Change is in the Air
Anyone paying even a little attention knows that it’s been a difficult few years for theological education. Enrollment is down (40 percent at ELCA schools over the last decade), and support from the national church and synods has been reduced over time, accounting today for only about 15 percent of what it costs to educate our students. Because of these factors, most schools have run operational deficits in recent years and many have depleted their endowments. Deferred maintenance looms large, even as buildings erected with confidence stand rather empty. Yes, it’s a hard time to be in theological education, and we at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) have felt the challenges personally and poignantly.
And yet at the same time, our students are outstanding, our teachers committed, our partners supportive, and our graduates superb and faithful public theologians. In short, amid these challenges, we continue to graduate exceptional leaders for Christ’s Church. And we have heard from many of our alumni that they have never needed the seminary more as we grapple together to discover the best way to offer faithful and effective leadership in changed and changing world.
All of which means that while our mission remains clear and urgent, the path to fulfilling it needs to be re-imagined. We have done some of that creative work already, envisioning an Accelerated Co-operative program by which students can be immersed in a ministry context from day one and complete their studies in three years. And we are at work on a new path to the MDiv that will allow students to complete their studies at a distance via online classes and residential intensives. But there is still more that needs to be done.
We are not alone in pursuing answers to these challenges. Much of the ELCA has been discussing the report of the Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC) response to the church wide conversation (you can read the ELCA news release here), and aware of both the challenges and opportunities before us, at its most recent meeting the LTSP Board of Trustees adopted the following motion:
In the belief that we are at a turning point in theological education, in response to the recommendations of the ELCA’s Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC), in confidence and full support of LTSP’s mission to educate public leaders for a public church, and prompted by the Spirit to risk significant change for the sake of that mission, the Board of Trustees will explore bold possibilities by which we can re-imagine theological education that is distinctly Lutheran and transparently ecumenical, sustainable to LTSP and affordable to our students, deeply engaged with the other seminaries of the ELCA and our regional partners, and responsive to our local and global context in order to prepare public leaders for a public church that meets the deepest needs of the world God loves so much. The Board will consider the most promising possibilities at a specially called meeting in January so that we may move with equal measures of creativity and confidence into a future we confess God is fashioning.
What these changes will be, what most needs attention, how far we will need to stretch and grow to live into God’s preferred future… these are things we do not yet know. But we do know that if we are to be faithful to our calling we need to look beyond preserving our historic ministry and embrace the mission before us.
As we seek to discern the best way forward, we covet your counsel and support. Your experience at seminary, your need for resources we may provide, your wisdom about in what direction the seminary and church should move, and your financial gifts to support our students and mission are all so incredibly important. Thank you in advance for this counsel and support.
We also covet your prayers. I believe that the change required will likely be as disruptive as it is salutary, which means the road before us will be challenging, and even at times frightening. It is hard to leave the safety of cherished practices, even if they seem no longer to suffice, for as yet undiscovered forms by which to train tomorrow’s leaders.
For this reason, I find myself turning often to prayer of Matins, and I invite you to pray it as well, for the words have never been more true:
Lord God, you have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thank you for your faithful ministry, for supporting us through your prayers and gifts, and for accompanying us as we become the seminary we need to be in order to follow the path set by our Lord.
Yours in Christ,