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General Seminary, EDS and the PB’s remarks on Episcopal seminaries

General Seminary, EDS and the PB’s remarks on Episcopal seminaries

As readers of the Cafe are no doubt aware, two of the Episcopal Church’s ten seminaries are beset by internal conflict. The faculty at both Episcopal Divinity School and the General Seminary have expressed significant disagreements and dissatisfaction with their deans.

The boards of trustees at both institutions have re-affirmed their confidence in these deans. Two faculty members left EDS for high-profile jobs elsewhere. Most of the full-time faculty at General remains out of work following a series of well-chronicled events, but they and the board are currently negotiating what might be at least a temporary resolution of their difficulties.

In the midst of these conflicts, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s opening remarks to the recently concluded session of Executive Council are worth examination by those who might not typically read the remarks that she and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings make at the beginning of each session of the council.

As old models become unsustainable in some contexts, dioceses are finding new ways to form leaders – like the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka that serves students from four neighboring dioceses. Theological education is much in the news, with active conflict in several places, a result of deep anxiety over looming changes. We have excellent resources for theological education, yet they need to be redistributed to form and train leaders more effectively for new and changing contexts. In some ways, that current reality reflects the increasing economic inequality in the developed world, particularly in the United States. The wealthy have little difficulty in accessing those resources; the poor struggle, yet often the poor discover and create new possibilities out of necessity.

The average Episcopal congregation, with 60 to 70 members attending weekly worship, cannot afford the traditional model of full-stipend paid leadership, a building, and a sufficient program to support its members in their daily baptismal ministry. Nor can seminary graduates with educational debt afford to work in most of them.

Students today can be trained for ordination to the priesthood anywhere, if they can foot the bill. If not, they have much more limited resources in residential seminaries – a couple of them can provide sufficient aid to graduate students with little or no additional debt. Increasing numbers of ordination candidates and lay leaders are being educated in programs like Bishop Kemper School, which require minimal displacement from job and family and produce graduates with little or no additional debt. In order to provide effective formation, those more local institutions and programs work closer to home to gather a community for formation. As has always been the case, the struggling and the poorer communities have tended to be more creative in responding to these changing realities. Most of the residential seminaries we have were started in response to similar challenges – the need for education and the inability to provide it in existing frameworks and paradigms.

The Church of England has made a conscious and canonical shift in its expectation. Those who train for non-stipendiary ministry (NSM) do it in two years; those who expect a “career” take a more traditional three years. One of our seminaries has begun to explore a two-year academic track with an additional practical year. The Lutherans have had a model like that for some time – but it’s four years total, three of the four for academics and the third year as a practicum.

We need responses to changing realities that consider the varied needs of the whole body. We have the canonical flexibility already to permit different paths of formation. What we don’t have is a willingness to make resources available to the whole body. We still live in a system that is far more isolated and independent than interdependent. Each diocese makes individual decisions about how to train students. Each seminary does the same. Each diocese and seminary or training program raises and stewards its own financial and human resources with little churchwide conversation or cooperation.

What do you think of the presiding bishop’s remarks? What might they portend for the ten seminaries of the Episcopal Church? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a system such as the Bishop Kemper School?

The presiding bishop says what the church lacks is “a willingness to make resources available to the whole body.” Given that each of the church’s seminaries must sink or swim financially on it own, how might such a willingness be cultivated?


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Rob MacSwain

Ruth and Jesse,

Yes, thank you to Jesse for questioning the claim about average debt. As for financial aid, I can report that Sewanee covers a *minimum* of 70% of total demonstrated need for each 12-month period, including both tuition and living expenses, including family members. Obviously it thus varies from student to student and family to family, but such financial aid combined with other means of support (parish, diocese, work study, spousal / partner employment) means that many students graduate with minimal if any debt. I realize this is not the norm, but it’s important to provide alternatives to the prevailing narrative out there.

Also, another recent report, I think from the Church Pension Fund, determined that (a) most recent ordinands are still graduates of Episcopal seminaries (as opposed to seminaries from another tradition), and (b) graduates from Episcopal seminaries are more likely to remain in parish ministry (again, as opposed to graduates from non-Episcopal seminaries). Again, when it is widely claimed that most ordinands now graduate from non-Episcopal seminaries, or that there is no real benefit in attending a specifically Episcopal seminary, these are important findings to bear in mind.

Jesse Zink

Ruth: thanks for the link. I think there may be Episcopal-specific information out there somewhere as well.

It would also be useful to know the average financial aid at various seminaries. At mine, for instance, the school claimed to set off an average of 85% of tuition for each student.

Ruth Meyers

Jesse Zink, thanks for asking about the figure of average seminarian debt of $100,000. That sounded high to me, too. Auburn Seminary has been looking at this issue for 25 years, and this month they just released another report. From 1991-2011, average debt for those who borrowed more than tripled, from $10,017 to $37,952. Yet more than one-third of MDiv students graduate without any debt, and another 31% graduate with less than $30,000 debt. There’s lots more data – I encourage folks to take a look:

John B. Chilton

Ah (r.e. unfunded resolutions), and we wonder why the states complaining about unfunded federal mandates.

An unfunded resolution is a feel good resolution. It doesn’t even rise to whether it’s a binding resolution.

Deputy Sally Johnson, chancellor to the president of the House of Deputies, in preparation for General Convention 2012, prepared the white paper, Are Resolutions of General Convention binding? It is available for download at the House of Deputies governance page.

Marshall Scott

Again, pace Amy Spagna and Michael Hartley. My description of Berkeley was neither as apt nor as up to date as I had intended, and I’m happy to be corrected. My point, I think, stands: that BDS represents an affiliation with a larger non-Episcopal institution that is a different model than Virginia or Sewanee (closer, too, than the various consortia relationships that CDSP or EDS participate in); and we may find ourselves contemplating further instances of different models.

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