<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Rollins Lib Seminaries and Their Identity Crisis

Liberal Seminaries and Their Identity Crisis


Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine;
gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord,
manifold the service, one the sure reward.
— “Forward Through the Ages”, Frederick Lucian Hosmer

There is an unmistakable feel to an old mainline Protestant seminary: wood floors, dusty tomes, dark chapel pews and faded portraits of long gone spiritual forebears.

For those of us who made our theological bones poring over Hebrew and Greek texts on rainy autumn afternoons, the seminary campus was a placid island – a modern- day monastery, silent and safe from the teeming world beyond.

We cared not that the progressive Protestant seminary education we were receiving was in some ways circa 1807 (when the first mainline school of religion, Andover Theological Seminary, was established): we were proud to be counted among Hosmer’s “faithful spirits”, part of a living tradition seemingly impervious to radical change.

But the past decade has been as unkind to liberal seminaries as their sponsoring denominations. Ongoing advances in technology, increasing secularism and polarization over theological/social issues have combined to test the unity within and among progressive Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran and other mainline communions.

Even more troubling for these progressive schools is the new math of attracting ministerial aspirants: declining denominational numbers, finances and vitality means fewer full-time pulpits; which in turns means fewer applicants; which in turns means fewer faculty, staff and programs.

Struggling divinity schools’ options in this circular conundrum are problematic: raise tuition; downsize; merge with another seminary; transition from residential to online curricula; close shop.

This slide toward educational (and perhaps religious) irrelevance has obvious impact upon progressive Protestantism in general and ministerial formation in particular. Should the current trends prevail, seminary as we have known it will surely prove unsustainable.

But the fallout doesn’t stop there, so enmeshed have liberal clergy become with the wider cause of American liberalism itself: reproductive freedom; peace; gender equality; anti-corporatism; civil rights; equal marriage; climate change – rare is the political, social, economic or human rights issue without direct involvement from progressive ministers. It’s not yet clear what kind of ministerial preparation will take shape the other side of mainline seminaries’ current identity crisis. But we can say with pragmatic, reluctant certainty the liberal cause and its efficacy will suffer if that potentially cathartic struggle comes to naught.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2014


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