Money Well Spent? The Future of Theological Education

By Thomas A. Lambrecht

Would you pay $149,000 for one seminary graduate?

That is what The United Methodist Church did in 2011. According to statistics released in April by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the 13 official United Methodist seminaries received a total of $14,461,705 in Ministerial Education Fund money from our apportionments in 2011 and graduated 337 persons into ordained ministry. That averages out to $42,900 per ordinand.

Four of the seminaries, however, received well over $100,000 per ordinand. These same four seminaries graduated only 6 or 7 ordinands each.

• Gammon Theological Seminary – $124,333 per ordinand
• Iliff School of Theology – $128,054
• Claremont School of Theology – $143,840
• Boston School of Theology – $148,839

The amount received in one year by each of these four seminaries would undoubtedly be enough to pay for the entire three-year seminary education of each ordinand. However, money given to the seminary is not credited directly to students who are ordained. They would receive some of that money indirectly as scholarships and through reduced tuition, but they would typically pay their own tuition (minus scholarships and aid) and usually graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of educational debt.

It is a serious question whether the current or foreseeable enrollment at our seminaries is enough to justify 13 schools supported by the church. It appears that a certain critical mass of students is necessary to sustain both quality and efficiency in our theological education process. Schools with enrollments yielding more than 40 graduating ordinands per year (Duke, Candler, Perkins, and Garrett-Evangelical) provided that education for less than $30,000 in 2011 for each ordinand. Schools with enrollments yielding 20-40 graduating ordinands per year (Wesley, St. Paul, and United) provided that education for less than $50,000. Schools with enrollments yielding 10-20 graduating ordinands per year (Drew and Methesco) provided that education for under $63,000 for each ordinand. But the four schools with the smallest enrollment yielding fewer than 10 graduating ordinands per year (Iliff, Boston, Gammon, and Claremont) cost the church over $124,000 last year per ordinand.

When the enrollment drops and there are fewer than 10 graduating ordinands per year, the cost more than doubles. This is an issue of stewardship and wise investment that needs to be looked at.

A change in the formula

Because of the concerns that have been raised in the past about this discrepancy in financial support between different seminaries, the University Senate has changed the formula for allocating aid, beginning in 2012. Under the new formula, 65 percent of the seminary support money is to be allocated based on how many United Methodist candidates for ministry are enrolled and how many are ordained.

The new formula definitely results in more equitable distribution of church funds to the seminaries. Among the nine largest seminaries, the difference between highest and lowest cost under the old formula was $36,000. Under the new formula, the difference is only $22,000.

What we see, however, is that once there are under 10 ordinands, under either formula the cost nearly doubles.

Candler School of Theology (Atlanta) and Duke Divinity School (Durham, NC) both average more than 50 ordinands per year. Perkins School of Theology (Dallas) averages more than 40. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) and Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC) both average more than 30. St. Paul School of Theology (Kansas City) averages more than 20. All six of these schools under the new formula will receive between $30,761 and $36,315 per ordinand, a very equitable distribution of apportionment money. (The lone exception is Wesley, which is receiving over $43,000 per ordinand, probably based on some other factor in the formula.)

Methodist Theological School (Delaware, OH), Drew University Theological School (Madison, NJ), and United Theological Seminary (Dayton, OH) all average between 14 and 19 ordinands per year. The money they receive is substantially higher than the first group under the new formula—$43,389 to $59,819 per ordinand.

The third group of seminaries all average fewer than 10 ordinands per year. They are Iliff School of Theology (Denver, CO), Boston School of Theology, Gammon Theological Seminary (Atlanta), and Claremont School of Theology (Claremont, CA). Under the new formula, they will receive between $80,613 and $102,903. (Claremont is a special case. In 2011 it received $143,840 per ordinand. But they had only six ordinands in 2011, compared to their four-year average of nine. In addition, they received the largest cut in apportionment money for 2012 at 39 percent, which brings their share more in line at $58,262 per ordinand.)

The Seminaries Respond

Ultimately, the seminaries realize that in order to survive and thrive in today’s educational climate, they need to attract more students. Several of the schools are going about this in novel ways. (These are just the examples I am aware of.)

United Theological Seminary is reemphasizing its Evangelical United Brethren roots and just launched a joint program with Aldersgate Renewal Ministries exploring the “Foundations for Methodist Supernatural Ministry.” This was preceded by a move to a new, larger campus. Over the past four years, enrollment has reportedly increased from a low of 50 students to now 600. The increased enrollment will undoubtedly show up in an increase in ordinands. (The 20 ordained in 2011 was already higher than their four-year average of 14.)

St. Paul School of Theology has recently taken the decision to sell their campus and move to a facility at nearby Church of the Resurrection, the largest UM congregation in the country. By downsizing their facility, they hope to free up more money for instructional programs. By relocating to the campus of the largest congregation, one of Methodism’s fastest-growing, they hope to make use of strategic partnerships with the congregation and staff that will enhance the value of the education they offer. Ultimately, of course, they hope these steps will increase enrollment.

