Though the global financial meltdown has been tough for most educational institutions, McCormick Theological Seminary President Cynthia Campbell says the crisis has become “an opportunity” for her Chicago school.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” Campbell told the Presbyterian News Service in an interview here while she attended the recent General Assembly Mission Council meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “We’ve been able to reaffirm our core mission and explore some innovative opportunities.”

Not that it’s been easy. Campbell said McCormick’s endowment lost 35 percent of its value in the months after the fall 2008 collapse.

“Even if people saw this coming, no one knew how bad it was going to get,” she said. “All you can do is decide how you’re going to react.”

McCormick Seminary had a recovery plan in place by February 2009, less than six months after the collapse. That plan has included creation of several new “nontraditional” programs:

  • An institute on cross-cultural theological education, designed to foster collaboration among the& African-American, Hispanic and Asian “ministry centers” at the seminary.
  • Master of Arts degree programs in urban ministry and discipleship development (“for leaders in congregations who don’t necessarily want to pursue ordained pastoral ministry”).
  • A certificate program in executive leadership in the church.
  • A proposed new certificate program in “green church leadership” for students who want to explore “how environmental stewardship intersects with church leadership.”

The three-year residential Master of Divinity program “has always been the ‘gold standard’ for theological institutions,” Campbell said, “but I’m convinced there’s going to be multiple gold standards going forward. Our mission is to train Christian men and women for leadership … and that’s not just an M.Div.-granting mission.”

As seminaries adapt to church realities — fewer ordained positions are available as membership declines and many congregations increasingly struggle to afford full-time pastoral leadership — “the ironies around all of this are staggering,” Campbell said.

“Just eight years ago the PC(USA) said, ‘Oh, we don’t have enough young pastors,’ so everyone jumped on the bandwagon and we got them,” Campbell said. “Then the baby-boomers decided not to retire and the church contracted, and now we’ve got two graduates for every job.”

One solution many advocate is “tentmaking,” in which pastors derive their income from nonpastoral work while serving congregations. “Part of why tentmaking hasn’t caught on to a greater extent,” Campbell said, “ is because of our history of defining ministry as ‘full-time paid.’”

Seminaries have also focused their recruitment efforts on recent college graduates, “so we don’t have that other, work-experience, trained professional side in our students,” she added. “We need to find experienced workers who feel a call to ministry and educate them.”

That’s a fundamental shift for M.Div.-oriented theological institutions.

“We may have more seminary graduates than we need,” Campbell said, “but there’s not nearly enough theological education to serve the church. The question we need to be asking is, ‘How do we prepare more and better church leaders?’”