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COVID-19 Shutdowns Are Shifting Seminary Education

With layoffs at Fuller and Southern, theological schools navigate financial pressures to keep training “spiritual responders.”
COVID-19 Shutdowns Are Shifting Seminary Education

Dropping enrollment. Students stressed about tuition. Professors moving classes online and offering more flexible schedules. Administrators tightening budgets and wondering how to adapt to a new paradigm for ministry.

And that was before the pandemic.

For years, evangelical seminaries have been making strategic changes to deal with trends in theological education, financial constraints, or both. Some had restructured curricula, reduced campus sites, sold property, cut budgets, and deepened partnerships with fellow ministries and churches. Across the board, they’re offering more degree programs online, and strategizing on how to train more Christian leaders more effectively.

Then the coronavirus sent those plans into overdrive.

“The way you respond to a crisis is always determined by what happened before the crisis occurs,” said Mark Young, president of Denver Seminary. “We came into this crisis with the mentality that we must continue to adapt and make theological education more accessible anyway, so our staff and faculty were already in the mode of creative change that this pandemic has already accelerated to a degree.”

Higher education is still grappling with the size and scope of the changes this crisis will bring. But seminary presidents hope that, whatever changes come, their schools will offer theological education that prepares a generation of faithful, resilient, and savvy Christian leaders.

“We are training the frontline spiritual responders. These are the people who are going to go out and provide hope and help to people,” said Ed Herrelko, spokesman for Dallas Theological Seminary. “It’s probably too early to grasp how this will change the seminary curriculum, but I think it will. This underscores the need for people who are versatile in ministry.”

It’s a lesson seminaries are trying to teach students while they themselves are living through it.

‘Risk-Takingly Faithful’

Fuller Theological Seminary has been in the big-change mindset for years, even planning to move its main campus from its home in Pasadena to a more affordable site out in the western edge of LA County. But that was canceled due to issues with the city last year, so instead of planning for a future in a new location, the evangelical seminary is now readying for a new reality.

“What’s not available to many institutions, including Fuller, is to simply presuppose that once COVID-19 is over, or once certain small changes are made, that we can more or less continue with business as usual,” said Mark Labberton, Fuller’s president. “I just have no sense whatsoever that that ’s what should be done.”

“This is a period where of course our faith becomes even more clarifying about what matters and what doesn’t matter,” Labberton told CT. “We are not an institution that’s trying to be blindly optimistic. What we’re trying to be is risk-takingly faithful.”

The coronavirus setbacks are stark and immediate. Last month, Fuller saw a 11 percent decline in registration for its spring semester—the national average is expected to be around 15 percent—and it began making furloughs and layoffs. Labberton declined to say how many faculty and staff members would be affected at this point.

Board member Andy Crouch remarked, “Fuller has been through very, very dramatic ‘surgery ’ already, and now we’re actually stronger because of that. … We’ve been through some of the grieving process. There’s actually a kind of freedom in that.”

Along with those in institutions across higher ed, seminary leaders worry about keeping up enrollment, maintaining donors, and staying financially viable. In some ways, they feel the pressure more acutely: Their students are more likely to be working and supporting a family than the typical college kid and are therefore more vulnerable to the economic downturn. Plus, seminaries have nowhere near the multibillion-dollar endowments of major universities as a cushion.

In the current “wait and see” existence, in which governments can make operational calls day by day and churches week by week, seminaries operate semester to semester. This means they ’re challenged to think faithfully and creatively about a future that’s even further into the unknown.

Budget Cuts, Lower Tuition at Southern

This spring and summer, seminary boards across the country will meet to set budgets, estimate enrollment projections, and strategize the best they can in the COVID-19 era. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary started the process this week.

One of the biggest theological schools in the country, Southern was celebrating record enrollment when the coronavirus hit. Even after seeing years of growth, though, its leaders were anticipating shifts on the horizon.

“We knew that change was coming and were planning to revise our business model over the next five to six years,” said president Albert Mohler. “The COVID-19 crisis has essentially collapsed that timeline.”

Five to six years turned into five to six weeks as the Louisville, Kentucky, school announced on Tuesday that it would be cutting its budget by 30 percent and lowering tuition fees. As Southern consolidates its operations, with everyone now learning from home, the school has made employment cuts, which Mohler said affected both “some faculty and some staff.”