Claremont School of Theology recently received a gift of $50 million to set up an interfaith university (now called Claremont Lincoln University) to train clerics from the Christian faith, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and others all under one institutional roof. Their approach is based on the premise that “students gain a deeper understanding of their own faith when educated in the presence of religious diversity.” Based on statements by the school’s president, Rev. Dr. Jerry Campbell, it is easy to construe that Claremont’s underlying philosophy is that, while Christianity may be the best road for some, all faiths are equal and all faiths equally lead to God.  It remains to be seen whether the seminary can preserve the integrity of United Methodist principles and doctrine under this new approach.

The changing economical and educational climate is prompting creative thinking and innovation that could bring about a better approach to theological education within The United Methodist Church. There are similar developments taking place in Europe and Africa to expand the options available for training pastors to serve the churches there. Seminaries in Europe are experimenting with night classes for students working during the day. On both continents, seminaries are developing short-term intensive courses that allow students to attend classes in concentrated blocks of a week or two and then spend the rest of their time in work or ministry, similar to the approach taken toward local pastors in the U.S. in the Course of Study program. Seminaries on both continents face the challenge of adapting seminary-level education to multiple languages and wide differences in terms of how prepared students are for graduate-level education. Amid all these challenges and experiments, it is true that our dollars go a lot farther in providing theological education in less-developed countries. We get more “bang for our buck” there.

In this country, an increasing percentage of pastoral leaders are not seminary-trained, ordained clergy, but local pastors who attend the Course of Study over a period of five to eight years. The National Hispanic Plan relies on lay “missioners” who remain laity while serving the church.These persons are closest to the “lay pastors” and circuit riders whom Wesley and Asbury assigned to provide pastoral leadership in the congregations of the 18th century. Wesley gave them a reading list and even a published library to further their studies, while giving them 44 Standard Sermons to inform and undergird their preaching. What we do today is more sophisticated, but it follows the same model. It is also much less expensive than a full-blown seminary degree. Local pastors in our churches today provide pastoral leadership that in many cases is as effective as that provided by ordained elders. How does this development inform our understanding of theological education?

Questions Asked

In the midst of all the innovation and creativity, there are many complex questions to ask:

1. Are the innovations leading United Methodist seminaries to adhere more closely to the basic doctrines and practices of historic Methodism, or are they moving the schools more in the direction of a multi-denominational or even interfaith approach that leaves behind Methodism’s distinctives?

2. Are the changes producing pastors who are more effective in ministering in the current cultural climate and in leading churches to real disciple-making?

3. What is the best use of declining denominational funds to provide effective leadership for a global church? Is there a point at which we say that The United Methodist Church cannot afford to support 13 denominational seminaries? Should we use more of our resources to support theological education and leadership training in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, where the church is actually growing and the need for trained leaders is more acute?

4. Since hundreds of United Methodist students are choosing to attend non-United Methodist seminaries, what can be learned from those schools that can help make UM schools more attractive to our students? Or should the University Senate continue to take non-United Methodist seminaries off of the “approved” list, reducing student choice and forcing more UM students to attend UM seminaries?

5. Should more denominational funds be given to support the students and reduce their debt, regardless of which seminary they attend, or should those funds continue to be used to support mainly United Methodist institutions to keep them alive?

There is a case to be made for heavily subsidizing Gammon Theological Seminary as a unique African-American institution that contributes something to theological education that no other institution in our church can. At the same time, Gammon students already have access to Candler School of Theology courses, professors and resources through a consortium. Allowing for the complexities of the situation, aren’t there better ways for Candler and Gammon – institutions only seven miles apart – to work together for the educational needs of United Methodist seminarians?

There is a case to be made for heavily subsidizing Claremont and/or Iliff as the only UM seminaries in the Western Jurisdiction. However, it appears that most Western ministerial students elect to attend a school other than Claremont or Iliff. What could be learned to help those schools become better able to meet the educational needs of students from the West? Is the potential ministerial student population from the West so small that we cannot afford to maintain two or even one dedicated UM seminary in that jurisdiction? Would our denominational resources be better spent to establish United Methodist departments in a number of compatible theological seminaries throughout the Western Jurisdiction?

We have approached the question of the future of our United Methodist seminaries initially through the framework of money. Diminishing financial resources or lack of money has a way of focusing the debate over priorities and strategies—in a denomination no less than in a household budget. But as one can see from the questions above, the issues go far deeper than money.

Our basic question is: How can we provide the best education for effective pastoral leadership for our church in the 21st century? If only 15 percent of our congregations are “highly vital,” it follows that as many as 85 percent of our clergy are currently less than highly effective. How can we upgrade the skills and effectiveness of our current clergy and assure a steady supply of highly effective leaders for the future? The seminaries will play a large part in the answer to that question. We should all be engaged partners in the discussion to design a new framework for theological education. The future of our church depends on it!

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.