In the past decade, the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the U.S. have weathered a major economic downturn, changing enrollment patterns and denominational discord.
But given the denomination’s challenges, is that number of seminaries sustainable?
A new 86-page, independent study makes the case that each of the 13 theological schools plays a crucial role in developing Wesleyan church leaders — including the majority of United Methodist ordination candidates.
However, on the question of long-term sustainability, the study is less certain.
“The individual school data suggest that most but perhaps not all are sustainable,” reports “A Study of the Thirteen Official Theological Schools of The United Methodist Church.”
“Most have resources of finances, students, educational programs and constituencies both to pave a way to the future, even with its many uncertainties, and to pay their way there.”
The study’s release comes as United Methodist leaders are discussing a proposal to cut the Ministerial Education Fund by 31 percent, starting in 2021. The fund, supported through church giving, is part of the general church budget that General Conference delegates will vote on in 2020.
Currently, about $15 million from the fund is distributed annually to the seminaries. The amount each seminary receives is based on a formula that takes into consideration its number of United Methodist students and faculty members as well as students who are racial or ethnic minorities. Of the total money raised in each annual conference for the fund, the conference retains 25 percent to use in its program of ministerial education.
The fund’s support comprises less than 10 percent of the seminaries’ total revenue. But for several schools, the study said, it is the difference between operating in the black or operating in the red.
The Association of United Methodist Theological Schools — which consists of the 13 seminaries’ presidents and deans — commissioned the study last year, before the proposal to cut church funds was on the table.
The study comes at a challenging time for seminaries nationwide. Last fall, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond announced plans to close in June. The seminary, supported in part by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, joins a number of theological schools shutting their doors or cutting back as they compete for a shrinking pool of students.
United Methodist schools, overall, also have seen an enrollment decrease from a high of 5,100 total students in 2011 to 4,300 in fall 2017. But the enrollment of people of color has held steady.
In addition to sustainability, the new study also looked at how United Methodist seminaries fit into the larger ecosystem of U.S. theological education and what contributions they make to United Methodist witness.
“We wanted to test some of our assumptions,” said the Rev. Jay Rundell, the association’s president. He also is president of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
“I think it’s natural that when you are in the midst of the life of an institution, you think it has deep value. We wanted to get an independent view on that.”
To conduct the study, the association turned to the Rev. Daniel O. Aleshire, a theologian and retired executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. The association includes the Commission on Accrediting that approves the degree programs the schools offer. Aleshire is also an ordained elder in the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
He worked on the study from April to December last year. Its findings are based on campus visits, data submitted to the Commission on Accrediting and interviews with students, faculty, board members, administrators, graduates and bishops.
United Methodist seminaries include five theological schools housed in universities; seven freestanding schools and one — Gammon — that is embedded in the Interdenominational Theological Center, comprising five historically black seminaries.
Amid these institutional differences, Aleshire said his key takeaway was that the seminaries are all “deeply Wesleyan.”
“At every campus, I talked to both United Methodist and non-United Methodist faculty and United Methodist students and non-United Methodist students,” he said. “All of them would talk about the central Wesleyan character of their theological education.”
His study also found that The United Methodist Church has fewer U.S. seminaries per capita than other mainline denominations. Based on 2017 General Council on Finance and Administration data, the denomination has one seminary per every 523,564 U.S. members. The study found that the next highest, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has one per 437,500 members, and the American Baptist Churches has one per 217,000 members.
The study also noted that the United Methodist seminaries are more racially diverse than the denomination’s U.S. membership.
The schools serve not just United Methodists but also ecumenical partners, including cultivating future leaders in African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.
“If the UMC wants to promote racial justice, the seminaries are already extraordinary laboratories where a wide variety of racial groups and international students learn to live in community,” said Jan Love, dean of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. She was president of the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools when it commissioned the study.
The study discusses how the 13 seminaries work to reduce student debt. United Methodist students in the 2017-18 academic year received a total in $21 million in financial aid — $6 million more than the schools received from the Ministerial Education Fund.
The 13 seminaries “offer far more resources” to The United Methodist Church than they receive from denominational giving, said the Rev. Greg Bergquist. He works closely with the seminaries as the executive over the Division of Ordained Ministry at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
In addition to educating the majority of United Methodist elders and deacons, the seminaries also support the denomination’s Course of Study that prepares licensed local pastors for their ministry.
“I hope that the budget conversation pays attention to the small contribution the church makes to the theological education with significant return,” said the Rev. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, president of Claremont School of Theology.
“The MEF invests less than 10 cents for every dollar we spend on our education and training of leaders for the church and the world. At Claremont, that percentage we receive is even lower, but it helps our operational budget. More importantly, this is about the mission of our denomination in preparing leaders for the church and the world.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.