September 21, 2020

Riffs/CEC: A Third of ATS Seminaries Are In Financial Trouble

chapelUSA Today is on the ringside of the Coming Evangelical Collapse (CEC) with this story on the desperate situation facing a third of the schools on the Association of Theological Schools. (Page loads strangely in Firefox.)

Schools are closing, cutting back, combining, going on-line, selling facilities… the situation is serious. Many schools report less than a year of operating expenses on hand.

While I’m interested in what’s happening to these schools, I’m more interested in something else: where are the supporters who once kept these schools going?

That’s the question that evangelicals ought to be asking. Are we seeing a shrinking base of support for ministries? Or are those supporters simply taking a year off to deal with their own financial problems?

I believe that theological education is in for a revolution. Prepare for dozens of new ways of preparing for ministry. And prepare to see the traditional classroom- and the academics that taught there- become a shrinking minority report.

I’m sure some people have laughed at a ministry like James White’s Alpha and Omega Ministries as storefront, shoebox operation. But White is looking toward ways to use the internet to go to churches and create classrooms without ever leaving his studios in Phoenix.

Who’s going to be laughing now? Soon, some of evangelicalism’s best academics and even faculties may be doing the same in order to teach and make a living at the same time.

COMMENTERS: What changes in theological education would most positively impact you?


  1. I agree very strongly with JulieH above about music.
    While I think that throwing out the old to replace it with the new is flat out heresy, I feel seminaries has been ridiculously slow to absorb and teach much of the recent additions to Christian hymnody and musical style. So much so that it lends strong support to the Warren quote that a fundamentalist is somebody who has “stopped listening.”
    As a pastor of Worship interested in higher education, right now I have extremely limited options for the pursuit of further accredited study in the area of Worship. People simply do not have much in the way of programs that teach Worship through theology, music, and practice. It is either entirely theological or entirely musical.
    This is a great need in our generation that seminaries have failed to address. Would they perhaps be more effective and better off financially if they were more responsive to actual needs like this one? Or is this the only area of weakness?

  2. iMonk-
    I’m a new fan, and I feel like I’ve walked in in the middle. Could you possibly enlarge your bio, making it more specific, so that I could understand exactly what your institution is like? I’m not grasping your work setting from the vague terms in the bio. Thanks, and keep writing.

  3. Imonk:

    I agree with your thoughts.

  4. I started out thinking seminary was not essential to ministry.
    I talked to friends, secular, lay, those in ministry and the consensus was that it was.
    I started seminary, and suffered through greek and hebrew.
    I transferred seminaries, because I couldn’t find community attending my seminary as it was a “live-in” seminary that, being a commuter had a hard time plugging in to.
    The seminary that I am going to currently is an online program, where we gather together for 2 weeks every semesters. I get more community, more discussion, and my seminary experience is much better.

    Seminary has been a time of growth and character development. It has been more about personal growth than it has been about intellectual growth. I do not think that this could have been possible outside of seminary.

    Seminaries should continue, but other options need to be considered as well.

  5. Just for Quix says

    I am saddened to hear our local Salt Lake Theological Seminary is on the brink of closing. I think my area (Utah) has a need for good pastors, and especially local training and support for evangelizing and ministering to Mormons. It would be great if this local resource could stay viable. But there are also more highly considered seminaries elsewhere.

    Some other thoughts:

    1) I am greatly in favor of a trained ministry and As a parishioner I find them worth sacrificially supporting both for theological soundness and also for practical needs in counseling, teaching, leadership, availability, etc. I’m a former Mormon and I have a strong distaste for the hit and miss quality of both scriptural soundness (a systemic problem with Mormonism and its clergy, IMO) and especially in practical pastoring skills. Having a lay clergy — who in my experience were largely white collar executives — meant I suffered well-intentioned yet often unavailable or overextended ADMINISTRATORS and largely incapable MINISTERS.

    2) Our church’s community/campus pastors are not seminary educated, however. While I think they have a gift and heart for people — a wonderful thing — none were formally trained for counseling, speaking, teaching, leadership nor theology. I did participate with them in a CCBT curricula together with a lot of systematic material from Grudem, et al. I think it is great our church uses tools/program like this to train and empower inclined elders, members, and even staff, yet in the case of the latter I have less trust in our campus pastors to be capable pastors and teachers for more in-depth needs. It is certainly more training and availability than I ever experienced with Mormon lay clergy, but it is also good that they largely work a ministry among seekers and of serving routine church administrative needs where their gifts are a strength and their limitations better covered by others on staff.

