From the President – “We’re Listening”
This past winter, we hosted 18 structured conversations connected to our Strategic Planning that involved approximately 250 people. Each meeting began with a brief overview of my own sense of the changes in our culture that have created both opportunities and challenges for the Church and, by extension, the Church’s seminaries.
We then moved to a conversation that was loosely structured around a series of questions about the challenges those present experienced in their various ministry settings and how the seminary can serve as a good partner and trusted resource to help our leaders address these challenges and seize these opportunities. We ended by asking what one big risk or wager participants would like to see the seminary take in order to address our context with a creative and bold witness to the Gospel.
In addition to these face-to-face gatherings, we also posted the same questions online and received another 200 responses. In total we’ve heard from a huge number of our alumni and supporters, and for this active interest and good counsel I’m extremely grateful. While we are still at work digesting and learning from this feedback, I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from those conversations that are — and will continue — to share our planning for the future of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).
While the conversations, comments, and counsel were wide-ranging, there seemed to be two consistent concerns and two great hopes expressed. The first concern regarded the financial health of LTSP. In response, I shared the broad outlines of our situation that is, as I’ve said, critical but not dire. In short, we have run operating deficits for more than fifteen years, exhausted our cash reserves, and encroached upon our endowment. In response, we are using the tremendous gift of the Palmer Estate to keep several deferred commitments and to make the most of the “second chance” we have been given to fulfill our mission while moving to financial health. Toward that end, we are exercising extreme fiscal discipline while also creating additional streams of revenue by using our campus more efficiently, expanding successful programs, and creating new programs to meet stated needs. In order to reach fiscal viability, we will also need to more than double the amount of annual unrestricted giving we typically receive. While I will address more concretely our plans for doing just that in a letter later this year, I want first to thank all those who are supporting us through your prayers and financial gifts as your support is absolutely critical to us.
A second concern focused on our identity. While I regularly heard gratitude for the ecumenical commitments of the seminary, I also heard questions about whether we have attended to our Lutheran theological tradition and heritage with the same interest and energy. This concern often led to a vibrant conversation about what it means, in fact, to be a Lutheran. Or, more to the point, my own conviction — shared widely by those in attendance — that to be Lutheran is to be ecumenical. Luther, that is, wasn’t out to start a new Christian tradition but instead was trying to reform the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Which means that Lutherans can only be true to our identity when we offer, shape, and act out of our theological convictions in broad and generous conversation with the larger church. Having said all that, it’s clear that we need not only continue the many fruitful ecumenical relationships we have developed, but also attend to our Lutheran constituencies and supporters via the resources we offer on campus and beyond, and I can assure you that I will be delighted in making sure we do just that.
The first of the two hopes offered was that we would not only look to increase the number of students enrolling in degree-programs, but that we would also “come along side” current congregational leaders by developing a robust life-long learning program that will draw leaders together for learning and conversation. We have begun doing just that by following up on last year’s free “Resource Day” with another free event scheduled for September 17, 2015. In addition, we are renewing our Preaching Days, featuring, among others, Tom Long. That event will run Oct. 19-21. We will share information about both events in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about particular areas of interest or need, please let us know, as we are in the early stages of building a robust and vibrant program of study and conversation to help us address together the challenges and opportunities of leading faith communities in a changed and ever-changing world.
The second hope was that we would be both courageous and innovative as we look to the future. Some asked us to be innovative in terms of the programs we offer, and I am pleased to say that we are working hard to expand our relatively new MDiv Co-op model and MA in Public Leadership degree as well as develop a new “Distributed Learning” (combination of online and residential intensive) MDiv program. Others want us to help steward communities of innovation, both drawing together those key leaders who are innovating at the congregational level, as well as by gathering and sharing resources that help leaders find vibrant and creative ways forward. While we are in the early stages of moving in this direction, I would again welcome suggestions as to specific and concrete ways we can be most helpful to you.
In addition to the calls to be innovative, however, many also urged us to be courageous, risking partnerships with other schools as well as other agencies, that we might live more fully into our professed theology that we are together the Body of Christ. Many understood the risks to one’s institutional identity when we make significant cuts or enter into new partnerships, but all urged us to think boldly about what it would take for LTSP to continue shaping leaders for a very different church than the one in which many of us grew up while also moving to financial health. I was so grateful for those words of encouragement and the promises of prayers and support.
Please trust me when I say that there was much else of value shared in these meetings, and our strategic planning team is considering this counsel with equal measures of gratitude and care. For now, though, I wanted to offer this brief overview so that you know we are grateful for your support, listening to your counsel, and working hard to grow to be the kind of partner you need and deserve. Moving toward God’s preferred future for us will neither be a brief nor easy journey, but we at LTSP undertake it with joy, offering as we go the familiar prayer from Matins, “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.”
Yours in Christ,