Published June 28th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
When the COVID-19 pandemic jack-hammered into Kansas City, the good news for area seminaries was that most of them already were at least partly prepared for the new ways they would now be training clergy.
“Our main adjustment,” said Robert Johnson, interim president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American Baptist institution in Shawnee, “has been to require essentially all faculty and staff to work from home (many were already doing this some of the time anyway), but we already had in place all the infrastructure and technology we needed to do this.
“Our 2019-2024 Strategic Plan makes no mention of pandemics, stay-at-home orders, financial crisis, virtual commencement programs, Zoom board meetings, underemployed students and travel restrictions. Yet, even as Central’s board, faculty, staff, students and administrators have been challenged by the unexpected, we have gained new perspectives on God’s activity in the world, the qualities that constitute true community (and) what it means to serve God and one another amid unknown and unpredictable circumstances.”
(Johnson is temporarily filling in because of the recent, unexpected resignation of former Central president Molly T. Marshall for unexplained “ethical lapses,” which I’ve briefly written about on my blog.)
Then amid the pandemic seminaries also felt called to respond to the appalling killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer and the civil unrest that followed. A primary response was led by Angela D. Sims, who used to teach at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City but now is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York.
She and other black leaders of seminaries and religious studies departments of American universities issued an important statement, which includes these words: “We cannot and will not be silent while threats are continuously uttered by the highest political leadership in our country.”
Like other area divinity schools, Sims’ former school, St. Paul, a United Methodist institution housed on the campus of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, also seemed pretty well prepared for changes necessitated by the pandemic.
As Jeanne Hoeft, the school’s academic dean, said: “It’s been a very different end to a semester. But going on has been a relatively easy process because we’ve been expanding and changing our approach to technology. All of our courses are designed to be delivered in multiple modalities.”
And Jeren Rowell, president of Nazarene Theological Seminary, said: “Thankfully, we are not scrambling to survive. We have strong enrollment for summer and good projections for fall. We are financially and operationally stable. Therefore, our processes for discerning developing responses to our new shared realities can be collaborative, involving faculty, administration, board and wider constituencies.”
Beyond that, Rowell said that when the virus hit “we were able to pivot quite seamlessly to fully online instruction and administrative work in March. We were already at 73 percent of students as ‘distance learners’ and our anticipation is that even if we open residential classrooms for fall, we will be at 85 percent distance learners.”
Still, what has been true at other institutions of higher education has been true for area divinity schools. They’ve needed to be quick, flexible and focused on a future that so far is unknowable in any detail.
At Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Southern Baptist school in Kansas City, North, for instance, officials have announced plans for on-campus classes to resume in the fall semester, but with strict safety adjustments.
And although what he calls “timeless principles” don’t change, Christopher Cone, until this spring the president of Calvary University, said that “COVID-19 has been an accelerant unlike anything we have seen since the arrival of the smartphone and since the tragedies of 9/11 before that.” And it means, he said, that Calvary must work to avoid “mission drift.”
“Crisis management,” said Cone, now president and CEO of AgathonEDU Education Group, “can sometimes cause us to take our eyes off of our mission. Mission drift often happens undetected in times of crisis, when attention is shifted from institutional purpose and value to institutional survival. For any worthwhile organization, the mission is priority one and sustainability is priority two.”
As for Cone’s point, Neil Blair, president of St. Paul, said that at his seminary, “we don’t think about any dollar that we spend without thinking about how it’s tied directly to our mission.”
For many seminaries — here and elsewhere — the last several decades have brought major changes. Not only have they seen the old model of students living on campus for three years fade away but they’ve seen the arrival of more second-career students who work at other jobs while trying to finish a seminary degree and who may not be headed into parish ministry but, rather, into chaplaincy or nonprofit agency work.
“Ministry,” said Anne Walker, executive director of St. Paul’s Oklahoma City campus, “just doesn’t look like it used to.”
One area seminary, the Unity Worldwide Spiritual Institute, moved its ministry and religious studies program primarily to online courses in September 2016. So, as the school’s president, Deborah Frownfelter, said: “We were not as seriously affected by the pandemic as many others are. We have been grateful that this is so.”
In addition, she said: “We have had courses since 2016 such as ‘Technology in the Emerging Church,’ ‘Inclusive Ministry’ and ‘Trends in Ministry,’ among others, that are preparing our ministerial students for changes in ministry. We have found, as a result, that our students have been very valuable in helping their home churches with moving to online services and adapting to other needed changes due to the pandemic.”
So the practice that Unity and other area seminaries already had at making such adjustments helped them when the pandemic arrived.
Walker said that in addition to her administration work: “I teach religious education. At the start of this past semester I had one class on how to teach online. By the end of the semester that’s all that we were doing. So all students were thinking about how to use this technology creatively and effectively to do ministry well.”
Cone noted that higher education institutes are “historically resistant to change (and) this means painful but necessary and rapid reinvention in nearly every area of strategy and tactics” in the wake of this pandemic and civil unrest. And that may include consideration of more classes that deal with crisis management in congregations.
No doubt there will be some miscalculations in this change-on-the-fly process in a doubly complicated time, but Kansas City’s seminaries seem to be adjusting well and are confident of different, though robust, futures.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.