My thought about Meadville/Lombard staying put

And that thought is good. Or good enough because I wondered what took this realization this long.

The plan sounded half-baked, but — to be honest — I predicted another outcome: Meadville/Lombard’s eventual diminution within the larger school. Not that this option — say, to become intentionally a house of studies within a seminary — would have been so bad, but that’s not what was proposed and would have unlikely earned much support. Nobody likes to be presented with Plan B when a magical Plan A falls apart.

So the outcome is Meadville/Lombard carries on without its historic buildings and less staff. That’s a serious loss, and may or may not have been unavoidable. (Perhaps too the idle talk about moving the UUA offices to Newton is dead, too.) With Bill Baar, I’m troubled by the lack of transparency in the process. But my solution to that is to not send them money or students. At least not until it can make some accounting of what happened and make a go of the new program.

I won’t hold my breath.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Wow!!! This gave me institutional whiplash. But perhaps I should not have been suprised. I only hope that this is not a symptom of an institutional death-spiral, where increasingly radical solutions are attempted as a means to save an instituion.

    As for the new, new M/L… If I was looking for a theological education, their distance learning Touchpoint model would not be my cup of tea. There is something about my formation as a minister that depended heavily on the residential interactions. I might be inclined to enroll at Chicago Theological Seminary, while taking my UU courses via M/L.

  2. Hey Derek,

    It’s totally whiplash, but I don’t think this is a death-spiral. This is M/L being M/L as strange as that sounds. Touchpoint wouldn’t work for me either, but I have benefitted from the seminary in some of its other–residential–incarnations.

    Of course, I am also an alum of CTS…

  3. Dear friends,
    As Meadville Lombard’s board chair, let me say that Meadville Lombard is financially sound (not in relation to Harvard but in relation to other liberal seminaries) and that careful analysis, after the plans with Andover Newton were more clear, showed that the school will be more healthy as an independent institution than in partnership with Andover Newton. The sale of buildings that were costly and ill-suited to the school’s needs are part of the plan to stay financially healthy. (And we’ll lease space that does suit the school’s needs but can change as those needs change). The distance education program is the school’s future and has been quite successful (it is not an experiment). Under the program students do come to campus for “intensives” and that’s an accurate description of the experience. The online courses are also intense and require a depth of interaction often not experienced in residential programs.

  4. I am a student at M/L, and I chose the Touchpoint Model over a more traditional residential seminary education (which is available to me locally). I have the opportunity as a student at M/L to take classes at local seminaries (of which there are several), and online classes through ACTS (Association of Chicago Theological Schools), which gives me regular face to face time with professors and seminary students.

    M/L core curriculum includes weekly reflection calls with other students, monthly calls with our cohort and core faculty, web seminars/video seminars, and intensives in July and January. This is all in addition to online coursework or local classes that we may take.

    I have regular (read, almost daily) interaction with my fellow students via phone call and email and that has been intentionally built into the model. I also (maybe moreso than other students) live in an area with a number of UU churches, and have the opportunity to interact live with M/L and other UU students who are interning or attending local seminary where I live.

    Does it take a little more intentional effort to build extra phone calls and support in to a non-traditional residential model? Yes. But the collegiality and academic rigor and excellence that I’m receiving at M/L more than makes up for the fact that face time is limited to intensive classes offered throughout the year. We also are getting tremendous support in doing the denominational work (RSCC, MFC prep and interviews, internships, etc.) that I know students at non-UU schools are NOT getting. For me, that more than makes up for the face time I’m missing.

    Praxis work is built into each and every year’s curriculum, so that I am reflecting on and doing ministry work in community and parish settings all three years – it’s not like we’re floating along out there on our own. My classmates and I, who form the 1st Touchpoint class are extremely close and talk regularly outside of required coursework. I feel blessed to be going into ministry with such strong relationships with my colleagues – I believe that we will start out with stronger bonds due to our shared UU education and formational work together than many UU ministers who attend residential, non-UU schools (I can’t speak for Starr King, but I know they have an excellent program).

    I would reserve your judgment until you actually see the results of the Touchpoint program a few years down the road.

