The recent decision of the trustees of Saint Paul School of Theology to vacate its present Kansas City, Mo., campus and move into the facilities of Church of the Resurrection constitutes a reality check. Could this be the tremor before the earthquake of other institutional closures, moves or “downsizings” driven by the UMC loss of membership, attendance, offerings, and philanthropy? This news came as personal sadness to me because in the early 1980s I was vice president of institutional advancement at Saint Paul and lived on campus!
A mite of history is helpful. The formation of “National Methodist Theological Seminary” in Kansas City by the General Conference of 1956 was an exercise in the “audacity of hope.” Indeed, two new seminaries were established: one in Missouri, the other in Ohio, the same state where the EUB church already had United Theological Seminary in Dayton!
The future of the massive numerical strength and theological influence of Methodism in the American heartland was assumed. The state of Ohio had the largest number of Methodists in relation to the general population of any state in the union. Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma were areas of Methodist strength. Those “upper South Central Jurisdiction” conferences felt a “brain drain” as their candidates for ordination left the region for other seminaries and never came home to serve. The original name of “National Methodist Theological Seminary” and the location were changed in 1965 when the seminary was given the campus and library of National College.
The two new seminaries were also predicated on the fiscal strength of Methodism in 1956 and the assumption that many members of means would contribute liberally to the established of new centers for educating clergy. Garrett Biblical Institute had been endowed by Eliza Garrett’s $300,000 in 1855, Drew Theological Seminary in 1868 by Daniel Drew of “steamship fortune,” Candler by Asa Candler’s $1 million of “Coca Cola” money in 1915 and Duke by James B. Duke’s endowment of $40 million in 1924, and Perkins by Joe and Lois Perkins’ $12 million in 1945. The nine buildings and thirteen acres in Kansas city were a mixed blessing. They provided inexpensive on-campus housing and great facilities for continuing education, but required tremendous budgeting for repairs and maintenance.
Early in its formation of faculty, St. Paul became a bastion for the rising tide of liberation theology. From the 1960s forward through the 1980s, faculty were deeply committed to disarmament, pacifism, feminist theology, black theology and other social justice issues. This was cast at Saint Paul as a prophetic dimension of the Gospel and placed the seminary in a posture of speaking “to” the church more than simply preparing pastors for service “in” the church. Saint Paul graduates serving local churches sometimes often found their message to be in conflict with their congregations. However, the school graduated many outstanding pastors who combined their call and skills in pastoral ministry and prophetic accent with great effectiveness. Faculty earned popularity for teaching classes for lay leadership. Perhaps best known and frequently called was Dr. Tex Sample who combined an “aw shucks” “down home” personality with an incisive social justice message. During the presidency of Lovett Weems, the seminary faculty’s theological posture became more centrist and reflective of the “catholic spirit” of United Methodism.
A number of factors have gradually created the major reason given by the board for closing the Saint Paul campus. A spokesman for the school noted the decline of UMC membership in the Midwest. How sad. These territories before and after the Civil War survived the conflict over slavery in areas like “bloody Kansas” and the “burned out district” on the Kansas/Missouri border. Indeed because we had “boots on the ground” as lay preachers, dedicated laity, and foresighted bishops, Methodism became the dominant denomination in many counties and most midwestern states. No one saw the coming of the decline of the mainline denominations.
The re-location of Saint Paul School of Theology to a mega-church campus is striking evidence of the decline of United Methodism. While we applaud the growth and influence of Church of the Resurrection under the phenomenal leadership of Adam Hamilton, one can only interpret this turn of events as the erosion of Wesleyan presence right in the middle of the continent. St. Paul seems saved…for now.
One cannot avoid “connecting the dots” of the announcement about the relocation of a seminary to an article by a Claremont School of Theology administrator that we might be facing the division of United Methodism! The issue Dr. Jack Jackson cites is the perennial debate and repetitive General Conference majority vote regarding homosexuality. He is calling for a repeat of the separation of the church North and South following the acrimonious 1844 General Conference over slavery and the defrocking of Bishop James Andrew of Georgia. That “plan of separation” included local church properties, general agency real and liquid assets, pensions, etc.
Lyle Schaller, a pundit and prophet of late 20th century United Methodism, once predicted that social justice issues and globalization would force the UMC to move toward what he called a “confederacy” in which each jurisdiction and “Central Conference” defined its own regional polity regarding ordination, itinerancy, etc., and each annual conference funded its own benevolences and pensions. He did not intimate his opinion on any issue, but foresaw the break-up of a monolithic structure and, to some degree, a diversified doctrine. At the time, his words sounded more like prattle than prophecy. Now, one wonders.
So it is that both the action of the board to relocate a seminary and the opinion of a responsible Western Jurisdiction voice seem to point what the country song called “a rocky road ahead.” Should we take these “detours”? Must we continue in a mode of retreat?
Some will disagree with my response, but if we continue to lose members and attendance, we will become fiscally insolvent. Some have disagreed with the strong language of Lovett Weems who speaks of a coming “death tsunami,” but the data he compiled are hard to deny. Indeed has not denial been a detour? Once upon a time we connected with mainstream America. The message was flawed and the polity was politicized but something kept us, in the words of Charles Ferguson, “organizing to beat the devil.” What happened to make the sound of the trumpet seem uncertain? What robbed us of the confidence of our Arminian doctrine infused by the “experimental divinity” of Mr. Wesley and the indefatigable energy of the legendary circuit riders who followed the westward movement of the poor white pioneers? What happened to the message that brought more Native Americans and African American slaves to the Christian faith than the missionaries of any other denomination? What happened to the opening of pocketbooks to build more colleges, orphanages, and churches than any other denomination in the 19th century. What happened to our “catholic spirit?”
Yes, we have some vital congregations. Yes we have a dozen or so annual conferences still showing numerical growth. Yes, we still have a grace theology without parallel as good news to those who have lost their sense of purpose or their experience of “saving grace.” But will our albatrosses haunt us down a slippery slope of decline and retreat?