Secular Seattle is full of theology schools

Opening this week at Seattle Pacific University is the fourth graduate school of theology in town. Another surprising aspect is the evangelical tilt of this diverse set of schools.
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Sherman Alexie with Seattle U. Theology Dean Mark Markuly (right) at a recent Spirituality and Theology Book Festival

Opening this week at Seattle Pacific University is the fourth graduate school of theology in town. Another surprising aspect is the evangelical tilt of this diverse set of schools.

Since we hear so regularly that Seattle and the Northwest are secular, it may be surprising to learn that, with the addition of a new program this week at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle now has four seminaries, or graduate schools of theology, preparing men and women for religious leadership and congregational ministry.

Seattle Pacific University School of Theology's Dean, Doug Strong, says 'ꀜit has been a dream of SPU for decades to offer graduate degrees,'ꀝ specifically the Master of Divinity degree, the customary degree for people becoming ordained ministers. In fact, SPU first tried such a program in the 1970s but was unable to sustain it. Now SPU joins three other seminaries in Seattle: Mars Hill Graduate School, Fuller Seminary/ Seattle Extension, and Seattle University'ꀙs School of Theology and Ministry. This week Seattle Pacific enrolled its first class in a new program, a class of 32 students.

Though Seattle Pacific is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, students have come from a variety of denominational backgrounds and church affiliations, including both mainline and evangelical. Students are Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Methodist as well as Church of God in Christ, Covenant and from non-denominational churches.

According to Dean Strong, what SPU'ꀙs new program has to offer is two-fold. First, the program for would-be ministers will be inter-disciplinary, drawing upon the depth and breadth of the whole university, utilizing faculty in other departments such as the arts, classics, business, and the sciences. Second, the new SPU program is shaped by the 'ꀜTriple-A'ꀝ framework or approach. The AAA stands for Abbey, Apostlate, and Academy. Unpacked, that means the SPU program will be about spiritual formation (Abbey), mission in the world including social service and justice (Apostlate), and academic study and scholarship (Academy).

The oldest of the four Seattle seminaries is the Fuller Seminary Seattle extension. The main Fuller campus is in Pasedena, California, and has long been recognized as among the leading evangelical Christian seminaries in the U.S. Fuller Seattle was established in 1973 and currently has 280 full or part time students in several degree programs.

Newer entries into seminary education field in Seattle include Mars Hill Graduate School, located at Elliott and Wall in the Belltown area of downtown Seattle, and School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University in central Seattle. Mars Hill Graduate School, which is not affiliated with Seattle'ꀙs Mars Hill Church, has an enrollment of 300 students at its urban campus. Some are preparing for church leadership, others for counseling ministries. Of the four Seattle seminaries, MHGS seems the most post-modern in its ethos with a lot of ties to the Emergent Church movement and its leaders. (The Emergent Church tends to target the under 40, Gen-Xers, the wired generation, frequently emphasizing belonging and relationship building as a pathway to believing.) Founded in 1995, MHGS operated from Bothell in its early years, moving to downtown Seattle in 2007.

Seattle University is a Catholic (Jesuit) University with an ecumenical (Protestant and Catholic) seminary. Both students and faculty are of Protestant and Catholic background and identity, which makes the school and its experience unique. While the other three seminaries are all somewhere on the evangelical spectrum, Seattle U would fairly be described as 'ꀜmainline'ꀝ or liberal in orientation and theology. In its current ecumenical incarnation, the Seattle University program was established in 1997. Enrollment is 273 students, located in the new Hunthausen Hall (named after Seattle'ꀙs onetime Catholic Bishop, Raymond Hunthausen).

What does it mean that Seattle, not so long ago without any seminaries, and often thought an epi-center of the secular and religiously unaffiliated, now has four schools preparing people for Christian ministry? It may mean that the secular stereotype is simply inaccurate and that religious and spiritual interest and engagement is higher here than the conventional wisdom would have it.

But the variety and evangelical tilt of seminary education in Seattle would also suggest that the Northwest is more fertile territory for the religiously entrepreneurial than for the more established religious brands and styles. At least, according to UW Prof James Wellman'ꀙs 2008 study, Evangelical and Liberal, the former group is doing better in the Nothwest than the latter. Where established religious groups may bemoan the secular or spiritual-but-not-religious bent of the Northwest, evangelical groups think of it as more of an opportunity.

Another factor contributing to growing number of seminaries in Seattle may be the changing demographics of seminary students themselves. Many more women go to seminary and prepare for ministry now than a generation or two ago. Women outnumber men in the Seattle Pacific'ꀙs first class. Seminaries also attract second-career, often somewhat older, students. These shifts mean that students are less likely to pick up and go off to school in another part of the nation, and more likely to want something that they can fit in around their family and job here in Seattle.

Can Seattle, which only had one seminary 15 years ago, support four? Time will, of course, tell. But the four are, despite some overlap, different in ethos and emphasis. Each has a different niche. Seattle U. is mainline and ecumenical; Mars Hill emergent and post-modern, Fuller classic evangelical, and SPU, embedded within a Christian university and Wesleyan (John Wesley, founder of Methodism) in spirit and heritage. In that respect, seminary education in Seattle looks very 21st century. It'ꀙs diverse in format, theology, style, and structure. None of the schools is clearly dominant, all have something they contribute to the changing and emerging religious ecology of the Northwest.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.