Father Anonymous at Magdalene’s Egg recently posted about faculty changes at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, which will shortly be completing its merger with Lenoir-Rhyne University. In the process of the merger, three faculty members will be leaving, their positions being eliminated.

A little background is in order for any who may not be familiar with these institutions. Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) is one of the eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It is located in Columbia, South Carolina. It has a history going back to 1830. Founded in 1891, Lenoir-Rhyne University is located in Hickory, North Carolina. It is a college of the ELCA. Facing financial pressures, Southern Seminary is merging with and becoming the graduate theological school of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

A comment on Fr. Anonymous’s blog points readers to a letter from the outgoing president and board chair of LTSS. It provides some institutional history and background to both the merger and the decisions to reduce the faculty size. (The letter can be found at http://www.ltss.edu/public/files/docs/Letter_to_LTSS_Constituents_062512.pdf.)

One item from that letter that stood out for me was a statement that, since 2008, support from the ELCA for the programs of LTSS has declined by 30%. I find that amount of reduction in support from the church alarming. In my estimation, among many other pieces of information, that should stand out as the most significant in the letter.

Seminary Support and the ELCA Budget

At the risk of causing eyes to gloss over with numbers and percentages, let’s take a look at some ELCA churchwide budget figures. The budget proposed to the 2011 Churchwide Assembly called for non-World Hunger expenses of nearly $61.8 million. Of that amount, a mere $3.5 million was designated to seminary support. That comes to approximately 5.66% of the budgeted expenses. Is this really all that our church can do in this vital and crucial area? It seems to me that budgeting priorities are significantly out of whack if we are devoting less than 6% to educating our church’s future pastors, a matter which should be one of the primary purposes of a denominational church body.

In comparison, other core purposes receive larger (but probably still inadequate)  portions of the churchwide budget. Slightly less than $5.9 million is allocated to support and establish new congregations. Another $2.5 million is given over to grants for renewing congregations as “renewed evangelizing congregations.” New congregation support accounts for 9.64% of the total non-World Hunger expenses in that proposed 2012 budget. Support and grants for new and renewing congregations accounts for 13.8% of the budget. Similar budget levels are given to missionary personal and support in the ELCA’s global missions program. Approximately $8.1 million was proposed to support these endeavors, which accounts for 13.1% of budget.  In addition, the church spends significantly more on “Directors of Evangelical Mission” (nearly $6.1 million, 9.83% of budget) in each synod than it does on support for seminary education of future pastors, the very people whose roll includes in no small part the doing, supporting, and encouraging of evangelical mission in the congregations they will serve.

Why can’t a similar portion be given to seminary support, at minimum? Apart from theological matters of ecclesiology, the nature and purpose of the church, I would identify three main pragmatic purposes for a denominational church structure: provide for the training, formation, and education of clergy to server the ministerial needs of its members and congregations, support programs of domestic missions, and support programs of global missions. Everything else beyond the minimum needed to provide for the basic governance and oversight of the church body falls into the “it would be nice” category. We should really strive for these three central purposes, on the church body level, to be around two-thirds to three-quarters of the budget.

System Broken

When I was growing up, not all that long ago, most of the clergy in the later parts of their ministry career recalled that they paid no tuition (or very little tuition) to attend seminary. They paid for room and board, books, and the incidentals of life, but the education was paid fully by the church. I’m told that seminaries did then to have large “development” staffs or spend significant money on fundraising, something that is now quite essential for the survival of these institutions.

Frankly, we should, no, we need to go back to this arrangement. We send our pastors out into parishes where they will often be paid relatively little. All the while, because of the costs of college education and tuition and other costs at the seminary, these pastors also arrive with educational debts between significant and massive. The financial stress this puts on pastors, their families, and congregations is not insignificant and hinders ministry and mission. Add to that the financial stress seminaries experience, and it becomes clear that the present system is not working.

