At the beginning of the last academic year our seminary hit a point of crisis. For a long time our enrollment has been low, finances have been sparce and our faculty has been small, but last year we lost two teachers and all of a sudden we had to start cutting corners. We realized we could no longer continue according to the status quo. At the beginning of this year, the founder of our seminary (The Slovak Evangelical Alliance) appointed a task force and gave us the job of putting together a strategy for the future of the seminary.
In this post I’ll describe the challenges we’ve been facing that have brought us to our current situation. In the following posts we’ll look at the special place our seminary has not just in Slovakia but in our region of Central Europe and then in a third post I’ll look at the strategy we have for moving towards sustainability.
What are the Challenges?
Some of my colleagues wouldn’t agree but I would say our seminary is facing a crisis. The question “Why is there a crisis at the seminary?” has two different kinds of responses. The first kind of response answers the question: What’s going on that we are experiencing a crisis? This question gets to the symptoms we’re experiencing. The second kind of response answers the question: How did this happen? This question is more diagnostic and helps us understand what needs to change.
Both questions help clarify the challenges we are currently facing.
To answer the first question, we can look at some numbers. At its height in the early 2000s, the enrollment at our seminary was nearly 180 bachelors and masters students. Now we have just 40 bachelors, masters and doctoral students. Our faculty at one point had twelve full time professors. We now have six.
In one way it makes sense that the number of students has gone down and so has the number of teachers. It certainly is a lot less work to grade papers for eight students than thirty-eight. The problem is, we have the same number of classes to teach. Also, we need teachers who are qualified in their specific area. So at a seminary we need someone qualified in Old Testament, New Testament, Systematic Theology, Christian History, Practical/Pastoral Theology and Missiology/Evangelism. Right now, even though we have six faculty for six “departments” we don’t have anyone to teach Christian History.
And then also there’s the fact that with decreased funding we have decreased finances for administrative staff. So currently we have one half of a dedicated administrative position for administrative tasks in our department, for student services and for our theological library facilities. That means our faculty has had to take on additional administrative duties.
And there’s one other thing. Since our seminary part of a state university, we are at a research institution which means that along with the teaching and administrative duties there is the expectation that we will be involved in research. That means applying for grants (which is in itself a big job), organizing and participating in research projects, presenting research at conferences and publishing articles and books. The state divvies up its funds for higher education according to a 60/40 formula. Forty percent of funding to each university is based on pedagogical output (e.g., number of students) and sixty percent is based on research output.
So all these symptoms can be summarized in one sentence. It’s gotten to the point where we can no longer maintain the teaching, research and administrative load with our current staffing levels—no matter how much we work above and beyond expectations. The current situation is unsustainable.
The Root Issues
Now for the second question, how did we get here? How did we go from 180 to 40 students and from 12 to 6 faculty members? There are a lot of reasons so I’ll stick to what I think are the main reasons. For these we’ll need a little bit of history.
The seminary started in 1993, just a couple years after the fall of communism. Under communism no church groups were allowed to go on retreats or organize summer camps, evangelism was forbidden and small groups couldn’t meet in people’s homes. Anything outside the church building was illegal. At the time, most of the pastors in our country received their theological education from the Lutheran Seminary at Comenius University in Bratislava. One of my brothers-in-law once said of this school that if you graduate and you’re still a believer then that’s about the best you can hope for from that seminary. Ouch! It certainly didn’t prepare our pastors for ministry in evangelical churches.
When communism fell people were excited about the new opportunities for bible studies, summer camps, worship, evangelism and theological education. Once the seminary started they were especially excited about the opportunity to train for ministry at a solid evangelical institution with an accredited degree. If a young person was involved in their youth group, leading worship or a bible study, then their pastor or youth leader or even parents would encourage them: “You should go study theology to become a pastor (or missionary, or youth worker…)!”
As the economy improved and people started buying new cars and building new houses, or going abroad to study and work, parents and students started seeing more value in pursuing a career as a teacher, doctor, lawyer or entrepreneur. Now, when a student expresses interest in theological education, their parents or youth leader is more likely to tell them: “Don’t waste your time studying theology—you’re too smart for that, you can do better.”
This of course, has had a big impact on our enrollment. But it’s far from the only factor.
As I mentioned above, our seminary is actually a part of the state university system in Slovakia. We’re a department at the College of Education at Matej Bel University (UMB). The total enrollment at UMB reached its peak about the same time as our seminary. At that time the university had an enrollment of over 17,000 students. Last year, the UMB had a total enrollment of 6,132 students.
In other words, the decline of enrollment at the seminary more or less copies the decline at the university as a whole. If that’s the case, there must be something else going on. Parents not wanting their kids to pursue theological education doesn’t explain the decrease in enrollment at the whole university.
Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004. When that happened it all of a sudden became much easier and cheaper for Slovaks to work and study abroad. I have friends, neighbors and family members who have taken advantage of these opportunities. In the graph above you can see that enrollment at UMB peaked during the 2005-2006 academic year—just one year after Slovakia joined the EU. Enrollment has been in steady decline ever since.
Correlation does not prove causality but consider this: earlier this year I read a newspaper article that more than 60% of this year’s high school graduates were planning to apply to schools abroad. I got a hold of statistics for Max’s college prep high school in Banská Bystrica and every year for which I could see the stats (2018-2021), the number of graduates leaving Slovakia to study abroad increased. In 2021, forty-nine percent of the graduating seniors went abroad to university.
Could this factor be influencing our seminary? I think so but let me give some more background first.
I’ve already mentioned that as a part of the state university system in Slovakia we are a research institution. On the one hand, this is great because we are one of the few evangelical seminaries in all of Europe that can offer our students accredited bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees. This works in our favor to attract students and increase enrollment.
On the other hand, it introduces some limitations. For example, all our teachers must have PhD degrees and we have to meet rigorous accreditation criteria that includes a high standard for research and publication. In a country the size of Slovakia where the four major evangelical denominations that founded our seminary together have just 10,000 members, it’s difficult to find someone with a PhD for every class we’d like to offer.
You can really see the impact of this when you compare our seminary to a seminary in Prague that doesn’t offer accredited degrees. If you go on the web site and look at the people that teach their classes, you’ll find a list of 57 teachers! We have eleven (six full-time faculty plus five volunteers).
So in Slovakia we offer a one size fits all program. We offer a high level of theological training suited best for those who want to go on to be pastors, church planters or professors of theology. But our program is not ideal for someone that wants to work with children, youth, worship or a variety of other ministries that we need in the church.
And now you can see how Slovakia’s EU membership affects us just as much or more than it affects the university system as a whole. Take the seminary in Prague I mentioned above. It doesn’t have its own accredited degree, but it has lots of great classes catered especially to Czech churches. And then there’s a Christian leadership institute in Czechia that partners with Wheaton College. Or there’s a Bible Institute in Vienna where students can study online. Even right here in Slovakia they’ve opened training programs for people who don’t need an accredited degree. All those options are great for the church, right? It is good to have those other options, but it definitely impacts the enrollment at our seminary.
Coming Up Next
That’s a pretty deep dive into some of the challenges that we’re facing. We have a declining enrollment, which leads to a decrease in funding, and we’ve found ourselves on a precipice. The next question is—Is there a future for our seminary? Maybe God wants to use another means for training pastors and church leaders in Slovakia. I’ll dig deep into that question in the next post.