We should close some seminaries and refocus the ones we have left

A few months ago at our congregation’s all-church retreat, I had a chance to talk with keynoter Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, about the future of theological education.


I posted some of what he told me on my daily “Faith Matters” blog, but our conversation has been rolling around in my head since then and I want to share with you some conclusions toward which I’m working.


First, as he noted, “In 5 or 10 years there won’t be as many seminaries. I think there will be quite a few seminaries that don’t end up making it.” So in a denomination that’s been losing members for decades, now is the time to determine which seminaries need to die. Let’s not waste valuable resources on life-support.


I have no idea which seminaries those would be, but in consultation with our mainline siblings surely we can determine how to consolidate wisely. Such mainline conversation is important because our PC(USA) seminaries are teaching not just Presbyterians. At McCormick, for instance, only about one-third of the students are Presbyterians. So there’s room for cooperation among mainliners.


The other part of what Yamada told me that needs denomination-wide attention is how our seminaries are training pastors for the church that’s coming, not the church that used to be.


Think about the PC(USA)’s laudable effort to create 1,001 new worshipping communities. These may be small groups that start meeting in homes, coffee shops or even bars. They need entrepreneurial leadership that’s flexible and has high-tech skills to draw spiritually hungry people together even when such folks can’t articulate that hunger and have no idea that what they really need is the Gospel.


As Yamada said, “ … there still are a number of seminaries that continue to train people to serve the church as it existed for a good part of the 20th century.”


And, of course, we still need well-trained pastors to serve traditional churches, though even there we require pastors who grasp how radically the context of many congregations has changed in the last 50 years. If they don’t understand that, they’ll continue to think they can just open the doors to the church building and expect people to come in, sit in rows of pews and listen to organ music on Sunday morning.


That’s a formula that will lead congregations to need hospice care.


Before more seminaries require that kind of care, let’s get our best minds together and carefully think through what theological education should look like in the coming years. And as we do that, can we also remember that our ruling elders and deacons also need such education if they are to make sense of their calling? After all, like pastors, they promise to serve the church with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” Let’s help them unpack what that means.


In that way, we may give seminaries a revised calling. In fact, seminaries should be seeking ways to extend the reach of their resources into every pew — not so we can bore newcomers with discussions of soteriology, but so we can better know why we serve Christ in a wounded world.


BILL TAMMEUSis an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at about his latest book at E-mail him at