    And no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this. I feel that I am getting a thorough education, and am being trained to take on the contemporary challenges of UU Ministry that are being discussed out here in the blogosphere.

    I’m sure that any of the faculty or staff at M/L would be happy to speak to you about the concerns you’ve shared here on occasion, as would I.

  5. As this semester’s Minister in Residence, I can certainly second the need to sell the buildings, which were totally unsuited for the current program. They were suited for a residential student body (lots of rooms, apartments, and kitchens), had staff working in four different buildings, no spaces big enough for the current student body to be together during intensive courses, not particularly accessible for anybody who couldn’t climb lots of stairs, in need of a lot of upkeep, environmentally unsound, and plunk in the middle of prime real estate. Without them, Meadville is free at last. I admire the courage of this institution…light on its feet and willing to change.

    However I would say that the Touchpoint, distance learning program is well underway but certainly not proven. It won’t be proven for about 5 years…when it’s first graduates get final Fellowship after successfully serving in ministry for several years.

  6. I guess my observation is that Larry Ladd is good at sticking to talking points that repeat much of what is already on M/L’s website, without offering additional clarity. But from my point of view, to talk-up the eventual formation of a multi-school, interfaith seminary; and then to ditch the plan at the last minute, does not build my confidence in the institution.

    I am glad M/L will remain as an independent UU theological school in the Mid-West. I do not doubt the rigor of the coursework. But I know for some of us, formation of a minister was helped by life in a residential learning setting where some pragmatic skills are learned outside of the official classroom. For example, planning residential chapel services week after week across multiple semesters. with a student committee, helped me to learn how to work with worship and program committees. This residential need may not be true for everybody. And some may be better educated in a distance format. For them Touchpoint may fit the bill. For me it would not. As for the assertion that distance learning courses have a “depth” not often experienced in residential programs, this strikes me as defensive hyperbole. I fail to see how depth of coursework is causally linked to residential vs. distance format.

  7. re: …to talk-up the eventual formation of a multi-school, interfaith seminary; and then to ditch the plan at the last minute, does not build my confidence in the institution.


    Derek nails it here. M/L really seems to be floundering. Last year it was new space near 63rd street as I recall for a school that would be involved in the greater Chicago community, then the interfaith seminary. We who follow can only ask what next.

  8. I just posted another piece at my own blog about this.

    I think that much of the problem lies in communication. I wonder if it would be possible to occasionally update us on some of the boring stuff (like courses going on and the library someday finding a home) instead of just the often-changing visionary plans. It is nice to have those plans, of course, but they seem a bit disconnected to those of us who care but are–thanks to our own life journeys–a bit disconnected from the the life of the seminary.

    Otherwise–and I do hate to say this–it does look a lot like floundering from here…

  9. Oh…and what Kelly said was helpful. Thanks Kelly!

    But this what I mean. Why should I have to call up a member of the seminary staff or a student to know that things are going well?

    Also, I still wouldn’t have gone to M/L if it wasn’t a residential program but–as I said earlier–that could be just me…

  10. Speaking as a UU student on the ANTS side of this former partnership possibility I had gotten to the point where I was looking forward to a closer relationship with ML. However, I did choose to attend Andover Newton over Meadville Lombard in large part because of the residential piece. I know different people have different needs for their learning styles and this is mine.

    We do have a great deal of depth here in our classes and interactions and there is a strong fellowship of UU students that does do a lot of prep work for students on the ordination track. We have training and speakers around the RSCC and MFC ect quite frequently.

    I hope this is what is best for both schools. I think the focus on keeping each schools identity is important. And I’m disappointed.

  11. I’m an almost alum–just two more classes–in the prior non-residential program (MRP – modified residency program).

    As Christine already commented, the existing campus didn’t meet the needs of the school. I’ve watched this go from screamingly obvious to beyond pretending.

    For reasons that no one seems to understand, the residential program just withered; students stopped applying. The last year of residential model students will consist of two (if I have those facts correct; it’s at least close) who will graduate. A school can recruit–but it can’t make students. In the meantime, the MRP program became the principle program, and the numbers in that program grew and grew. The Touchpoint program is based heavily on the MRP experience, with a more formal structure *and* and emphasis on building in even more hands-on experience doing ministry.

