How We Got Here & Where We Could Go
Nearly every school like ours faces unprecedented, epochal, rapid, irreversible change
All across the horizon of formal, accredited, degree-based theological education (seminaries, divinity schools, or schools of theology), matters are more challenging than encouraging. Nearly every school like ours faces unprecedented, epochal, rapid, irreversible change. This isn’t simply about finances but who we teach, how we partner, and why we exist. Our employees are affected by this as well, feeling directly to blame for what we face or paralyzed about what to do next. If we are to find a way forward, though, we need to tell the truth of what is really happening, dispelling the false narratives that leave us ashamed and stuck. That’s my purpose here, in remarks I have already shared with our board and cabinet and faculty.
While no one can or should offer any simple solutions, I can sketch an accurate account of how this came to be. And the point of this analysis is to help us set aside the typical myths that entrap us so we can look clearly at things as they are, let alone what we still have the power to do differently. In short, the situation in which we find ourselves today in formal theological education is the result of three factors: developments in broader society, changes in the religious landscape, and the impact of both of these on theological education in particular.
The developments in broader society started long ago but are keenly felt today. It began with growing secularization and its many effects on how we regard our world. In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor put it this way: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” Taylor did not mean some religious decline but a changed worldview, an inability to perceive mystery or holiness in our world. Lacking any numinous dimension, ours is a “what you see is what you get” reality. All is exactly as it seems, nothing more. Left to our own devices in an “imminent frame” of our own making, we are responsible for it all – including the blame.
Consider that worldview in light of so many systems failures today: environment, nutrition, health, discourse, stability, education, and so on. Challenges in such areas were named long ago but still persist, feeding our fecklessness and despair. The main result is rapid deinstitutionalization, a staggering mistrust that what once led to thriving can work for us any longer. Whether as families, charities, schools, businesses, or governments, institutions that once led to shared aims are under suspicion, the remedy now seen as the problem. All this is compounded by a widening inequity gap in resources, access, voice, and potential, further alienating us. To use a single form of inequity, vast income disparity alone leads many to say the game is rigged.
At one time, we gained a sense of personal identity and meaning through associations, groups to which we belonged who ascribed to us value and purpose. In a flat, secular reality strewn with broken institutions, though, this now rarely happens. Instead, we learn who we are through our achievement and performance, what we attain or display in disparate parts of our lives. The result is personal identity that is shallow, shifting, fragmented, and unreliable. We scramble to know who we are or how to be with others, amplifying our isolation and doubt. But if you cannot trust anyone besides yourself, you have nowhere to turn when things go wrong. All of this exerts pressure on the next factor we face, the nature of believing and belonging.
The changes in the religious landscape also reflect a history, one we can see already in the 1970s. Tracked by the crude measure of survey responses about participation, religious adherence in America has declined in the last half-century for every group but a few. And the exceptions are due to birthrates or immigration, neither being overtly religious factors, and which even then only let these few groups hold steady in size. The fabled days of religious force in civic life is long past and may have existed only as a brief aberration. For example, today 68% of Americans claim a religious affiliation, but a century ago this stood at 52%, after the Civil War at 35%, and during the Revolution at 17%. The role of religion in America is not predominant.
As many know, there is one group of survey respondents that has grown during the last fifty years – those disaffiliated from any religious group. The proportion of these respondents doubled with each generation since the 1970s and now stands at 32%. Some overtly reject faith claims, being atheists or agnostics (6% each). The responses of the rest, though, are just a passive claim that no religious affiliation fits them – the 20% often called the “nones.” They do not reject believing, religious organizations, or spiritual practices, but instead think no available label fits. Interestingly, in light of my earlier remarks, these respondents often stand apart from institutions of all kinds, alienated from a range of social or economic supports.
The impact of such societal and religious forces on a denomination like the ELCA is clear. Declining membership and growing religious disaffiliation mean that our church is starved from bottom to top – for support, talent, vision, or the next generation. Atop this, institutional mistrust can foster a corrosive social setting in which a credible religious voice or presence is muted if not rejected, since all institutional forms are suspect. Facing fewer resources within and limited impact without, denominations then typically turn inward to structural or administrative strategies that solve little and deplete further. Lost in this freefall is attention to our own identity, voice, or value, a distinctive way of life that potential adherents might welcome.
The impact of all this on theological education has been sobering. Seminaries were designed long ago, largely for a different purpose. We were meant for a society that presumed divine mystery. We were meant for a church that had an established place. We were meant to shape leaders for that church embedded in that society, and we knew how to do that. But the task has changed and the old ways no longer work. When LSTC was formed in 1962, church support and personal gifts (no tuition, no endowment) used to balance annual expenses, barely. Today, though, our work requires multiple revenue and expense streams unimagined back then, leaving us vulnerable, inflexible, and flawed by repeating past patterns and practices. It is a recipe for collapse.
Nor are we shielded from wider forces, but buffeted by waves of societal, economic, political, and legal pressure that affect everyone in higher education. Key regulative changes or philanthropic trends (to name just two) far exceed our ecclesial ambit and yet can deeply impact even the most well-meaning, well-run school. More haunting than these external forces, we have persisted in offering a dated leadership package that does not fully attend to the church’s emerging needs. Both within LSTC and across the ELCA, we have not been leaders. We still mainly train managers for local church franchises, not for innovative approaches, rethinking structures, or hybrid gatherings. We are not showing our church how to change and thrive in the world.
No wonder that ELCA seminary graduation and enrollment figures declined in the past fifteen years – from 278 graduates and 1,241 enrolled in 2007, to 101 graduates and under 700 enrolled in 2019. We are not alone in this. Among all seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, fall 2023 enrollment figures showed 55% of member schools with lower enrollment than the year before, a trend that has held constant for the past decade. And even if we were all holding steady, would we be offering the wisdom and skills needed for a changing church? Would we be reaching a group of learners reflective of our complex society? Would we be giving access to all those eager to learn but still left out, within or beyond the church?
That’s the challenge before us: to rethink our formational mission so we reach more learners, more diverse learners, and with the learning they will truly need. Wallowing in guilt about why this didn’t happen sooner won’t help, either. After all, the changes we face are unprecedented, epochal, rapid, irreversible…and in large measure, not our fault. What would be inexcusable is not changing now. And we have done harder things than this. We must quickly become a school whose wide access and welcome creates a place for forming a new kind of church – focused on discipleship not membership, led with empowerment not control, driven by curiosity not conformity, open to every new way the Spirt will call and gather and send.