    3) Our four other pastors are all seminary trained. In that process some have become, in my opinion, far too cemented at times on disputable doctrinal, political and cultural matters. (To be expected I suppose.) But they are gracious and sound men of the gospel whom I trust. But all are not gifted counselors. Some are better preachers during worship than teachers in a small class (or vice versa). Some are better “people persons” than others. Some are more intellectually capable than others. Some better leaders and organizers than others.

    One pastor is amazing in that he is so gifted and balanced in many areas. I also appreciate that the church has been wise in choosing staff and lead volunteers who are more specialized in their abilities, gifts and experience. Formal seminary education is valuable, to be sure, but does not guarantee to produce men who are able in the many areas and needs of the ministry.

  6. Kozak:

    My work does not support my blogging, so I don’t mention it.

    email me


  7. BTW- the best non-seminary seminary, minus the languages, is The Theology Program.

  8. Today, 20.03.’09 I enjoyed some of my spring break reading through postings and threads of discussion; thanks for generously hosting the site, imonk. For myself, I’m gravitating towards a live branch of the English Orthodox Church (OCA) here in Vancouver, BC. My most recent background was some ten plus years in a couple of Vineyard congregations until they relationally imploded and we switched into my wife’s independent German-English Lutheran church (liturgy lite)wherein her mom has been serving as a vicar (pastoral support); to provide our children with confirmation; and to gain some stability in a social-religious setting. We love our vicar, my mother-in-law, who will retire this year (late 60’s); yet, I feel a yearning for connection with a relationally-focused community & institution more organically attached to the hundreds of years of church practice (pre Reformation)and sound scriptural and Orthodox teaching. My journey in thought has taken about 20 years, beginning with a reading of K. Ware’s The Orthodox Church and lots of other author’s pros and cons. Upon my first and subsequent visits I have been intuitively and relationally impressed by the Orthodox ex-protestant clergy and members, too. (For a while I had considered the Anglican church in Canada (liturgy lite), but with the errors in clergy conflicts, some teaching and practice, and a growing awareness of the purely political foundation of the Anglo communion (Henry VIII) and disagreements among the Archbishops (1950’s) on substantial matters, it seems to be a variety of Protestant-Reformed-period.) Some groups within the Orthodox communion appear to be dead branches, but others, thankfully, have the life inherited from the ancient church, and their blossoming scents offer and other world’s appeal in this present age.

  9. Navy Chaplain says

    I have an MDIV from Asbury. I don’t believe a graduate degree is necessary to fulfill one’s calling to ministry—however, someone who is called to ministry ought to have a deep hunger for learning. This does not mean only reading the Bible cover to cover twice a year forever. You need church history, theology, Greek, Hebrew, NT/OT introduction, pastoral care/counseling, spiritual formation, and yes you need to having a cursory knowledge of the the issues that have come up in higher criticism. You just do. You would be surprised at how often I have had to address with my congregants issues like how we got the Bible and many, many other challenges to the faith.

    If not formal seminary, then denominations need to have a plan to ensure their ministers do some serious reading in these subjects. My thirst for knowledge coincided with my calling to ministry—but I wanted to read Left Behind, Hal Lindsey, Dave Hunt, and other popular things that were more like fast food than real spiritual nourishment. I needed a curriculem to follow.

    In addition to that, the 3 years I spent in seminary, though extraordinarilly painful and expensive, gave me time to grow spiritually and be formed for ministry.

    I hear all the time how so and so was discouraged from going to seminary because of cost and their family situation. It is sacrificial certainly and it shouldn’t be as expensive as it is. But if you are really called to ministry, you can’t underestimate the value of being educated properly. And doing it all online, though convenient, robs you of the value of sharpening your iron against other believers.

  10. I havea seminary education and wouldn’t turn it down if I had it to do over. I think it’s an incredibly valuable experience in many ways, not least in helping one accurately interpret and apply God’s Word. But it was too expensive, and I think needlessly so. It took me almost 10 years to get an MA because I had to work to pay my way and go part time after one year of full time study. Costs more than doubled during this time, right in line with those of secular private grad schools. I once suggested to a prof the implementation of something like Jubilee and got a polite smile and a quick move on to the next subject 🙂

  11. Michael,

    Forgive me if this is going too far off topic, but what would living simply, a ‘vow of poverty’, etc look like in the US? I’ve heard many speak along similar lines, and I agree with the principle, but the ‘how’ stumps me.

