Why Theopolis?

Why Theopolis? Don’t we already have seminaries and Bible colleges and other institutions for theological education? Why do we need another one?

I get this question now and again. I ask myself this question even more often. What follows is a partial answer.

Back in the 1990s, seminaries seemed to be thriving. A 1994 cover piece in Christianity Today reported, “In 1992, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) reported a 9.8 percent enrollment increase over 1991, the largest single increase ever recorded. There was a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 46,400 students in more than 210 institutions. This fall, at least one school reports a 20 percent increase in 1994-95 total enrollment over the previous academic year. Other institutions around the country say they have similarly healthy programs.”

Overall, the article’s thrust was in the opposite direction. The author, Timothy Morgan, cited experts who were “sounding the alarm that seminaries face a ‘crisis of credibility.’ They say seminaries are in danger of ‘downsizing’ faculties, programs, and institutions, and are faced with unexpected competition for theological training-the local church itself.” Others warned that seminaries were losing the clarity of their vision and a sense of purpose.

Twenty years on, it turns out that the experts were right.

Seminary has never made financial sense for students. Many seminarians amass tens of thousands of dollars of debt preparing for a low-income, volatile, risky, high-stress job. Now that theological education is widely available with a few key strokes, spending three or four years at seminary makes even less sense.

Today, seminary education isn’t making financial sense for seminaries either. Over the past two decades, report after report has appeared on the financial crisis faced by seminaries. The crisis is spread out across the theological spectrum, from liberal to institutions of the rock-ribbed sort. Staff and faculty have been frozen or reduced. Benefits have been cut. Endowments have shrunk. Tuitions have risen, further reducing student population.

In 2009, Robert Parham reported that dozens of seminaries were in financial crisis, leading to “loss of theological faculty, the reduction of faculty benefits, the decline of student services and the increase in tuition costs.” It has only gotten worse.

Add to that the change in the market for pastoral candidates. As Philip Clayton reported at the Huffington Post, “The traditional seminary student was a white, college-educated male. He either had sufficient personal wealth or a denominational sponsorship to pay the costs of relocating his family to a seminary for three years, where he studied Greek and Hebrew, church history and theology, biblical studies and preaching. At the end of the time he was guaranteed a white-steepled church, lifetime employment, and a good pension.”

No longer: “A larger and larger number of those who are ministering today (or wishing to minister) can’t possibly gain access to traditional seminaries—much less pay for them. These include many persons of color, Spanish-speaking ministers, second-career folks who can’t just pick up and move, people ministering to poor congregations . . . and the list is growing.” Seminaries need to adjust programs and vision in order to train these sorts of candidates for pastoral ministry.

Some seminaries – the most faithful ones – are likely to face ideological pressure as well. What happens to donations when the Federal government threatens to remove tax exempt status from institutions that fail to recognize sexual minorities or transexuals?

The news is not all bad. The pressures on seminaries have forced many institutions to re-think the method and content of theological education. Apprenticeships, hybrid training programs, and other alternatives are now in competition with accredited degree programs.

Clayton argues that we need to change the way we certify ministers: “we need a broad range of certificates for specific skills. Individual certifications will then be grouped or ‘stacked’ together. People will be credentialed when they have amassed the right combination of certified skills for a particular kind of work.” Seminaries are beginning to think about how to become more agile. (See The Convergence Initiative for an informative set of essays on innovations in theological education.)

This sets the context for my answer to the “Why Theopolis?” question.

Theopolis is one option in this range of fresh options in theological training. We offer a low-cost ($5000 tuition) single-year program that covers two fundamental matters of pastoral ministry: Bible and liturgics. Junior Fellows will get to know other churches and volunteer in local ministries. A Theopolitan doesn’t have to break the bank, or drop out for five years, to receive rich, intensive training in basics of Ministry in Word and Sacrament.

To say we’re “small” is an overstatement. But in the current market of theological education, our size is a huge advantage. Because we’re lean, with little overhead, we can be flexible, adjusting our programs and offerings to the needs of the church, expanding by cultivating regional and global “franchises” instead of building a bulky institution in Birmingham.

Have we hit on the magic formula? Does Theopolis represent the wave of the future of theological education? I don’t know. I doubt it. I expect to make adjustments, perhaps major ones, as we go. But Theopolis is an effort to respond to the ongoing crisis of theological education and pastoral training, in order to prepare pastors to serve a  rapidly changing world.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis