Seminary in Sacramento

Later this evening, Fuller Seminary Sacramento is having its commencement. I’m going to put on my fancy duds and join in on the ceremony and celebration.

This is an exciting event, and yet one tinged with a bit of sadness. I neglected to mention hereabouts that Fuller decided to close down its regional campus here in Sacramento. Well, decided to close it down on June 30, then decided to only half close it and keep a sharply modified version running until September 2017.

They made this decision in early February. Needless to say it was quite a blow for staff, for students, for me. I wasn’t in danger of losing my job, my contract is for three years and can adapt to different modalities like online classes or teaching at other campuses. Indeed, I wasn’t even asked to move. Yet, it was still a blow to me. Others are losing their jobs, friends and co-laborers at the campus here. Students are losing a good community and Sacramento–and the Central Valley of California–is losing a needed resource.

Fuller Sacramento was small but growing, one of the fastest growing campuses in Fuller’s system (it might have been the fastest growing). We were increasing becoming a hub for theological and pastoral connection as well as a training center for vocational and non-vocational ministers throughout the region. People who attend this campus tend to be from the area and stay in the area, so Fuller was increasingly shaping the churches in the region through its network of alumni.

Out of the blue, they told us that we’re shutting down. Budget crisis, you see. Not unique to Fuller, part of the landscape of theological education and indeed higher education. Fuller has to restructure. It’s not, as a whole, in danger of closing but does need to focus resources and investments.

Sacramento didn’t make the cut. Nothing we could have done, or do about it. We were doing quite well, in fact.

It’s not you, it’s me, they told us.

That never makes the breakup easier. They found someone else, someone even more popular. Online education.

Students want to take online classes a lot more than classroom courses. So much so, that Fuller sees online as a priority. And in a budget crisis, the wave of the future crashes over the rocks of the past.

I won’t go into more specifics, and I certainly don’t want to use this space to gripe or rant. Well, at least not about that.

So, tonight is Fuller Sacramento’s last commencement ceremony. A celebration tinged with sadness, but it does not leave me sitting with that sadness. As is my tendency, I think about what could have been done (nothing) and also what can still yet be done. Not necessarily in terms of Fuller Sacramento (though I’ve not entirely given up hope–Fall 2017 is a long way away), but about seminary education in general.

What is the future of seminary? I’m a theologian and church historian, who dabbles in teaching additional other subjects, so my tendency is to explore beneath the surface and see how underlying elements lead to later events. When I ask about the future of seminary I keep stepping farther and farther below the surface to find the key issues at hand. These are generally assumed without being discussed, and are often acted on without being reflected on. That latter tendency leads to a fair amount of incoherence. Acting in a way that makes sense in light of a current concern but not in keeping with core goals or values or mission.

Church history is full of this tendency. People acting for the church, in the church, in ways that are quite missing the point of the church. Indeed, the Bible is full of this, from beginning to end. It’s a very human tendency. We get caught up in goals and get caught up in frenzy. Unreflected action follows.

It doesn’t mean it’s always bad, though sometimes it is, and sometimes things work out in the short term, even as they suggest long-term dysfunction.

That’s not to accuse or blame Fuller’s decision to close the campus. I disagree with the decision for a number of reasons. But I also understand the situation and need to make structural changes. It was a tactical decision.

But it leaves me still being me and thinking about the underlying issues and overall strategy. Which is something that I want to ponder about over the next few months here. The quarter is over, finally at a point where I don’t have brand new classes to teach, and so I have time to get back to professional pondering.

I begin by asking, “What is the purpose of seminary?” That’s the beginning question and a vital one as institutions all over the country are trying to figure out a way to survive in an era of significant change.

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