A perhaps too-hasty embrace of change

We may be seeing a new model for how mainline Protestant denominations structure seminary training. And it’s happening — with some bruised feelings and a few missteps — where I live, in Kansas City, Mo.


The board of St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary that opened in 1959, has agreed to leave its campus four miles east of downtown and move to the large suburban grounds of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR), a phenomenally successful congregation that started with a handful of members in 1990 and now attracts more than 15,000.


As the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of COR and, until recently, St. Paul’s board chair, told me: “ … the model the board was looking at was the medical school-teaching hospital model where students are trained in rigorous academic work, and then head to the hospital room to both watch practitioners at work and to engage in the practice of medicine themselves.”


Practical ministry training isn’t new, of course. Nearly all seminarians do field work as part of their education. But having the seminary on the grounds of a mega-church may create a different and perhaps helpful dynamic, though the jury will be out on that for several years. And already there are doubters.


For Presbyterian seminaries, the St. Paul story offers both a possible different seminary model as well as reasons for caution about adopting it.


Why caution? Well, as the politicians say, mistakes were made. First, the vote to move to COR surprised many people, and the bishops who serve on the board later wrote a letter apologizing for their failure to have more open communications, though reaffirming a commitment to completing the move.


Quite a few former faculty members, board members and graduates have written letters of complaint, raising questions about the need for the move and the way it was handled. A “Save Saint Paul School of Theology” Facebook page was created to air some of these grievances and seek answers.


And there’s been considerable concern among many Kansas Citians about how St. Paul’s vacated campus might get reused. It’s in a part of the city that has seen decline over the years, and St. Paul’s presence has been helpful in slowing that. It’s uncertain whether the school can find another group willing to take on the campus St. Paul’s board says it no longer can afford to maintain and operate.


b-tammeus.jpgI’ve said here before that it’s time to rethink both seminary education and ordination. And I still believe that.


But as we Presbyterians think about this matter, let’s learn both the good and the bad that is emerging from St. Paul’s experience — and from trouble at a Lutheran seminary in St. Paul, Minn.


Almost any change is difficult. But we’d do well not to repeat mistakes others have made — mistakes that make change much more troublesome than it need be.


BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and for- mer Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at Read about his latest book. E-mail him at