A Future for Baptist Seminaries?

Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond (Virginia) (BTSR) announced it will be closing its doors as a degree-granting institution at the end of this academic year (June 2019). BTSR was the first of the moderate or progressive Baptist institutions to emerge out of the fundamentalist resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention.


This un-surprising action by BTSR brings to public notice the dire situation of many small Baptist seminaries that serve the even smaller network of progressive or liberal Baptist churches in the United States. Last year, Colgate-Rochester-Crozer sold its historic campus and moved into rented quarters; their president recently announced his retirement. The year before that, the historic Andover Newton Seminary (with strong Baptist roots) sold its campus and merged into Yale Divinity School.


Other such institutions are struggling to survive: Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, Northern Baptist Seminary (Chicago), McAfee School of Theology (of Mercer University in Atlanta), Bethel Seminary (of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota), and even Truett Seminary (of Baylor University in Waco, Texas). Others could be added to this list.


Part of the problem is low support from sponsoring denominational structures. McAfee, for instance, receives a mere $14,000 from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (in addition to student scholarships).


Another part of the problem is the large number of such institutions that seek to minister to a relatively small number of like-minded congregations. American Baptist Churches USA has 10 seminaries for 5,000 congregations serving only 1.5 million members.


Finally, many students following vocations into ministry are more interested in social justice efforts than they are congregational ministries. BTSR itself is morphing from a degree-granting seminary into a Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation.


Baptist theological education desperately needs a new vision for the 21st and 22nd centuries, one that emphasizes network collaboration and reduces organizational duplication. A national organization that provides a strong brand and certain common services (accounting, data management, human resources, distance learning, etc.) can bind together a string of regional centers of education and engagement, each maintaining its historic identity and constituency.


Oxford University with its 39 inter-dependent but somewhat-autonomous colleges (including the Baptist school, Regent’s Park College) is an example of this sort of collaboration.


A future like this can only be envisioned and enabled by a major philanthropic organization: a foundation or an endowment wealthy enough to launch such an enterprise and strong enough to entice participation by too many independent-minded (and competition-driven) presidents and trustees.


There are other issues, not just for Baptist ministers and their institutions but for all Christian denominations. These are issues that better, more efficient organization can not address.


First, ministers and their congregations must be more intentional in calling out those who are gifted and disposed for gospel work.


I grew up in a Baptist culture that included the ubiquitous appeal for young people to “surrender” to a lifetime of ministry. This appeal was a part of every public altar call and invitation in every service: worship, revival, conference, and camp fire. This has largely disappeared from religious  culture. Young people simply do not hear this call to consider gospel ministry in any form as a legitimate expression of their Christian discipleship.


The Lilly Endowment has been at the forefront of intentional efforts to create what they refer to as “calling congregations”–churches with an spiritual and vocational ecology that engages Christians with all aspects of the call to gospel work.


Second, congregations are rarely seen as appropriate vocational vehicles for the radical convictions of those being touched by the spirit of God.


Young people entering the ministry want to change the world; most congregations what to ignore the world and keep it right as it is—or at least keep their own church just as it is (and often that means a nostalgic vision of church life shaped by carefully-curated memories of fifty years ago).


In other words, congregations must change in order to identify, network, support, and inspire young people in the call to gospel work.


Make no mistake: institutional leadership everywhere is hard these days—whether in the public sector or the private. Colleges, universities, and seminaries of all types are struggling to survive, struggling to adjust to new realities, new demands, new demographics. Many more will close; but as they close new schools with new vision, new leaders, new benefactors, and new methods will emerge to respond to the challenges of these days.


May the Baptists, long at the center of American religious life, find a way to be a part of that future.