  12. Let’s take the Rich Mullins approach.

    Mullins told his accountant to pay him the average salary of a blue collar worker in the U.S. Give the rest to (list of organizations.)

    If missional communities would talk about money, life together, community, how to help one another, how to avoid the broad way that everyone is on, we could imitate the thousands who live simpler, less complicated, less materialistic lives.

    Here’s one idea: Go live among the poor. (Watch the movie Second Chance). See where the poor live and how they live and consider if, in order to minister to them and bear witness to them, you would be willing to do a St. Francis and live with them?

    The Catholic church knows how to talk about a spirituality of poverty. Evangelicals don’t. Why don’t we change that.


  13. As a seminary professor/administrator for 20 years, I can affirm that seminary education is in transition.

    A decade of research convinced me that the “traditional seminary” was incapable of the systemic changes required to serve the needs of the 21st century church.

    In 2004, I and two colleagues left our respective ATS accredited seminaries and launched a new school named Rockbridge Seminary, using a ministry-focused learning design that is 100% online.

    I’m even more convinced today … change is coming to seminary education, ready or not.

  14. Just for Quix says

    @imonk: poverty: simpler and less materialistic… sounds worthwhile. less complex… probably. less complicated… not in the least. Perhaps there is a better word than “poverty” to contain this notion. I don’t think it is asceticism either.

    Whatever the word is, and whether it is spiritually requisite or not, to the extent the clergy, and ESPECIALLY Evangelical clergy, can model it in a healthy way I think the Christian gospel looks a whole lot more credible in an “affluenza”-ridden, secularized, anti-organizational yet consensually-relational, sometimes-very-healthfully-skeptical, post-postmodern American culture.

  15. Chad Winters says

    “BTW- the best non-seminary seminary, minus the languages, is The Theology Program.”

    I went thru The Theology Program course and I agree!! It allowed me as a busy medical doctor to learn a basic framework of theology that I could never have gotten in any local church I have seen. As a direct result I can pick up and follow serious theology books to continue my “education”. Its not an M.Div…but I can sit and talk with one without a blank look on my face! 🙂

  16. This is a great discussion. Thanks, iMonk.

    If I could just throw in my 2 cents, I think that there’s a danger of going to another extreme regarding salary, finances, etc. On one hand surely gross ostentation is to be rejected. But I have noticed another extreme, both in myself and other believers, of thinking God approves of asceticism. He does not. We are surely to live lives of simplicity and gratitude, but nowhere does it say in the New Testament that we should seek lives of poverty.

    Of course, being called by God to live a life of faith may indeed lead to a life of poverty. But Paul said he learned the secret to be content in his circumstances “whether I am abased or whether I abound.” Sometimes Christians abound, and should abound. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as the love of money doesn’t take them over. I see nothing wrong with a pastor who lives comfortably.

    I don’t know where the fine line is, but I suffered for years with the assumption that God took pleasure in my having furniture that was falling apart, or a car in danger of breaking down at any time, or barely enough food in the fridge. I no longer think so. I think God’s love for us should not cause us to think we are more spiritual if we are barely making it. I also don’t think a church that pays a pastor or an elder a good wage is doing a bad thing.

    Yes, I know it can go too far the other way. The display of great wealth in the Lord’s name is repulsive. But American Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for living in the society where the Lord put us. We should be thankful for it.

  17. I’m writing as someone who began a PhD in Hebrew Bible at mid-life (turning 50 next year) and is now pretty close to finishing. I did leave a six-figure salary to do so and all I have to show for it economically is a depleted 401k and lots of loans. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve also taught language classes as an adjunct at my share of the local seminaries of various stripes. Just a few observations–and forgive my somewhat harsh tone–this is admittedly a hot-button for me.

    1) Ignoring “the languages” as it’s popularly been referred to here is, in my view, ignoring the Bible itself—and thus I find the resistance to learning Hebrew and Greek among seminarians particularly appalling. “Why can’t we just study theology?” (Read with whiny tone….) Well, because maybe knowing something about the BIBLE should be part of your education…. (I think these things, but don’t actually say them of course.) People hopelessly confuse translations of the Bible and chit-chat about the Bible with the actual Bible. I hate to burst people’s bubbles but the Bible wasn’t written in English and this unfortunate fact has serious implications for studying and understanding the Bible itself. The best advice I ever received from a professor was: “throw your English Bible in the trash.” I did.