Rick Staab, the chairman of Southern’s financial board, said in a statement that the circumstances required “quick and decisive action” and the administration opted to take bold steps to better position the school for the future.

For now, enrollment has held steady for the summer semester, and the seminary—as well as its undergrad institution, Boyce College—have expanded online degree options for the fall.

Mohler, who has served for 27 years as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, said for him the cause of theological education, training up the leaders to serve Christ’s church, remains for him a cause “worth fighting for” and “worth dedicating your life to.” In this crisis, he said, “I’m praying for our sister schools, that they will be able to survive, thrive, and be faithful to their mission.”

Half of the 10 largest seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools are Southern Baptist institutions. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which also enjoyed climbing enrollment, has delayed its budget approval until mid-June and applied for Payroll Protection Program funds, part of the small-business stimulus package.

As CT previously reported, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ended its archaeology program as “part of campus-wide budgetary reductions necessitated by the financial challenges associated with COVID-19.” New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary voted this week to close seven extension sites due to enrollment declines that preceded the crisis and will vote in June on a new budget for the upcoming year.

Flexible Schedules, Hybrid Learning to Stay

Once online exams and virtual commencement ceremonies are over, the next wave of announcements will detail what comes after for evangelical seminaries. Many have already extended remote learning into the summer. Fuller and Southern—the two biggest seminary programs in the country apart from Liberty University—have not yet made a decision on whether in-person classes can resume this fall.

Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has seen a slight reduction in course hours for the summer, but fall enrollment is on track, according to spokeswoman Debra Adams. The school’s board meets in May over Zoom to set its budget.

The changes that go into place for the 2020-2021 school year stand to impact seminary education long after the coronavirus has passed.

“The reality is that schools will now understand their history in terms of pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 priorities,” said David S. Dockery, past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and current president of the International Alliance for Christian Education. “We need to make sure that we all have prioritized our mission, that we understand our place in the larger educational context, and, even more importantly, that we understand our role in the work of the kingdom.”

Dockery predicts that as a result of the current changes, the academic calendar will slowly move to shorter terms to allow for greater flexibility in scheduling, and hybrid learning will become the norm.

Dallas Theological Seminary, where a majority of students were taking classes in person, moved every one of its courses online in 10 business days during its extended spring break. “That was a hurdle for a school that has been doing on-campus ministry for 95 years,” said Herrelko, who is part of a task force that meets daily to continue to evaluate the school’s response going foward. So far, enrollment numbers for summer courses, which will also be online, are only slightly lower.

Training Adaptive Leaders

But seminaries aren’t merely confronting the challenge of how to function. Many of them were technologically prepared to go fully online and, under the right budgets, can make ends meet. The bigger challenge is more existential. How do you help Christians setting out to serve in an evolving church and ministry landscape—one so dramatically reshaped by the virus?

Or as Labberton puts it: “How do you really best form students who are capable of going out and serving with the kind of a wisdom and integrity and faithfulness that’s needed, with a deep commitment to Christ and therefore a greater capacity for risk?”

For all the pastors who have quipped, “Seminary did not prepare me for this,” it’s impossible for instruction to address every specific situation, including one as unprecedented as the pandemic that has left churches empty and pastors ministering through screens, but “seminaries try to focus on those foundational ways of thinking theologically … that then allow you to make that kind of adaptive change when you’re faced with it,” Young at Denver Seminary said.

They will almost certainly require deeper collaboration among the body of Christ. Dockery, former president of Union University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and now a special consultant to the president at Southwestern, said he hopes institutions will be willing to “to look for synergies, partnerships, and networks with churches, parachurch organizations, and other like-minded institutions.”

“While it is our hope and prayer that American seminaries will see this moment as a call for reflection that leads to institutional renewal and eventual flourishing, the reality is that the challenges associated with the virus will be such that at least some of these schools will need to quickly innovate or seek merger opportunities,” he said.

Labberton described the challenge facing seminary presidents as “invigorating when it’s not terrifying.”

“I think the invigoration of it comes from saying that we worship Jesus as Lord, that none of this is outside his knowledge or grasp or concern,” he said. “We are invited in the language of the psalmist to step into a broad place, where the God who holds all things invites us not into fear but into creativity, imagination, faithfulness, boldness, and discernment.”

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