    Part of the confusion is that people *imagine* what the non-residential programs are as being the residential system, without being in residence. So… no community. No community of discourse. No doing. No…

    Without identifying the individual, there’s at least one MLTS alum who experienced both residential and non-residential formats. I was fortunate enough to get to talk with that individual when I was applying, and was told that (understanding that no program is everyone’s cup of tea), intensives allowed access to teachers who’d *never* be able to make the time to teach a standard term (in my own case, this has meant getting to study preaching and public ethics with Bill Schulz, for example). *And* that while it seems counter-intuitive, the nature of the community created by the non-residentials was very close and intentional, and caring. Moreso than that experienced in the residential community. That’s the perception of the only person I know who can meaningfully speak to the experience of both programs.

    The non-residential program certainly has more in common with–more applicability to?–collegial connections outside of seminary.

    For what it’s worth, it’s working. MLTS has had two sequential years of record-sized incoming classes. The new program is more formally structured than the MRP program. It’s risky and uncertain–trying to figure out how to train ministers, breaking out of models that are two centuries old (or so) and which are demonstrably becoming less and less sustainable–too damned costly, just for starters.

    Of course that looks strange. It’s not going to be a minor reform.

    The buildings represented a lot of capital–and devoured maintenance. AND they no longer were suited to the larger and larger classes that the intensives have become. There was *nowhere* in MLTS’s Hyde Park campus that could have held this past January’s Liberal Theology class. At one level, the school is (has) outgrown its facilities. Other classes weren’t quite that large, but most of them could only have been accommodated by the Curtis Room. And only *one* class could have used it….

    The school had to move.

    Lee Barker has assured people (over and over and over and… over…) that the library is understood to be the crown jewel of the school, a UU treasure, and that it *will* be maintained and housed and protected, and that access will be — if anything — enhanced.

    And while there are other issues that fed into abandoning the idea of the theological university, the *key* one that I heard expressed was that clever lawyers could not find a way, under the combined strictures of the laws and regulations of two states and the federal government, to ensure that MLTS would be protected *as* a UU entity that focuses on training UU ministers. Promises could be made. But no one could figure out a legally meaningful governance structure that guaranteed that MLTS would remain UU-focused.

    And *that* was one of the very few things that were set forth at the very beginning of the exploration with ANTS as a true sine qua non. It had to be financially feasible and enhance the fiscal viability of the school. It had to remain UU. And it had to permit the school to continue to develop and implement its new educational program (which was one of the most attractive things it had to bring to the negotiations anyway…).

    It failed to meet those criteria, and MLTS declined to go forward.

    The school isn’t floundering. The idea of a new campus down on 63rd was slain by the Great Recession and the withdrawal of support from the city (for that same reason, mostly, I expect). The student experience is that, administratively, it’s substantially better and more reliable and responsive than it’s been for… oh, at least a decade.

    They’ve been exploring serious change–which entails both risk and opportunity. Experiments that are learned from and moved on from.

    Staying where they were, doing what they’d been doing… would have meant that it would have ceased to be. The money would have been consumed, used up, and (from the evidence) residential students would have stopped applying, too. And all that would exist in several years would be… a dead institution and a library that UUism couldn’t afford to let go but had no money or home for–and no one even clearly responsible for saving it.

  12. Re: But no one could figure out a legally meaningful governance structure that guaranteed that MLTS would remain UU-focused.

    Wouldn’t that kind of UU-focus have run against the grain of this new kind of multi-faith seminary?

    Thanks Derek, but this story just looks like a total loss of sense of mission.

  13. Bill, it wasn’t to be a “multi-faith seminary.” It was to be a theological university, which contained seminaries that had distinct focuses. There was, for example, a Jewish institution that participated in some level of talks.

    The model wasn’t to create a generic blending, but more of a mozaic, where the underlying infrastructure of the university supported the various different and distinct schools efficiently and more cheaply than they could do on their own.

    It would also have *allowed* students to take a few classes in the other schools, and to access the various libraries and other resources associated with the schools.

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