : The main campus of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, in a picture from his official website.