    2) The idea that you can’t learn a new language in your forties is laughable. It’s more that people in their forties (and that fits a lot of seminarians I teach, interestingly enough) don’t want to learn a language; they want to “do ministry.” (See above.)

    3) I would argue that biblical education for seminarians has been on the decline for the last fifty years or so and that this is the great Wizard of Oz moment for many denominations. You may think your pastor had a lot of Bible training in seminary but he/she may not have. You may think they know Hebrew and Greek but they probably don’t. Don’t look behind this curtain. This is why so many ministers would always rather preach on Romans rather than Isaiah–they probably didn’t study Isaiah.

    4) The Jewish commitment to the text puts us Christians to shame. Most Jewish denominations begin teaching their kids Hebrew at an early age–granted with mixed results, but they are trying. Does your church offer Greek school to their elementary-aged children? Mine doesn’t. What is our level of commitment to the biblical text?

    5) Having an educated clergy was one of the main points of both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. For better or worse, we have seriously backed away from this commitment and it shows, imho.

    Thanks for letting me vent!

  18. Gordon-Conwell Student says

    As a student of the particular school mentioned in the USA Today article, I think that the Kern Grant recipients mentioned in the article (GCTS-Charlotte is one) are looking into what many commentators here mentioned: a revolution in the way seminary education is delived. In particular, I was glad to see so many mention internships and apprentices, since that is something our school in particular focuses upon. It has been a great blessing to my husband and I to have practical experience in addition to our traditional classroom time.

  19. Dave N.,
    I just wanted to say that I appreciate what you have written. I haven’t been able to take much Hebrew or Greek yet, but I plan to find a way. I learned so much about the Old Testament just be getting the rudimentary basics of Hebrew like the alphabet and the grammar basics and so on that I am excited for the chance to learn more. My wife and I home school, and my oldest boy shows a lot of interest in the Bible already, so I would like to get him started in some of the basics of the languages as well. Do you know of courses for Biblical Hebrew that can be taken outside of seminary settings?

  20. Jeff M.,

    Thanks; I think starting children down this road gives them a a very precious gift that will last a lifetime.

    So, a few ideas. Outside of a seminary environment, there’s really only a couple other options that I can think of for more formal training: the public university or Jewish resources. If you live in a city that has a reformed synagogue, you might begin there–they would likely be open to having non-Jewish children/adults participate as long as they don’t perceive that you have some ulterior motive. Same for many Jewish day schools, which might fit into your home-schooling program. If you live near a large public univ. with a significant Jewish population, there’s also likely a “Hillel” center that may offer classes for children and/or adults.

    A couple more things: you might also find a local pastor that has had some training in Hebrew to lead a class for kids–now THERE would be an interesting experiment!!

    University grad students (ones scraping for funds, like myself) are usually very open to tutoring kids or adults. I know Latin PhDs who fund quite a bit of their education reading Virgil with high schoolers. If you live in an area that utilizes resources like Craigslist, try posting an ad.

  21. Dave N.,
    Thanks for the ideas. I am actually in a really small town in northern North Dakota so some of those options are not realistic, but they give some good practical thinking direction. I might try finding out if one of the other area pastors has any Hebrew training. I would love to find a program or maybe software that I could use with the kids and also help expand my own knowledge past the basic/tools stage.

  22. Irreducible minimum – interesting concept

    What is absolutely required in the education of a pastor?

    Speaking solely from my experience as a Methodist we have 4 levels of persons qualified to to preach from the pulpit:
    Local Lay Speakers
    Certified Lay Speakers
    Lay Ministers
    Ordained Ministers

    As you might imagine the training required and the authorized duties are different between the four.

    Local Lay Speakers have attended and passed the basic lay speaker training course established by the Methodist General Board of Discipleship. Local speakers are permitted to speak only at their local church, under the supervision of the pastor.

    Certified Lay Speakers have attended at least one advanced course and continue to take a minimum of one course every three years. Certified Lay speakers are permitted to speak at other churches and to supply preaching as needed to other affiliated ministries.

    If you are interested the following link provides more information about Lay Speaking Ministries.

    Lay speakers do not perform any of the sacramental duties of the pastorate – Communion, Baptism, Marriage etc.

    The next step is Licensed Ministers who have completed at least 1/3 of the required work for and M Div. Or the required course work for Licensed Ministry. This level is typically a stepping stone toward full appointment in the UM church, or as a final level for persons who can not justify the expense of a full education for the ministry to which God has called them.

