Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary recently announced plans to sell most, if not all, of its 102-acre campus in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, in an attempt to survive financially. This would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.
I know this because 15 years ago I was its president.
A lot can happen during this time. Gordon-Conwell enrollment dropped from 1,230 full-time equivalent students in 2012 to 633 in 2021. When I assumed full fiduciary responsibility as president in 2006, I learned that we needed to raise 1 million dollars before the end of the year to stay within budget. This challenge has apparently only increased over time, as tax records show that from 2016 to 2019, the school consistently faced a year-end deficit of between $600,000 and $2.4 million. dollars.
But Gordon-Conwell is not alone. Other well-known evangelical seminaries such as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and Fuller Theological Seminary face similar challenges. Earlier this year, Trinity was forced to cut its budget, eliminating several faculty positions. In 2018, Fuller closed three of its satellite campuses and voted to sell its property in Pasadena, California. His financial future is again in jeopardy as his planned relocation has recently been blocked.
I do not blame the decisions of any of these institutions. I know all too well what it is like to be handed a set of financial realities on the one hand and student and faculty expectations on the other. And there are many other challenges facing seminaries today, as noted in a recent article in Christianity today magazine:
“Many seminaries are facing declining enrollment with declining birth rates and increasing secularization in the United States. There are approximately 4 million fewer people in Gen Z than in Millennials. , and 44% of those born after 1996 do not identify with a religious tradition.Only about a quarter of those under 26 attend a religious service once a week or more.
“Evangelical seminaries are also grappling with tensions and divisions within evangelicalism… [they have] struggled to maintain the trust of churches, donors and future seminarians amid polarizing arguments about race, gender, abuse, sexuality and the difficult political choices of the 2010s and 2020s.”
All of this is true. It’s also true what Scott Sunquist, the current president of Gordon-Conwell, assessed as a leader: “You can’t smash your way to success. Either you do something as dramatic and drastic as relocation, or you make incremental cuts and die.
My challenge is the underlying reason why seminaries are struggling so mightily these days because increased secularization alone does not explain the widespread decline in seminary enrollment. When I became president of Gordon-Conwell, there were several challenges facing all seminaries that seemed obvious to me:
- The seminaries were to offer courses and degrees online as well as in person.
- Many residential seminaries were located in areas where the cost of living was high, the local government was hostile, and the growth demographics had long since shifted elsewhere.
- The curriculum of many seminaries was much more oriented to the enjoyment of the academy than to church service and ministry practice.
- Church doctrine was weak, and large contemporary churches in particular were considered suspect. There was less a partnership with the local church than there was a condescending posturing of superiority and judgment.
I think it is now safe to say that any attempt to address these areas was fraught with more perils than addressing the Arminian-Calvinist debate.
I’m rooted for seminars. I support their presidents and boards of directors, their professors and their staff. Above all, I root for the future of the church and the decisive role that theological education – and preparation for ministry in general – must play in that future.
But as in many areas of challenge, there is a time when “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. It will take more than proper sizing, relocations and downsizing to put seminars on solid footing. They must rethink seminary education itself.
As I have written before, there are things seminaries can do to win back the attention of students and the confidence of the churches that send them. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Opt for hybrid education models, offering in-person and online courses and degrees. See this as the new normal.
- Actively seek out pastors and listen to what they think a seminary education should offer those they might send on their way. In other words, listen to the customer.
- Embrace the contemporary Church instead of being threatened by it. Rather than seminaries seen as places diametrically opposed to all new wineskins, may the seminary be at the forefront of cutting-edge thinking related to the practice of ministry in a post-Christian world.
- Working collaboratively with churches to provide seminary education, which means letting the church truly contribute to that education in a way that only the church can. Seminaries should work with churches to introduce seminary teaching into the local church.
- Help faculty and staff realize that they primarily serve not the academy but the local church, and pray for appropriate passion among faculty for this purpose.
- Ruthlessly evaluate the program in light of what it tries most to do, which is to prepare men and women for vocation ministry. Yes, teach the Nicene Council, but also teach how to lead a council in the church.
- Lose theological agendas, but instead teach divergent viewpoints within historical orthodoxy with fairness, building faculties with robust diversity within the framework of evangelical thought. Translation: A pastor should feel comfortable sending his Arminian-leaning student as much as a Calvinist.
Again, I’m rooting for seminars. I think the seminary presidents are doing their best with the cards that’s been given to them. But that’s the problem – the cards.
It may be time to reshuffle the cards.
James Emery White
Daniel Silliman, “Gordon-Conwell to Sell Main Campus, Move to Boston,” Christianity todayMay 17, 2022, read online.
Frederick Schmidt, “Navigating the Decline of American Seminaries”, PatheosMay 17, 2022, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.