Beyond the seminary with its specialized function is the church’s ministry in higher education through historically church-related colleges, chaplaincies and various kinds of campus ministries. Unfortunately, the Presbyterian Church has beat a steady retreat from the nation’s campuses over the past generation with devastating results. Only a small proportion of students in higher education today are served by campus ministry of any kind — mainline or parachurch.
And so we face a growing crisis as Presbyterians, because our intellectual well is running dry. Having lost any significant input on the nation’s campuses in a climate of growing secularism, having failed to work together with our seminaries especially in the area of student recruitment, we have a significant ministerial shortage which will not soon be alleviated.
The consequence for seminaries is a shrinking leadership pool for the key administrative and teaching positions as well as for the boards that govern the institutions.
The most important elements defining the identity and success of a seminary in terms of its usefulness to the church are the board, president and faculty — in that order. But, as stated in last week’s editorial, the church has only nominal influence in these all-important decisions.
Thus the only way the church can really influence the direction of the theological educational enterprise is through what is given or withheld. While the church cannot directly influence policy-making (and in light of the Southern Baptist experience the dangers are self-apparent if influence were more direct), it can vote with its dollars, and by either directing its students to these seminaries or others.
Increasingly, Presbyterian seminaries are training non-Presbyterian students. Of their Presbyterian graduates, a smaller percentage enters the ministry; and of those who enter, many do not last beyond the first five years as pastors. On the other hand, many congregations that produce numerous candidates steer them away from the PC(USA) schools to institutions more to their liking.
Thus the need for seminaries, churches and governing bodies to work together self-consciously — in student recruitment and placement, fund raising and financial support, faculty recruitment, support and church involvement — has reached a critical level.
Official and unofficial efforts are under way in various parts of the church to address each aspect of this enormous problem, attempting to knit back together churches and seminaries, colleges and campus ministries, toward the end of enlisting the most capable persons possible for the Presbyterian ministry, giving them the best training possible, and offering lifetime vocational support so as to retain them in the ministry.
It would be wonderful if there were an overall 10-year plan to accomplish these ends, but such a plan will not be developed and even if it were, it would not be implemented because power is so dispersed in our system.
Thus, it will be up to leaders in each arena to give their best thinking to reinventing the theological educational enterprise for the 21st century and finding the resources to sustain it, and for allies to come together in coalitions.
If this does not happen, we will see further drift of the seminaries from the church — and vice versa — and increasing reliance on non-Presbyterian seminaries, and even, in some cases, efforts to found new seminaries to fulfill the functions abandoned by the existing ones.
One would hope that would not be necessary.
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