Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary recently announced its intent to sell most, if not all, of its 102-acre campus in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, in order to try to survive financially. This would have been unthinkable even 15 years ago.
I know because 15 years ago I was its president.
A lot can happen in that length of time. Gordon-Conwell’s enrollment plummeted 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 before year end to meet the budget. That challenge apparently only grew over time as tax records show that from 2016 to 2019, the school consistently faced a year-end deficit between $600,000 and $2.4 million.
But Gordon-Conwell isn’t alone. Other well-known evangelical seminaries such as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and Fuller Theological Seminary are facing similar challenges. Earlier this year Trinity was forced to slash its budget, eliminating multiple faculty positions. In 2018, Fuller closed three of its satellite campuses along with voting to sell its property in Pasadena, California. Its financial future is again in jeopardy as its planned relocation was recently blocked.
I don’t fault the decisions of any of these institutions. I know only too well what it’s like to be handed a set of financial realities in one hand, and the expectations of students and faculty in the other. And there are many other challenges facing seminaries today, as noted by a recent article in Christianity Today magazine:
Many seminaries are facing declining enrollments with the declining birthrates and increased secularization in the US. There are about 4 million fewer people in Gen Z than in the millennial generation, and 44 percent 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 the tensions and divisions within evangelicalism… [they have] struggled to maintain the trust of churches, donors, and prospective seminarians amid polarizing arguments over race, gender, abuse, sexuality, and the fraught political choices of the 2010s and 2020s.
This is all true. Also true is what Scott Sunquist, Gordon-Conwell’s current president, assessed as a leader: “You can’t cut your way to success. Either you do something as dramatic and radical as relocation, or you make incrementalized cuts and die.”
My challenge is the deeper reason why seminaries are struggling so mightily in the current day 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 apparent to me:
Seminaries needed to offer courses and degrees online as well as in person.
Many residentially based seminaries were located in areas where the cost-of-living was high, the local government was hostile, and the demographics of growth had long moved elsewhere.
The curriculum of many seminaries was far more oriented toward pleasing the academy than serving the church and the practice of ministry.
The doctrine of the church ran weak, and large, contemporary churches in particular were deemed suspect. There was less of a partnership with the local church than there was a condescending posture of superiority and judgment.
I think it is now safe to say that any attempt to broach these areas was filled with more peril than tackling the Arminian-Calvinist debate.
I’m rooting for seminaries. I’m rooting for their presidents and boards, faculty and staff. I’m rooting most of all for the future of the Church and the decisive role theological education – and the preparation for ministry in general – needs to play in that future.
But as with many areas of challenge, there is a time when “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. It will take more than right sizing, relocations and reductions to put seminaries on solid ground. They need to rethink seminary education itself.