    Last is the M. Div or higher pastor.

    The number of levels within the UM church are directly related to our history, and especially to the ways of our past where pastors rode a circuit of churches visiting the church in some cases only once a multi-month period. In the interim the congregation’s trained speakers filled the pulpit.

  23. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Dave N. – Great comments!

    I have often wondered why more Christian schools don’t teach Greek and Hebrew. In fact, they seem to be teaching every language but the biblical ones. It’s like parents are afraid of biblical languages.

    In fact, there has been a renaissance of ‘classical education’ in some Christian schools that emphasizes Latin. I mean, Latin is great, but for Protestants, shouldn’t it be ranked third of the ancient languages that Christians learn, after Koine Greek and Hebrew? I can understand why Catholic schools teach Latin, but Protestant schools?

    I’d bet that the resistance to learning languages is because we are Americans. You know the old joke: What do you call a person who knows three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who knows two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who knows only one language? An American.

    I will confess, I think there needs to be more immersion in the languages in Seminary. I mean, if they really wanted us to learn Hebrew, they should send us to Israel for a semester. If they really wanted us to learn Greek, they’d send us to Greece for a semester. I know there are differences between ancient and modern, but it would be better. The cost would be expensive, but I spent a lot of money learning the languages, and a lot of money on rent while I was learning the languages too.

  24. Johnathan, I appreciate your thoughts as well. Many homeschoolers seem particularly fond of Latin, which of course is a fantastic language with lots of benefits. But in terms of understanding the faith Latin should be #3 or #4 on the list in terms of priority, in my opinion.

  25. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Dave N.

    What would your language ranking list be, out of curiosity?

  26. booklegger says

    I’m reading this and the “Coming Evangelical Collapse” posts at the same time, and it’s timely for me. I have a BA in Bible/Theology from Wheaton College and have been dallying in seminary courses for the last 5 years, trying to decide if I really want to go back full-time and if so, what do I want to do with it? Lately, the questions I’m asking myself are, “do I really want to spend that much money on it (over the next 10 years)?” and “am I actually called to a ministry, or am I just a geek who loves the Bible for its own sake?” I took 3 semesters of Hebrew recently and loved it. I like to describe reading the OT in Hebrew vs. English like the difference between being the best man at a wedding and having the best man tell you about the wedding a year later.

    In regards to the CEC discussion, I’m now thinking that maybe I do need to go back to school while there are still good schools to go to. Someone needs to preserve and pass on biblical and theological literacy until the future time when it will be valued again.

    This discussion has been extremely helpful to me.

  27. Booklegger,

    Really, really loved your post. Isn’t it funny that those of us who love this stuff are the “Bible geeks!” (Sort of the oddity rather than the norm?) I consider it the calling/desire just to learn more about the Bible and through that grow closer to God–a gift indeed.

    Sometimes this discussion feels like ministry/theology on one side VERSUS The Bible on the other. And the Bible is losing out for the time being.

    I had also considered a calling to the ministry, but found that education is where I need to be. I think that the church needs language educators that haven’t bought into this idea that learning languages is an optional hoop. (I think it’s sadly become a given for some–see above.) Really, it’s a vital essential. The church also needs people who can convey that with a sense of love and joy for God’s word.


    I couldn’t agree more and I’m waiting for that time! Keep up the great work!


    For ancient languages I’d rank as follows–just my opinion for prioritization:

    1) Greek
    2) Biblical Hebrew
    3) Standard Aramaic and Syriac (an Aramaic dialect)
    4) Latin
    5) Rabbinic Hebrew

    That having been said, I like Biblical Hebrew the best and have spent far more time on that than the others.


  28. Sorry, booklegger, your quote that I heartily agree with didn’t appear:

    “Someone needs to preserve and pass on biblical and theological literacy until the future time when it will be valued again.”

    Thanks for your hopeful words.

  29. IM,
    “The Catholic church knows how to talk about a spirituality of poverty. Evangelicals don’t. Why don’t we change that.”

    In the RC, poverty usually goes hand in hand with celibacy and communal living. Yours is an unusual situation, and maybe more possible because of a rural location. I would think that inflicting poverty on your family would be hard. Especially hard if it means your children go to horrible or dangerous schools or your family lacking access to good health care. A missionary lifestyle engenders a degree of guilt, and requires a strength of faith that might be hard to maintain.

    Maybe poverty isn’t the right word; how about modest lifestyle? Or is that too close to lukewarm?