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, 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.