Episcopal Seminaries Struggle With Costs

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Religion News Service
Saturday, May 17, 2008

In the cloistered world of Episcopal seminaries, time sometimes seems to stand still as clergy-in-training gather in stone chapels to pray in ways familiar to their forebears centuries earlier.

But the semblance of timelessness can be deceiving.

Some of the 11 seminaries affiliated with the Episcopal Church are slashing core programs, while others report rapid growth in enrollment. Still others are reexamining conventional wisdom about what it takes -- and how much it costs -- to shape a faithful priest.

The Episcopal method of training clergy "is a very expensive way to do theological education," said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Association of Theological Schools. "There is significant financial stress in the Episcopal seminary system."

Centrist and liberal seminaries are facing especially hard times:

· Last month, officials at cash-strapped Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., announced plans to eliminate the residential Master of Divinity program and to discontinue faculty contracts in 2009.

· Earlier this year, administrators at Bexley Hall Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, said they would soon be shuttering their satellite campus in Rochester, N.Y., amid accreditation concerns.

· In Cambridge, Mass., Episcopal Divinity School is selling seven buildings to nearby Lesley University for $33.5 million as a part of a partnership agreement to stabilize the seminary's finances.

Overall, enrollment in the Episcopal seminary system is down 25 percent from three years ago.

Not all schools are struggling, however. Theologically conservative seminaries report increases in enrollment since the 2003 consecration of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

In the past five years, Nashotah House seminary in Nashotah, Wis., has added degree programs and more than doubled its enrollment to 108. Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., has seen its residential Master of Divinity program grow by more than 30 percent since the late 1990s, to about 40 students per class today.

Observers said the sexuality issue has played a role in seminary fortunes as certain bishops, who once sent postulants to the nearest Episcopal seminary, now seek out more conservative training environments.

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