Southwestern Seminary’s recent financial struggles have been in the news and have been a bit of a Rohrshach test for Baptists. To supporters and defenders of Dr. Patterson and the seminary, they are a blip on the radar screen, a hiccup, a bump in the road toward a greater future. To those with less warm and fuzzy feelings toward Dr. Patterson’s leadership (mostly, his anti-Calvinist rhetoric and perhaps his old-school ways) they are seen as further evidence that his leadership is causing the school to swirl the bowl.
I am absolutely unqualified to figure out what is happening there, but I do think there is a bigger story. Seminary education in the 21st Century is going to be a greater challenge than it has ever been before. A few of our schools are going great guns but the challenges are going to be real. There are several modern trends that are affecting our schools.
A little background. Our seminaries receive funding from the CP based on FTE – full-time equivalence. It is a formula someone smarter than I am can explain, but it is not based on enrollment, but on the number of hours students take. One student taking 5 classes counts more than 4 students taking one class. At SWBTS, as I understand it, enrollment is up but FTE is down. Also, I believe that it is correct to say that only seminary enrollment counts toward FTE. Most of our schools now have a college attached, but those students do not count for FTE or receive CP support.
So, the key to increased funding is to increase FTE. You can have a great increase in students, but if they are taking fewer classes and FTE goes down, funding will also go down.
1. The Online Trend – LU Online achieved massive success giving people seminary degrees by extension. Most of our seminaries have gotten into the online trend, but are behind the curve. This has clearly cut into the pool of resident students for our seminaries and reduced FTE funding. I am guessing that there are pastors in your association who never “went” to seminary. They did seminary online while either working secular jobs or while doing their ministries.
2. The Denominational Loyalty Trend – “Back in my day” it was almost essential that a man who wanted to be considered as a pastor at an SBC church had to have a degree at one of our seminaries. If you had a degree from a non-SBC seminary most churches wouldn’t even look at your resume. That is no longer true. A degree from just about any seminary is accepted. This trend will undoubtedly cut into enrollment at our schools. If there is a seminary near you that does not require relocation, why leave home when it is not required? (I am not arguing for that proposition, just saying some will say that.)
3. The Theological Education Devaluation Trend – Who needs a degree? In many corners of the church, theological education is viewed as suspect, as more of a hindrance than a help. When a church gets a seminary-educated pastor and things don’t go well, their tendency can be to blame the seminary for the problem. My evidence here is anecdotal, but I believe that more churches today are willing to hire pastors without a seminary education.
4. The M.RE Trend – The degrees are given different names by different schools, but most schools now offer a shorter, less demanding degree than the M.Div. Why stay and slog through 90 hours of Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology and all those hard classes when you can get a seminary degree with much less struggle? Fewer hours per student reduces FTE.
5. The Rising Student Costs – it costs more now to go to an SBC school than it used to and because of that, students are often forced to work more and take longer to complete school. If a student is taking fewer hours because he has a full-time job, guess what that means? FTE goes down.
6. The Seminary Identity Struggle – would that it was enough to simply provide a biblically-based seminary education that would provide the tools for ministry, but seminaries also need to have an identity. I am informed that there are many seminaries, not just Southern Baptist, that are having struggles such as Southwestern is having. But those that have a specific identity that can attract not only general theological students but a specific niche are gaining ground. Southern has an obvious identity – like it or not. Southeastern has also managed to forge an identity of its own. Midwestern’s “For the Church” and the leadership of Dr. Allen (remember there were people who actually opposed his appointment?) has turned that school’s fortunes around and we are expecting them to do very well in the future. An “anti” identity isn’t likely to be enough.
7. Rising Costs of Education – It isn’t cheap to provide a seminary education these days. I guess it never was, but it has gotten worse. Obamacare has become a familiar scapegoat because it plays well with the conservative Southern Baptist audience. “It isn’t our fault, blame the Democrats.” But the reality is that healthcare is massively expensive, especially if it is provided for the staff’s family (which I understand SWBTS does).
There are challenges facing all seminaries these days. Some schools are doing a better job of facing them than others. I am guessing that the playing field is not completely level. These challenges are real but there is still a path to success. We must hold on to our values and convictions but also be forward-thinking in our strategies.
This list is far from exhaustive. But it’s exhausted me and I have got to go get ready to deep fry a turkey.