When time passes seminaries and churches by


By Tom Ehrich

General Theological Seminary's property in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is one gorgeous piece of real estate.

It's everything you'd want in an urban seminary: handsome buildings, a chapel at the center, quiet walkways in a noisy city for people to walk and talk, calm places to sit, read, write and pray. All serving a wonderfully diverse student body.

It's like the best of historic church properties: harking back to a day of noble architecture and tradition, and yet looking outward to a frenetic city and forward to a religious environment in flux.

Why, then, is General on the verge of financial collapse and, now, paralyzing conflict? For the same reason that historic churches, even historic denominations, are trapped in "train wrecks."

Their time has passed.

There is no kinder or firmer way to say it. The days of the residential three-year seminary are ending. Fewer and fewer prospective ordinands can afford the cost and life dislocation of attending a residential seminary.

Fewer and fewer judicatories are willing to subsidize such an education, because they, too, face budget shortfalls. Fewer and fewer congregations even have jobs for inexperienced clergy wanting full-time salaries and benefits.

For years now, Episcopal dioceses have been trying other ways, such as diocesan training centers, nearby schools run by other denominations, and distance learning via the Internet.

Does the Episcopal Church -- or any mainline denomination -- need all of the seminaries it has? Probably not. Hence the anxiety that simmers at all seminaries, causing disruption in normal relationships.

The larger context, of course, is that many congregations are in exactly this situation. The needs they filled sixty years ago -- neighborhood churches providing a mobile post-war world a place to belong and to ground the family -- have changed, even vanished.

Some congregations welcomed new purposes and are thriving. Most, sad to say, resisted change and now find that time and tide haven't waited for them. They experience the same anxiety and conflicts as General Seminary.

Seizing a new moment is never easy. It requires entrepreneurial leaders -- who will then be shot down and shut down by the anxious led, and brought up short by their own flaws. It requires ministry providers who can put aside what they know how to do -- and deal with feeling ill-equipped and unappreciated. It requires constituents whose reasons for affiliating grow deeper than escape and nostalgia, and become a drive to serve.

The tragedy at General isn't that their time has passed -- because a new time is breaking in, if they will let it. Or that they are trapped in dysfunction and conflict -- because God can redeem us all. Or that money is tight -- God's work is never limited by money.

The tragedy is that they are belittling each other, questioning each other's worthiness, and allowing hubris to be their guide. Such behavior cannot end well.

I am proud of our Presiding Bishop for attending worship at General yesterday and choosing to say nothing, just to listen. She modeled the holy restraint we all need to learn.

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