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I’ve heard much talk in the past five years about the radical changes coming in theological education. From the head of ATS (Association of Theological Schools) to administrators, faculty, and church leaders, the message rings clear: we cannot continue business as usual. Students by-and-large cannot afford a three-to-four year master’s degree. Mainline Protestant churches are shrinking rapidly, meaning fewer job opportunities for all graduates and less and less financial stability for those who do get jobs in communities of faith. Besides this, our ways of structuring theological education—for example, the good ole four-fold division of theological knowledge (Bible, church history, theology, practical theology)—have long been identified as problematic for student and faculty formation alike.
In this context, some seminaries are adapting innovatively—establishing creative relationships with community and church partners that serve the vocational formation of students and enable them to participate in God’s ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world. Other seminaries are not able to do so. Many have closed, and more will close. Others are discovering (the hard way) that they must live within their means and somehow figure out to grieve the many losses that come with radical downsizing and the construction of a new identity.
All this talk about change comes easy at the level of abstraction—that is, when it’s someone else’s seminary. For those of us living through decline (or at least what appears to be decline until there are signs of resurrection), disorganization, or upheaval, it’s another story altogether. When old programs are cut or suspended; when the elimination of staff and faculty positions loom on the horizon; when the pressure is on to create revenue-neutral or new money-making programs; when collegial relationships end; and when financial and vocational wellbeing seems threatened: living well and living faithfully become a huge challenge.
I’m living through this kind of institutional upheaval at the moment, and I’m far from alone. Just this week, I learned of two schools in the throes of deep loss and grief: one seminary that must reduce faculty and staff salaries across-the-board (and this is after a major layoff just a couple years ago); one church-related undergraduate institution that has been financially mismanaged, leading to drastic cuts in program and personnel. And frankly, seminaries and Christian colleges are not the only ones experiencing this kind of institutional upheaval. Many of my friends and relatives know the same dynamics in their workplaces, from public schools and universities to private businesses.
Living well and living faithfully in these circumstances, as I’m discovering, involves a kind of going-back-to-the-basics—practicing the abc’s of wellbeing, so to speak. (And yes, this is part of the paradox, since institutional thriving will necessitate radical adaptation and change on another level.) What are some of those basics?
Abiding. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of our union and communion with him as an abiding—a resting in God that comes from trust that we are upheld at all points, in all times, and in all places through our unbreakable bond to Jesus Christ. Practices of worship, prayer, meditation, and contemplation in nature (to name a few) enable us to abide in the One in whom all things hold together.
Breathing. In the midst of stress, we tend to stop breathing deeply. As those who meditate and practice yoga know (and as neurobiological studies reveal), sitting quietly and intentionally breathing deeply helps to calm the mind, thus opening the way for clear, creative decision-making and action. This can be integrated with prayer as well—for example, the breath prayer. Twelfth century mystic, reformer, and church leader Hildegard of Bingen said, prayer is the inhaling and exhaling of the one Breath of the universe.
Communicating. Giving and receiving clear, accurate, and up-to-date information in the midst of institutional upheaval is paramount for building trust and moving into a new day with hope and healing. While all details may not be appropriate for all audiences, veiled references to upcoming decisions and trumped up (or worse yet, spiritualized) calls to look on the bright side sound disingenuous and fail to build up the body of Christ. Painful truth stated honestly not only reduces anxiety but also drives us to depend again and again on the Resurrected One, who can bring new life (because he is New Life) in the midst of death and destruction. And this is indeed what we need most.
Theresa, thanks so much for this. The changes and the painful realities that accompany them have such far-reaching impact in our institutions and communities…
It's curious to me that similar things are happening at several institutions. What are the patterns here? How can governing boards overlook such glaring financial realities (i.e., that spending and income are not in balance)? And why are similar things happening at different institutions right now? What are the ways of thinking and acting that led to these financial debacles? And how do we as people who have a stake in these institutions (whether as faculty, staff, students, alumni, supporters, congregation members, etc.) call our institutions into greater financial accountability even as we call these institutions into new dreams for the future? Accountability and hope in the resurrection must go hand in hand (especially if we take the theologies of the Reformation seriously). Thanks Theresa for your practical suggestions at the end of your article; they are the matrix in which accountability and hope can begin to take shape among us.
Thanks Jessica and Lois for your comments and questions!