It's closing time: Symbolic date invites press analysis of liberal Protestant seminaries

Attention religion-beat scribes: Nov. 12, 2015, carries high symbolism for “mainline” Protestantism, which for centuries exercised such broad influence over U.S. faith and culture.

On that date Andover Newton Theological School, the oldest U.S. institution for graduate-level clergy training with a 208-year history, announced it is no longer ”financially sustainable” due to falling enrollment and must sell its leafy 23-acre campus outside Boston.

The school, which has “historic” links with the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches, plans two more years of operation while it ponders two radical proposals: either relocate and merge within a larger institution (preliminary talks are under way with Yale’s Divinity School) or else switch to ministry apprenticeships with basic coursework but no full-service residential campus.

As explanatory sessions ensue with Andover Newton students on  November 17 and December 3, and with alumni on November 20, it’s a timely moment for newswriters to assess future prospects for America’s Protestant seminaries.

The ever-solid G. Jeffrey MacDonald (himself a U.C.C. minister) reports in Religion News Service that to preserve an $18 million endowment, Andover Newton is paying its bills through a mortgage line of credit. Based on an interview with Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, MacDonald says  this and seminary trauma elsewhere is “the fallout from decades of declining membership numbers in mainline denominations,” noting that their seminary enrollments have dropped 24 percent since 2005.

At Andover Newton, enrollment totalled 271 students in the last A.T.S. report. Only 40 percent were full-time and only 25 percent lived on campus, compared with the 450 full-time students a generation ago. Enrollment is 63 percent female, and the average student age is 49.

The school requires no creed of the faculty, and instead defines itself doctrinally by “core values” like integrity, innovation, openness, understanding, academic freedom and the sustainability of creation. The school emphasizes “multifaith education” and 10 percent of its students are non-Christians (variously identified as Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Muslim, agnostic or atheist). Andover Newton points to its recognition from the liberal Religious Institute as “sexually healthy and responsible,” and welcomes “our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students.”

Need a news hook? Compare Andover Newton with another Protestant school based in the Boston suburbs, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is thriving with a student head count of 2,067 including satellite campuses. [Full disclosure: the Religion Guy’s daughter is working on a master’s degree at the main campus]. This seminary was founded in 1969  through a two-way merger and purchase of a former Catholic seminary. It’s resolutely conservative, with a statement of faith that defines the Bible as “free from error,” and a campus code that upholds traditional Christian doctrines on sexual morality.

Among the nation’s major Protestant seminaries, the Southern Baptist Convention operates a sizable network. Then there’s an archipelago of interdenominational, evangelical seminaries, many of them younger than the “mainline” schools. The largest besides Gordon-Conwell, with enrollments:  Asbury (1,467), Dallas (2,084), Fuller (3,258), Reformed (1,082, with its 8th satellite opening in New York City next September), Talbot (1,105), and Trinity Evangelical (1,170). Sample enrollments for some prominent interdenominational seminaries known for liberalism: Chicago (324), Harvard (336), Union (232), Vanderbilt (233), and Yale (412).

In addition to the ideological aspect of the situation, analysts think the old model of a full-time residential seminary is becoming unsustainable and lays too much  debt on graduates who may become only part-time pastors. To save money and time,  many schools today offer “distance learning” via computer and schedule evening, weekend, or Monday classes to accommodate part-timers. There are stories to be found in those changes, as well.

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