By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Deans of Episcopal seminaries rose July 6 to voice opposition and, in one case, qualified support for a proposal to launch an exploration of a host of issues and challenges facing theological education.
Under Resolution A007, a new committee would explore everything from collaboration among Episcopal seminaries to proliferation of non-traditional paths to ordination.
“There is a desperate need for independent institutions and independent initiatives to work interdependently and accountably,” said Lisa Kimball, associate dean of lifelong learning at Virginia Theological Seminary. “In my opinion, however, a mandated resolution that begins with the word investigationand establishes an external body is far more likely to foster skepticism, resentment, suspicion, and ultimately resistance.”
Opposition also came from the Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. She faulted the plan for being overly broad, lacking focus, and trying to compel collaboration that is already happening among Episcopal seminaries.
“It’s too broad to be workable,” Kittredge told TLC after the hearing. “The current state of theological formation is in creative flux. Everyone involved in this is adapting to the changes in the landscape of the church. And this particular resolution — even if it could centralize and focus it — is not the way to do it.”
The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, dean and president of General Theological Seminary, said a top-down approach would not lead to good results. But he said the plan might have some promise if properly modified.
“I am for the resolution as long as there are incentives,” Dunkle said. “Legislation does not work. Only incentives work to have people work together.”
Feedback on the proposed resolution came during a Committee on Ministry hearing. Speakers from a variety of institutions, including non-traditional seminaries, echoed the observation that the landscape is “in a tremendously rapid season of transition,” as Kimball said. That Episcopal Church institutions are taking steps to adapt became clear in what speakers said. But how General Convention ought to help remains a topic of spirited debate.
Dunkle disclosed Episcopal seminary enrollment figures that he said are seldom examined openly because they are “guarded like trade secrets.” He noted that a decade ago, 250 of the 400 students ordained in the Episcopal Church attended traditional residential Episcopal seminaries. Five years later, that number had dropped to 125, and by 2016-17, it had fallen to about 100.
As theological education evolves, speakers said, it serves multiple constituencies amid ever-richer options. Schools offering a traditional, three-year residential Master of Divinity program are increasingly offering alternatives designed to be less expensive and less burdensome in their relocation requirements.
Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s low-residency program, which allows students to retain homes and jobs wherever they live, began with two Anglican Studies students four years ago. Now the program counts 58 students across two tracks, Anglican Studies and Master of Divinity, said the Rev. Susanna Singer, professor of ministry development at CDSP. The program involves online education, plus one week at CDSP in January and two weeks there in the summer.
Across the Episcopal Church, Singer said, dioceses are developing context-specific education systems to fit diocesan, congregational, and individual budgets. But many would-be priests continue to find that training for Episcopal Church ministry is beyond their means.
“The people who are called to serve in small congregations are usually going to serve part-time, maybe even be non-stipendiary, and they’ll never benefit from the pension plan,” Singer said. “Yet they have to front the costs. This seems like a justice issue to us, straight up.”
To address the challenge, she has proposed Resolution A027, which would establish a committee to raise funds for non-traditional education for students intending to serve in small congregations. Applicants could use funds for whatever they need, from tuition in a part-time program to child care expenses.
“Our dream is that there will be a central fund that somebody can go to with, essentially, their individual education plan that their diocese and their bishop has approved, and their financial need stated,” Singer said. “Somebody who has to drive 200 miles each way for a local deacon training program might need gas money. That might be the tipping point for them.”