Theologcial Life Support

During our recent trip to India, an eager young theologian handed me a brochure describing his theological seminary.  The material noted with some pride that the school would graduate four students in 2012.

“Wow, that’s small,” I thought to myself.  But then I self-corrected:  “Wait a minute.  We’ve got some United Methodist schools of theology that aren’t much bigger than that these days.”

It’s true.  Of the thirteen official United Methodist Seminaries almost half have perilously small enrollments.  Good News magazine has done a thorough study examining the cost to the denomination to educate prospective pastors.  I have included the entire article below; please know that the term “ordinand” refers to a seminary student on the path to ordination within the United Methodist Church.  Even the smallest of these schools educates students from other denominations as well as Methodists pursuing a theological career that won’t necessarily involve ordination.

Yet the numbers — and the cost to all of us who give to local Methodist congregations — are shocking.

Why does this matter to me?  (And some of you probably know where this is going . . . )

Because Asbury Seminary is not a denominationally-owned school and as such receives no denominational dollars — yet it educates more United Methodist pastors than the top four UM schools combined.  It currently has an overall enrollment of 1,800 — a number the official schools can hardly fathom.  Asbury’s commitment to historic orthodoxy distinguishes it from the official 13 who have long capitulated to the whims of theological liberalism.

Now: I don’t believe Asbury should advocate for UM money as its independence is a critical part of its strength. 

Yet I do believe, as the article below suggests, that we Methodists ought to think long and hard about providing life support to system of theological education that is crumbling under its own weight.

In some cases, it might be time to pull the plug.

Here’s the research from Good News:

Would You Spend $149,000 For One Seminary Graduate?

That is what The United Methodist Church did in 2011.

According to statistics released this week by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the 13 official United Methodist seminaries received a total of $14,459,694 in Ministerial Education Fund money 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 received $124,333 per ordinand. Iliff School of Theology received $128,054. Claremont School of Theology received $143,840. Boston School of Theology led the way at $148,839 per ordinand in 2011.

The amount received by each of these four seminaries would undoubtedly be enough to pay for the entire seminary education of each ordinand. However, these same ordinands would normally pay their own tuition (minus scholarships and aid) and typically graduate with thousands of dollars of educational debt.

One of these seminaries, Claremont, recently received a gift of $50 million to set up an interfaith university to train clerics from the Christian faith, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and others all under one institutional roof. According to Claremont perspective, all faiths are equal and all faiths equally lead to God. Our contribution of $863,040 (to be reduced to $524,355 in 2012) pales into insignificance when compared to that kind of money. The question is whether the seminary preserves the integrity of United Methodist principles and doctrine.

We seriously question whether the current or forseeable 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 last year 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 last year. Schools with enrollments yielding 10-20 graduating ordinands per year (Drew and Methesco) provided that education for under $63,000 last year for each ordinand. But the four schools with the smallest enrollment yielding under 10 graduating ordinands per year (Iliff, Boston, Gammon, and Claremont) cost us over $124,000 last year per ordinand.

When the enrollment drops sufficiently to provide less 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.

On top of that comes the awareness that theological education in the central conferences is much less expensive on a per student basis. And the need for trained pastoral leadership in all the central conferences is much greater.

Good News recommends that the University Senate or another group be tasked to study the needs for theological education in the United States and the viability of our supporting 13 seminaries, with recommendations being made to the 2016 General Conference.

Good News also supports the proposal to set aside $5 million dollars from World Service apportionments to be devoted to theological education in the central conferences. We need to invest more money where it can get the greatest return and where the greatest need exists. While there may be an oversupply of ordained clergy in the U.S., there is a crying need for them in the central conferences, particularly Africa and Eurasia.

In a time of diminishing resources, let us make the best use of what we spend.

(This article appeared in the Monday, April 30 issue of Focus at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.)