Future of theological education?

Several years ago, visiting a colleague-friend, I visited the Universalist-founded Tufts University, musing that this was as close as I was ever to get to a formal Universalist education. Crane, the Universalist seminary at Tufts, and St. Lawrence, the Universalist seminary in upstate New York were both closed in the late 1960s because the powers-that-were rightly judged that four seminaries (excluding the then de facto Harvard) were too many for as small a denomination as the Unitarian Universalists. But both of the Universalist ones? Mercy! Well, that’s the past.

I got a couple of souvenirs on that trip: a t-shirt I won’t now wear out of the apartment and a mug,Faded image on Tufts mug depicting the building that once housed the seminary. As you can see, it has faded so badly you can’t tell what it was. The gold rim is long gone. There’s an object lesson in there somewhere.

A couple of years ago, there was much consternation about the future of the remaining seminaries: Meadville/Lombard and Starr King. The controversy died down but I don’t sense there was any lasting resolution.

But the problem is bigger than the survival of two small and struggling institutions. The idea of ordained ministry’s role and authority has changed and the economics of the ministry are not sustainable. The “thou shalt sacrifice” culture I observed not so many years ago won’t hold. Comfort and expectations of what distributed learning, participation and networking can provide is changing what self-respecting students will allow.

My fear isn’t that we’ll do “it” wrong, but that we won’t inquire deeply into what must be done. It isn’t a widely-discussed issue and it ought to be; theological education isn’t something that can be decided by a council somewhere. It can’t only be the unsuitable candidates that drift away.

Indeed, with the new Unitarian Universalist Association mantra — “all about the congregations” — you have to wonder what role it is morally entitled to concerning ministerial formation. The interests of ministers will necessarily be subordinated to congregational interests. Even the dysfunctional congregations. Ministers standing will erode. No minister can afford to be dependent in that scenario. The former (for Unitarians) guild model, where the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association would take the lead in standards, mentoring and credentialing, seems more equitable. (I would join that kind of UUMA.) The UUA would retain settlement, or it might be shared in a joint agency.

But even it the system stays the way it is, and the pendulum swings back to a more inclusive concept of the UUA, a rich, public discussion about appropriate ministerial formation must follow or we risk a slow debilitating decline as a movement.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I’ve begun to ask what might be even larger scale questions about ordained ministry, and have many days when I am very skeptical about it being a neccesity. Perhaps the Unitarian Fellowship Movement and the Quakers had it right, and we can exist quite nicely “without benefit of clergy”? This is a sobering thought for me – having earned my M.Div. and now in my 9th year of ministry.

    And if we can exist without benefit of clergy, how do we nurture leadership and gifts for ministry? How do we have a theologically intelligent universal priesthood? It seems to me that the present day systems of seminary education do not work well for non-ordained ministry. Neither am I very hopeful about the UUA’s various programs to certify religious educators, church administrators, and musicians. Those particular programs also feel to me, to be infused with the spirit of centralized identity crafting, and I think they have an unconscious effect of weeding out dissenting voices in the UU community (eg. How many of these certification programs can you get through, if you have major pincipled objections to recent anti-oppression dogmas that are being promoted?). And those who have completed these processes often do not inspire me with their giftedness; although they take much pride in their certificates.

  2. For a religious tradition that reclaims the sovereignty of congregations and not just the priesthood but even the “prophethood” of all believers, it makes little sense to keep a subclass of ordained people at the helm. On the other hand, many people find in ministry their personal and professional fulfillment, and an honest way of earning their daily bread. Congregations have the responsibility to decide if they need a minister or not (and be prepared for either answer). As for UU theological education itself, perhaps it could be equivalent to a master’s degree, a sort of specialization after completing regular ministerial education in any liberal school of theology.

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