Theology Schools, Facing Lean Times, Look to One Another and the Web

Eileen Aranda, president of Claremont Lincoln University, is a former management consultant with an M.B.A. but no training in religion. Claremont Lincoln is more interested in teaching dialogue skills, Dr. Aranda said, than literacy in Judaism, Christianity or any particular tradition.

CLAREMONT, Calif. — If you are looking for a manicured lawn and a gracious quadrangle — Gothic maybe, or redbrick with shutters on the windows — you will be disappointed.

Claremont Lincoln University, a spinoff of a traditional divinity school, the Methodist-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, sits in the bowels of an anonymous office building on a busy strip in this Los Angeles suburb. Surrounding the college are an acupuncture clinic, a hair and waxing salon, and a company that sells a premature ejaculation drug on late-night infomercials.

That Claremont Lincoln looks nothing like a traditional divinity school seems fitting. Its classes are online only, with students logging in from all over, and its offices are a command central for curriculum planning and marketing; no actual teaching happens here.

Most of its 70 students do not plan to be members of the clergy, and while the university offers classes called “Mindfulness,” “Collaboration” and “Dialogue,” it has none on, say, the Old Testament, the Gospels or the Quran. Instead, the classes are intended to “develop capacities for compassionate leadership,” according to its mission statement.

The idea behind the classes is that in a multicultural society such as ours, the right habits and tools matter more than specific knowledge, which is something that can be acquired elsewhere.

When we met around a conference table, the college’s president, Eileen Aranda, explained the lack of explicitly religious coursework. “We have moved past the knowledge piece,” said Dr. Aranda, a former management consultant with an M.B.A. but no training in religion. Claremont Lincoln is more interested in teaching dialogue skills, she said, than literacy in Judaism, Christianity or any particular tradition. “It’s not enough to know the religions.”

While Claremont Lincoln has been extreme in jettisoning “the knowledge piece,” it is not alone in sensing that divinity schools need to change to survive. According to a study released this week by the Association of Theological Schools, 55 percent of its member schools have declining enrollments. The students are aging, too — by 2020, “there may be more 50+ students than 20-somethings.”

In response, seminaries and divinity schools are in a period of unprecedented experimentation. Schools are merging; or joining together, across religious lines, in interfaith consortiums; or moving online.

Last year, according to the study, more than 23,000 students took at least one distance-learning course. At least 18 schools now offer an online-only option to master’s of divinity students.

For generations, schools as different as the liberal Harvard Divinity School and the conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have had in common a residential model: Students live on or near campus, study together and worship together. Most institutions are trying to keep some physical presence, often by working in consortiums with nearby schools from other faith traditions. Such collaborations save money, provide students a wider variety of classes and allow them to gain experience in interfaith dialogue.

For example, Hebrew College, a Jewish graduate school and rabbinical seminary in Newton, Mass., sits adjacent to Andover Newton Theological School, which is Protestant, and is a member of the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of 10 schools. The member schools, which represent traditions from Jewish to Catholic, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic, share teaching, libraries and other resources. There are similar consortiums in Chicago and in Berkeley, Calif.

But Andover Newton, whose antecedent, Andover Theological Seminary, was founded in 1807 as the country’s first graduate school of any kind, is selling its campus this year, the result of declining enrollments. It may merge with another seminary.

Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann, the president of Hebrew College, said that the interfaith relations offered by a consortium were integral to his school’s mission.

“When I came to Hebrew College, I felt so strongly about the desire to be part of an interreligious theological consortium that I requested we become members of Boston Theological Institute,” Rabbi Lehmann said. “They ultimately invited us to join but had to change their mission statement because it had been specifically Christian-focused.”

Next fall, Christian Theological Seminary, in Indianapolis, which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, is starting an option for its master’s of divinity program that will be in-person but not fixed in one place. While half the classes will be on campus, students will also meet for weeklong intensive classes in different cities, wherever the professor lives or decides to teach the class.

“One course will happen in L.A. because we have a few professors there,” said Doug Pagitt, an evangelical pastor who is helping to design the program. “Four months later, that same cohort will be in New York, then Indianapolis, or Dallas, because that’s where a church or professor is located.” The classes will be held in local schools or churches that offer or rent space.

“We are trying to solve three problems at once,” Mr. Pagitt said. “How do you have a national draw? How do you have a national draw in a program that doesn’t suffer from the limitations of the online learning environment? And how do you drive the price point down?”

Of course, there are limitations to some new models. They tend to eliminate tenure and job security for the professors, who are hired on a per-class basis; both Dr. Aranda, at Claremont Lincoln, and Mr. Pagitt said their teachers would be paid above typical adjunct rates. For many students, meeting online or in short, intensive bursts may not promote the kind of long-term friendships that residential students forge. A professor with whom one has spent only a week, if that, may be less likely to offer career-long mentorship.

And for the schools that eliminate traditional classes in Scripture or theology, it is hard to guarantee that students are well grounded in their own traditions. Most religious leaders believe that interfaith dialogue, with the best of intentions, can be vacuous if students are not sufficiently learned.

“Our faculty has said you cannot be a competent religious leader if you cannot engage effectively another faith tradition,” said Alice W. Hunt, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, which offers an online master’s of divinity. But, she said, “In order to engage another, you need to have a deep engagement with your own faith tradition.” If that’s the case, skipping straight to the dialogue skills, as the Claremont Lincoln curriculum does, could be hazardous for some students.

At the same time, Dr. Hunt said, the old model was clearly broken. “It’s costing mainline seminaries $48,000 to educate one student,” she said. “If we are charging $15,000 in tuition, we have to come up with $33,000 more. So there is something wrong with that model.”

And, Dr. Hunt added, there are glorious possibilities with online education.

“We are getting ready to graduate the first group of online M.Div. students,” she said. “We have someone in the Congo who is a U.N. peacekeeper and someone living in Palestine in the same class! Can you imagine the experience in that class because of what those people bring?”

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