The last few years have brought significant change to Lexington Theological Seminary (LTS). The school sold its South Limestone campus to the University of Kentucky last year, virtually completing its transition to an online institution of religious studies.
Guiding this evolution is LTS President Charisse Gillett. She acknowledges the reluctance some students and staff have expressed about leaving the physical home the seminary has had for more than 60 years, as well as the memories associated with that place.
“I understand the pain that you are feeling in letting go,” Gillett says. “You’re leaving a place that you love.”
Gillett joined KET’s Renee Shaw on this weekend’s Connections to discuss the evolution of LTS. Appointed in 2011, she is the first woman and first African American to lead the nearly 150-year-old seminary.
The Shift to Online Instruction
Like all institutions of higher education, LTS has to balance changing student demographics and a tougher financial climate to remain viable. While the seminary was originally designed to be a residential campus, Gillett says LTS had become a commuter school as more adults enrolled to explore a second career in the ministry. The student population at the seminary now averages between 45 and 50 years old.
Most LTS students pursue a Master of Divinity degree, which combines online classes, time with clergy mentors, 10 hours of hands-on congregational work each week, and brief seminary visits twice a year. Now serving students from 23 states, Gillett says this new model allows people to answer a religious calling without disrupting their home lives and families.
“What connects them is the mission of the seminary, which is to prepare faithful leaders for God’s church and mission in the world,” Gillett explains. “Land is important, but that [mission] is more important, in my estimation: how we teach people to serve the church in their community.”
A Pastoral Toolbox
Gillett says theological studies at the seminary emphasize giving students tools to interpret the Bible on their own, rather than telling them what to think about specific scriptures. The goal is for students to be able think critically and spiritually about the unique issues they’ll face in their congregations.
“Good pastors need and want and desire to understand the text in its own context, and they desire to understand the social, political, cultural, and economic context in which the scripture was written,” says Gillett.
Yet the spiritual work is only part of the job. Gillett says the seminary also strives to give students the skills they will need to manage the business side of a church, from staffing and budget issues, to being a voice for the congregation in the community.
Fighting Clergy Burn-out
Gillett says she’s known for a long time she was called to an educational ministry. Before coming to LTS, Gillett worked at Midway College and at Transylvania University, where she helped students discern their own calling to serve God.
Juggling the spiritual and secular demands of the job is not easy for some pastors. Gillett says that on average a clergy person will leave the ministry after five to seven years. The reasons vary from simple burn-out to health problems or financial issues.
To help counter the stresses of the job, LTS fosters friendship groups among its students so they can support one another once they enter the ministry. The seminary also assigns a mentor to each student who can serve as a sounding-board to help them navigate challenging pastoral situations. Finally, LTS is partnering with the University of Notre Dame on a research project to explore other ways to help pastors flourish in their jobs over the long term.
“There are ways we can help people survive, but we want our graduates to thrive and begin to enjoy the fruit of their call,” Gillett says.