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Q&A with David Lose on the “Proposal for a New School of Theology and Leadership Formation”

On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, the Boards of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg passed identical resolutions of intent to form a new seminary. LTSP President David Lose responds to some questions about the proposed new school.

Q: This is big news. How has it been received so far?

President David LoseDL: So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. For some, it is the natural outcome of years of much collaboration and cooperation, while for others it is a relief to see institutions of the church risk dramatic change in order to serve the needs of a world and church that have changed significantly in recent years. That doesn’t mean there aren’t folks who have concerns about our plans, but so far most of the voices we’ve been hearing are quite positive.

Q: So why a “new” school? Why not increase collaboration between the two historic schools?

DL: For several years we were guided by an earlier agreement between the Boards of the two schools to move toward functioning as “two schools with one faculty and one administration.” While there were merits to that plan, it didn’t really change the basic model significantly enough to impact theological education. Our increased cooperation was all to the good, but it didn’t yield significant savings and didn’t create a climate in which we could imagine more transformative change.

Q: Then why not just merge rather than create a new school?

DL: There’s both rhetorical and operational significance to creating a new school. Rhetorically, we want to set a new tone. Too often in a merger you tend to look backwards, worried about what you are leaving behind. Or, worse, you look ahead to evaluate every move you need to make in terms of who’s “winning or losing.” We want to do better than that. Operationally, a merger invites a blending of two institutions, choosing some things from one school and some from the other. With a new school, however, you have the opportunity not simply to revise or blend or reform or repair, but really to create something new. Essentially, we’re trying to clear the decks to make room for re-thinking everything about the way we form leaders for the church. That’s something you just can’t do without starting fresh.

Q: You mentioned the risks involved in dramatic change. What are those risks and why do you think they are worth it?

DL: Any significant change is risky. If folks don’t “buy in” to our vision for why we need to form a new school they may withhold support. Students may be worried about joining a new venture. Faculty or staff may decide they’d do better elsewhere. All of these are risks. But two things in response. First, we think that if we really listen to what the church needs and build that kind of seminary, we will not only maintain the support of our constituents but also attract more students who want to be on the cutting edge of theological education, more faculty who are ready to create — rather than simply revise — curriculum and pedagogy, and more donors who want to back an institution that is leading change rather than just reacting to it. Second, while naming the concrete risks of change are easy, we sometimes overlook the “opportunity cost” of remaining the same. And I’d argue that at this particular time there is far greater risk in not changing than in making some bold moves with the counsel and support of the larger church.

Q: Change is disruptive, not least for those currently employed by the two schools. What are you doing to address this?

DL: You’re absolutely right — this level of change is indeed disruptive and, for this reason, creates tension and anxiety in the system. That’s both understandable and real, as all of us — staff, faculty, and administrators — are in a place of acute vulnerability. But while we can’t eliminate this tension, we can help manage it. And we’re doing that by putting together a timeline as to when decisions about personnel will be made, making all decisions with equal measures of deliberation and prayer, communicating decisions clearly once they are made, and providing support to colleagues transitioning to the new school and to those who need or want to transition to another institution. It’s a challenging time, but we are a community of good faith and courage and will support each other through the changes.

Q: A recent article by the Religious News Service suggested that this move is primarily financial and that the primary rationale was to eliminate tenure. What is your response to that?

DL: My sense from the interview I had with the RNS staff writer is that he had a deadline to meet and had pretty much decided the main thesis of the article and was mainly looking for quotations to substantiate that. For instance, I was clear that while there were enrollment and financial challenges at both institutions, coming together to create a new school was not our “only” option but rather our “best” option for responding to the church’s needs. Further, I was equally clear that while this move may result in the suspension of all contracts — with staff, faculty, and administration — this was not the primary motivator for creating a new school and that we were, as I mentioned, far more interested in creating a “clean slate” with regard to all manner of things, including our approach to financial aid, relationship to donors, curriculum, calendar, modes of delivery, and connection to congregations and synods, as well as rethinking the nature of a theological faculty. But those convictions didn’t fit the storyline and so barely made it into the article. The somewhat funny, or perhaps ironic, element of the story was that the only numbers he had were from Gettysburg, and so from reading the RNS article you’d think Gettysburg’s financial woes were driving this move when, in fact, over the last ten years Gettysburg has consistently been the strongest of the ELCA seminaries with regard to finances. I’m very appreciative of the role of the press in keeping us all informed and grateful for the interest of RNS in our move, but I think that, in this case, a little homework and a little more careful listening might have resulted in a different story.

Q: What more can you say about the New School that isn’t out there yet?

DL: Right now we’re really trying to collect the wisdom of the larger church about the kind of seminary we need to build, so there are many decisions that have yet to be made. But I can say our plan is to call into question some of the prevailing assumptions about theological education and see whether we can find a different approach that is more faithful and fitting to our time. Take financial aid, for instance. Too often, financial aid gets budgeted after other “fixed costs” are already committed. But what might happen if we make financial aid the priority and build the rest of the budget around that commitment? Similarly, we may explore what a truly competency based-curriculum makes possible for students who bring significant life experience to seminary, or what kind of flexibility we can gain for students, teachers, and congregations if we moved away from a typical two-semester calendar and held more residential and distributed intensives. Pretty much everything is on the table, and we’re looking forward to the adventure of designing a new seminary for a new age.

Q: And your timeline for all this is, what, three, five, maybe ten years?

DL: Wouldn’t that be nice! Actually, we’ve got two main “seasons of work” ahead of us. The first is this spring, when we need to develop a sound business plan, work out the major legal questions of incorporating a new school, mark out the primary commitments and hallmarks of this endeavor, and develop a timeline for the rest of the work. All of that needs to be in good shape before the Boards of the two schools hold their April meetings. The second season also begins now but really kicks into gear after the next Board meetings where we delve into building a curriculum, faculty, and staff and work on matters of accreditation with the plan to open the new school in the summer of 2017.

Q: One last question: when can we stop calling it the “New School”? That is, when will this institution have a name?

DL: Well, you could call it the “Remarkable New School” if you want! Seriously, though, we will turn to the question of naming down the road. Right now, we have a lot more listening, praying, planning, and work to do to make it a reality. Then we’ll find a great name to match this remarkable new venture.

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