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Is the “pastor pipeline” drying up?

The Lutheran seminary system is struggling

In an age when so much feels like it is up for grabs, church institutions are feeling the pinch. Nowhere is this more evident right now than in the Lutheran “seminary system.”

Historically, Lutherans have maintained theological schools (or, in Europe, theological faculties at universities) for the training of pastors. While some denominations settle for leadership with minimal training (through “Bible colleges,” or by tapping individuals who have no formal training at all), Lutherans have always put a high premium on solid preparation for its pastoral leadership.

The Rev. Dr. Dale Meyer; photo provided by Concordia Seminary

On some campuses, students’ fees and tuition payments only amount to around 17 percent of the cost of training them.

In most if not all cases, when Lutherans formed church bodies in North America, schools for the training of pastors were always a first priority. Many of our Lutheran colleges were developed out of, and connected to, seminaries which preceded them.

Some Lutheran church colleges have begun to relax their ties with their denominations, with enrollment at most higher education institutions now under 50 percent Lutheran. Still, the seminaries have continued to receive strong denominational support.

In recent years that has begun to change.

Declining denominational support

A student who enrolled in a Lutheran seminary in the 1950s could more or less count on the “national church” underwriting the costs. There was very little expense for the student, and most of them — then all men, despite the affiliation — graduated with no debt.

Fast forward to 2013. Students typically enter seminary with a pile of college debt. Because national church support is dramatically lower than it used to be (driven in part by less support flowing to the national church from districts or synods), student tuition is now a major expense. That means graduating seminarians, facing first calls with modest salaries, leave seminary with a lot of debt and limited means for repaying it.

That reality helps to explain why fewer candidates for ordination are enrolling in Lutheran seminaries these days. There are other reasons, but cost is a big part of the picture.

Beyond taking what may sound like draconian measures to guarantee solvency, seminaries are responding to the new realities in several creative ways.

The Rev. Dr. Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, the larger of two Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) seminaries, told Metro Lutheran that the traditional “pastor pipeline” is drying up. He is talking about two things. First, Lutheran colleges and universities are sending fewer students to Lutheran seminaries these days — and, overall, seminary enrollments are going down.

Second, the decline of mainline denominations is having a domino effect. Congregations are getting smaller, the age of their members is trending older, and their contributions to “benevolence” (support for ministries outside themselves) are smaller. That means regional districts or synods send less to the national church and fewer dollars are available for seminaries.

Says Meyer, “In 1969, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod provided 44 percent of Concordia’s budget. Today, the denomination provides two percent.” (That’s right. Two percent!) Meyer adds, “Our denominational president probably thought he was saying something positive when he declared recently, ‘The good news is that support from districts will only be down by $300,000 this year.’”

New strategies of support

The story is no different in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). With eight seminaries to support, the ELCA is dealing with declining enrollments, financial challenges and a rapidly changing climate for recruiting and training pastors, and keeping the process affordable.

The Rev. Jonathan Strandjord, the ELCA’s director of theological education, told Metro Lutheran, “Every ELCA seminary’s economic model has been significantly challenged.” A part of the challenge has been the fact that, due to the recent national recession, endowments owned by the seminaries are providing less income now. The same recession has caused some generous donors to be less generous (although some have stayed the course and even increased their level of support).

Dropping enrollments hurt a seminary’s bottom line.

One of the results of the recession has been a short-term shock to the system for individual schools. Meyer reports that when he took over at Concordia in St. Louis, he inherited a multi-million-dollar deficit. “We cut 23 percent — $6 million — out of our budget. Doing it was painful. The process involved persuading some faculty to take early retirements (16 did), doing some layoffs, consolidating offices, and tapping into unrestricted bequests, something we really don’t like to do.”

Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, went through a similar process in recent years, but is now finding solid footing once again. Wartburg’s president, Dr. Stanley Olson, says, “After difficult (but wise) decisions to make staff, faculty, and program cuts five years ago, we are completing our fourth consecutive year with a positive cash balance.”

Last fall Luther Seminary in St. Paul confronted similar realities and is now in the process of downsizing its faculty and staff.

Who does — and should — pay the bills?

Beyond taking what may sound like draconian measures to guarantee solvency, seminaries are responding to the new realities in several creative ways.

All schools are now actively recruiting new students. This was not always the case, because it didn’t always seem necessary — even though some pastors and some congregations have been encouraging good candidates toward seminary for decades.

Dropping enrollments hurt a seminary’s bottom line. On some campuses, students’ fees and tuition payments only amount to around 17 percent of the cost of training them, but those dollars still matter. Says Dr. Phyllis Anderson, president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), “The financial stress we are experiencing at this time is more directly related to a decline in enrollment than it is in a decline in church support.”

All seminaries are now bolstering their enrollments by making instruction opportunities available over the Internet. Meyer says, “This solves a problem for a lot of students who can’t come to campus, but it makes a lot more work for the faculty who teach online courses.”

Seminaries are building their endowments, while recognizing the hazards of depending too heavily on them for income when the stock market takes a dive. The seminaries are all actively seeking increased financial support from individuals and congregations, and encouraging congregations to help support “their” students financially.

One LCMS pastor has created a ministry to help reduce lingering seminary debt for Missouri Synod pastors. The Rev. Ken Kruger operates a “loan repayment assistance program.” Donors contribute to a fund from which assistance is distributed to clergy still loaded up with too much seminary debt. (Information is available at www.tfcw.org.)

The ELCA has been building a “Fund for Leaders” for the past several years. Distributions from the fund provide tuition support for seminary students. Until the fund grows a lot bigger, however, a lot of ELCA seminarians won’t benefit from it.

Are mergers in the future? And, what kind?

The seminaries are looking for creative ways to partner with other institutions. Strandjord says, “Every seminary in the ELCA is involved in at least one major conversation [about] new or increased collaboration [with another institution].”

It would be premature for some seminaries to disclose the details, but two examples are already public knowledge. Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, has entered into a merger with Lenoir-Rhyne College, an ELCA school in Hickory, North Carolina. Some efficiencies of scale will benefit the seminary financially, and the university will gain access to theological faculty who can provide new educational opportunities for students at Lenoir-Rhyne.

PLTS, located in Berkeley, California, is close to finalizing a merger agreement with California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. The benefits for PLTS will be similar to those realized by Southern Seminary.

In both cases, seminary leaders are indicating that the new relationship will help a Lutheran university maintain its ELCA identity.

Concordia Seminary in St. Louis is not contemplating a merger with another institution. But, according to Meyer, the LCMS school shares some academic programs with nearby St. Louis University, and also rents some of its empty dorm space to a neighboring school. In both cases, the seminary benefits financially.

Strandjord voices a warning that applies to all Lutherans, in all of the several national church bodies. “[Current financial challenges for students and declining enrollments] are creating difficulties for seminaries. But it is the church that could end up with the much bigger problem. Current enrollment problems are happening simultaneously with a large number of clergy retirements. What we do — and fail to do — in leadership identification and preparation in the next few years is going to matter for a long time.”

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