This post was written for a different blog. For various reasons, it will never be published there. So I'm putting it here instead. I need you to know this story, because I may be processing it for some time. For now, names of the relevant places are being simplified to The Seminary and The Institution. You'll see what I mean.
I’ve been thinking about Grandpa Madeira lately.
Grandpa and some other visionary pastors founded a seminary in the mid-1980’s. Originally comprised of four “centers” in various Northeastern states, The Seminary was designed in such a way that students who were already in ministry, or already working full-time in general, could still attend and get a legitimate degree. It had an innovative spiritual formation and mentoring component incorporated throughout its program—an unusual feature for seminaries at the time. The hope was to prepare students to minister in the spiritually desolate Northeast and beyond. Some who were trained in that seminary now serve overseas. Some still pastor churches in the Northeastern United States.
Disaster struck in the mid-1990’s. In an attempt to keep the groundbreaking Seminary funded, leadership had opted into New Era Philanthropy—which turned out, to their surprise, to be a ponzi scheme. It didn’t end well. The school almost went under. Grandpa succumbed to what turned out to be Alzheimer’s, although it took a long time to be diagnosed. Many of us in the family hypothesized that the ponzi scandal was enough to shock him into a defense mechanism from which he never escaped, but before he submerged entirely, he observed that sometimes, maybe the Church tries too hard to utilize the methods of the world to accomplish the purposes of the Kingdom.
Grandpa meant New Era, of course, but sometimes other things happen that remind me he said that. Maybe, he suggested, the leadership of The Seminary should have had a little more faith. Then, just when it seemed all was lost, another visionary Institution took steps to acquire The Seminary. The school survived, eventually fully merging with the larger, stronger entity. I don’t think Grandpa’s mind outlasted the merger, and his body followed suit some time afterward, but his legacy and the vision of his friends and colleagues had been validated and strengthened by the providential help of The Institution.
I was just out of college when the New Era deal came crashing down, working as a nanny in Connecticut. Some time later I became a missionary among refugees in London, England, and five years after that, returned to the US, to attempt a seminary degree in counseling. The school I chose was a good one, but a terrible fit for me at that time. I moved back to New England. About five years after that, I resumed studies, this time in an MDiv program at a New England institution. But not all institutions are designed for people already in full-time ministry, who can’t quit their jobs, pack up, move to campus, and dedicate most waking hours to study.
“Why don’t you try The Seminary?” suggested my mother, my counselor, some local youth leaders with whom I fellowship. I didn’t want to. Grandpa had started that school, and deep as my respect for him runs, I had this idea that a seminary that met in rented space in a church, and had been partially founded by a family member, couldn’t possibly give me a degree worth having.
Then again, the logistics of my second seminary were proving impossible. After another year and a half or so of soul-searching and prayerful struggle, I finally applied to, was enrolled in, and began classes as a MATS student at The Seminary. I finally felt peaceful about my decision, and God began to provide financially for me to attend. Within the first week of classes I was overwhelmed by the sense of community and the depth of spirituality inherent in this place. It was my third seminary, but, excellent as the other two are, I had never experienced anything like it. Mind and spirit are being fed in ways I, in my setting, desperately need. The body is being fed, too, during the periodic potluck dinners!
Last week, The Seminary students received word that our center is closing. The times, as Dylan sang before they had even changed this much, they are a’changin’. The theological training landscape looks different. Sometimes organizations must reprioritize. I believe the powers that be when they tell me I will, regardless of the imminent closure, be able to finish my degree, finally–if for no other reason than that their accreditation requires it. I still regret that I didn’t start here sooner. That was my mistake.
I also regret, though, that the Northeast is losing a resource—and the theological landscape is losing a paradigm—that is not, as things stand now, replaceable. New England is beautiful, and so are its people. But its soil is stony, and hearts are, too. The “local” alternatives are not true alternatives to the types of students who are attending here. The Seminary was shining Jesus’ light in dark places in ways other institutions couldn’t. I pray we hold tight to what we’ve learned of Him as we’ve studied here, and that we continue to shine His light where He calls us as this particular set of doors closes behind us.