Eight Is More than Enough

This is compounded by the number of seminaries the ELCA maintains. Eight is too many and not sustainable. We have maintained them because they each of a history with predecessor institutions, regional and theological constituencies, and the like. But that really can’t continue to justify so many institutions with duplicated administrative structures (at the very least). As a church, from local congregations to the ELCA as an institutional entity, we cannot afford to maintain this number of seminaries indefinitely. We need to close or merge many of them. I believe this is long overdue. Even absent of the admittedly unlikely possibility that the ELCA will fully fund seminary budgets, the number of seminaries we maintain must be reduced.

Many options and configurations could be considered in doing this. I offer my suggestion below, based primarily on geography and Lutheran distribution, as a way of being concrete instead of merely general. Certainly, a careful process of determining a configuration would also look to financial considerations, facilities, and especially fulfillment of the educational mission of a seminary program. And so, I offer a starter proposal:

  1. Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minnesota), Wartburg Theological Seminary (Dubuque, Iowa), and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (Chicago, Illinois) should merge into one school. If a merger is not possible, two of those schools should be closed. A merged institution should make decisions on the basis of educational and financial considerations on how many campuses to maintain.
  2. Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) should be merged. Again the merged institution would decide based on financial and educational grounds (and maybe historical considerations as well) the future of those two campuses.
  3. Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio) should close. Two alternatives to closure might be available. It could merge with either the Midwestern seminary or the Pennsylvania seminary. Or it could merge with Capital University, with whom it has partial common history and shared environs, along the lines of the arrangement of LTSS with Lenoir-Rhyne University. If a merger with Capital is chosen, careful and sober evaluation of its costs and place in the church would need to be made regularly.
  4. Had Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary not already made the choice to merge with Lenoir-Rhyne University, that school would have also been listed here for closure. The enrollment declines sited in the letter linked above are concerning, but the new arrangement might provide stability in finances, enrollment, and in educational mission. If that can be achieved, it is a good thing. Never-the-less, as noted above with Trinity, careful evaluation of the seminary must be regularly undertaken. Merger with another educational institution may not be enough to save the school or justify a seminary in every region of the country.
  5. Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (Berkley, California) would remain open. It is the only one of the ELCA seminaries west of the Mississippi. (Dubuque is on the western banks of the great river, so technically it may be west of the river, but just barely.) It must, of course, be a variable institution to remain open, but geography suggests an interest in keeping it amongst a reduced number of schools. If needed reduction in costs or improved financial stability should necessitate it, merger with either Pacific Lutheran University in Washington or California Lutheran University in southern California might be considered.

This would leave the ELCA with between 3 and 5 theological seminaries (with possibly a couple schools on two or more campuses). But that number of schools would be easier to support and reduce duplication of administrative work required to run an institution. Beyond that, I would think it socially beneficial to the church to concentrate the education of our pastors in fewer schools. More of our pastors going forward would know one another over broader regions of the country, which should help to strengthen relationships within the ELCA, its synods, and between congregations.

It’s for Mission and Ministry. It’s at the Heart of the Church.

Finally, given the financial constraints that so many of our seminaries find themselves laboring under, LTSS being but one example of the many issues the seminaries face, and the declining budgets of so many church bodies, keeping eight seminaries in the ELCA isn’t a the best way to provide for and serve the mission and ministry of the church. It is simply too much institutional baggage. Fewer institutions will allow the resources we have available to be utilized in better and more efficient ways to provide for the church’s ministry, serve it’s mission, and meet the challenges the church and its seminaries face in the context in which that ministry and mission must be carried out. Doing something about seminary support, and the number of institutions we try to support, would be a step toward mission, not a pulling back from it.

No matter how many seminaries we support in the ELCA, no matter how many campuses we maintain, the support for the seminaries is spread too thin and much, much too small. We aren’t adequately and rightly supporting the church’s ministry and mission when such a small percentage of the church’s budget is devoted to this important and necessary component that no congregation or synod can do on its own. That less than 6% of our churchwide budget is all that the budget can afford is shameful. A reordering of priorities is in order, one that will see both a reduction in the number of seminaries and, more importantly, an increase in the percentage of the budget supporting the formation, training, and education of pastors whose vocation and work is essential to what is at the heart of what and who the church is: the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments.