For nearly 200 years, Lutheran seminaries in the United States have been educating pastors, missionaries and other church workers for service in congregations, social service agencies and other countries.

Thousands of future church leaders have received training—through a curriculum developed over centuries—in Scripture, church doctrine, history, pastoral care and other skills needed for ministry. The ELCA’s eight seminaries have honored histories dating back to 1826, when the oldest Lutheran seminary in this country was founded in Gettysburg, Pa.

Today those seminaries face problems—some might call the situation a crisis—due to high costs, declining enrollment and changes in the type of education needed for pastors in the 21st century.

In response, ELCA schools have begun a massive effort to reorient almost everything about themselves to fit seminary education to the needs of today’s church. Two seminaries are merging. One is relocating, largely to save money. Others are uniting their work with ELCA colleges. Degree programs are being altered and curriculum revised. All are looking at ways to help the seminaries and students bear the high cost of graduate school education.

Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, said seminary education today takes “a new approach to formation and leadership development. [This] goes beyond checking off a list of courses. We are all looking for ways to better prepare people for the amazingly complex and challenging context of today’s ministry,” he said.

These efforts are occurring amid declining enrollment. Last year 1,627 students were involved in all seminary programs, said Jonathan Strandjord, ELCA program director for seminaries. That reduced number includes people not preparing for pastoral ministry or those already ordained studying for additional degrees.

In 2008, ELCA seminaries graduated 271 students with the Master of Divinity degree that usually leads to ordination. In 2016 there were 173 such graduates, down nearly 100 from eight years ago.

Those numbers parallel the decline in other seminaries affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools, where total seminary enrollment is down as much as 40 percent in other denominations.

Merging and moving

Several ELCA schools are already making major changes. Gettysburg Seminary, the oldest of the ELCA theological schools, is merging with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia—a union contemplated as long as 50 years. This year the two schools will become United Lutheran Theological Seminary, with campuses in Philadelphia and Gettysburg.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, is merging with nearby Capital University, an ELCA school, in a union that will be completed this year.

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., merged with the ELCA’s California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. The seminary will sell its aging and expensive-to-maintain campus and is moving downtown near Berkeley City College and the University of California.

Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., is now affiliated with Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C.

School officials see these moves as not only cost-saving but also as ways to expand the seminary experience.

“For some time, many seminaries had become monastic in nature,” said Wayne Powell, president of Lenoir-Rhyne. Today, he said, “seminaries are becoming more interactive with the real world, which, of course, provides the students with a more practical education.”

Cooper-White said the Gettysburg union with the Philadelphia school was not just a “merger, but a new approach to formation and leadership development.”

Seminaries will seek more “partners” in the education of church leaders, said Louise Johnson, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. The partners will include other schools, synods, congregations and other agencies, she said. For example, working through the campus ministry program at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Wartburg has five undergraduates taking seminary courses while still in college. The seminary is exploring similar partnerships in Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.

The Philadelphia seminary works with congregations in Rochester, N.Y., and Boston to develop local sites for theological education, said David Lose, president of the school.

Curriculum and teaching style is also changing dramatically because the church doesn’t have “the same center of gravity or cultural prominence that it once did,” Lose said. “Congregations can no longer imagine that they are a spiritual destination that people informed by the culture will come to seeking inspiration.” Rather than a “concert hall attended by people who love music,” churches need to be more like a “community music school that equips people to better play music, to play the faith,” he added.

A pastor who leads a congregation will be “less of a performer and more of a coach,” Lose said, adding that the challenge to seminary education is to develop a curriculum content and style of teaching “to train that kind of leader.”

Congregations calling newly ordained pastors will have to prepare themselves for these kinds of leaders (see “A new kind of pastor”).

The value of seminary

Those studying for ordained ministry are also more diverse and varied in age than previous generations. The needs of these people, sometimes entering seminary after a career in another field, are different from those who have prepared for seminary in college and begin their theological education as soon as they receive their bachelor’s degree.

To expand their service to students who might be interested in seminary but aren’t seeking ordination as pastors, some schools are adding degrees. “We offer seven new degrees,” said Rick Barger, president of Trinity, including a master’s in leadership and two-year degrees in areas such as anti-racism, environmental justice and global ethics.

“The future of seminary education,” Barger added, “goes beyond divinity degrees.”

At Lutheran Southern Seminary, leaders are developing more programs of interest beyond Lutheranism to attract more students.

The high cost of postgraduate education is also a major concern for the seminaries and their students, and there are significant plans to make it possible for people to get through seminary without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The seminaries, too, often operate on a deficit budget, draining reserve funds or incurring the heavy costs of debt.

In an effort directed both at reducing student debt and developing a new form of seminary education, Trinity is changing its master of divinity program into a “2+2” package. A student spends two years in seminary and then two years on an internship during which time they also take online classes.

When he was a parish pastor, Barger said he had 15 interns and eight of those were in the congregation for two years. “The difference that the two years made was astonishing; it was a much better formation of a new pastor,” he said.

Distance learning technology makes that kind of education possible, said  Johnson from Wartburg. Her school was working with students in North Dakota who would be serving in congregations while taking online courses. “Our distance learning programs use video so the faces of the online students are seen in the classroom by the other students,” she said.

To help, synods and congregations are encouraged to support seminarians with grants for housing and living expenses, as well as tuition costs. The ELCA Fund for Leaders will provide full-tuition scholarships for approximately 45 incoming students this coming school year (, and seminaries are seeking to build endowment funds to help students pay tuition costs.

“We are re-prioritizing our budgets, and scholarships are at the top of the list,” said Cooper-White, adding that the new United Lutheran Seminary hopes to make it possible for all students to have full scholarships.

The declining number of students in seminary remains a concern. A report from the Theological Education Advisory Committee (see “What’s TEAC?” below) says it is the job of the whole church—congregations, synods, seminaries and churchwide agencies—to help people discern whether God is calling them to professional ministry in the church.

The ELCA also has fewer congregations than previously, and this changes the number of pastors needed to serve them. Seminary leaders, however, say the schools can also serve as educational resources for laypeople in congregations. Lose of Philadelphia says if seminaries are only seen as schools for training pastors, the ELCA may have too many such schools. But if seminaries are places for “lifelong learning, for laypeople learning more about their faith,” then we have too few, he said.

The future of seminary education and the training of new pastors is the task of the whole church, Lose said, citing the report from the advisory council. “The question in front of our church is: do we value a network of Lutheran seminaries? We will succeed or fail to the point that congregations and synods and the whole church decide that we do,” he said.

What’s TEAC?

The reorganization of ELCA seminary training is guided by the report of the Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC), a group appointed in 2013 to look at leadership development for the church.

The group recommended that the ELCA:

Set a higher priority for theological education, involving synods and congregations, and develop a “common learning platform” of internet-based resources for theological education.

Actively seek out new leaders for the church, expanding programs that introduce young people to church leadership and asking synods and seminaries to designate people to help congregations, colleges and groups such as campus ministry to encourage people to discern whether they’re being called to ordained ministry.

Ask seminaries to develop more cooperative programs, do common research on future needs, and work toward balanced budgets and increased reserves and endowments.

Alternate path to ordination

Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) is a way of ordaining people “who by reason of age and prior experience” seek an alternate program of preparation for ordination. It is for people who are identified for ministry in a specific context, taking into consideration “the leadership gifts, ministry skills, cultural learning styles/experiences and/or age” of a candidate. TEEM candidates will serve in “emerging ministries” or “ministry settings that are without ordained pastoral leadership.”

ELCA seminaries as of Dec. 31, 2016

Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.).

Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C.

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.

Charles Austin
Charles Austin is a retired ELCA pastor who has served parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. He has also been a reporter for The New York Times and other news organizations.

Read more about: