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Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary to Close S.C. Campus

Debts, declining enrollment spur decision to move to Lenoir-Rhyne University

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After more than a century in Columbia, South Carolina, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary will close its historic campus and move to Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina.

LTSS campus in Columbia, SC / Photo via Facebook

The decision — prompted by declining enrollment, deep budget deficits, and the high cost of maintaining an increasingly empty campus — dashes any remaining hopes that the 2012 merger between the two Evangelical Lutheran Church in America schools would revitalize the campus.

“The budget deficits that we face are insurmountable considering current enrollment and broad national trends in theological vocations,” said LTSS rector and dean, Rev. Chad Rimmer.

“By moving the seminary, we will save about $2.1 million per year in operating costs and eliminate significant deferred maintenance costs on the seminary campus, which is far larger than our current program requires,” Rimmer said. “While many have faithfully and valiantly guided our seminary through difficult years, including the psycho-social and financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time has come to realize that without bold action, the mission of the seminary is simply not sustainable.”

The solemn but cautiously hopeful announcement contrasts with the jubilant mood of the 2012 merger, which LTSS hailed at the time as a “win-win” and a “game-changing” strategy that would provide “a natural pipeline of students for the seminary.”

At the time, LTSS enrolled 145 students. Since then, the number has dropped to about 60, including a significant number of online, hybrid and commuter students.

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LTSS enrollment 2010-2023 / Courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne University

While the move, scheduled for January 2025, represents a dramatic reduction in LTSS’s physical footprint, no cuts will be made to the curriculum. To the contrary, Living Lutheran reports that all current full-time faculty and staff will be offered jobs at the new location, and that the school’s entire theological library will move to Hickory.

Lenoir-Rhyne president Fred Whitt affirmed the university’s commitment to LTSS. “In the last several years, we have invested heavily in LTSS by adding admissions personnel, a Lutheran studies chair, new support staff, a lifelong learning director, and, most recently, hiring Chad Rimmer as rector and dean,” he said. “We want to continue to invest in the seminary’s program and curriculum, and moving the seminary to the Hickory campus will mean that we can be good stewards of the resources we have.”

The seminary’s struggles reflect broader trends within the ELCA of shrinking membership and fewer people going into ministry. The denomination experienced a 41% drop in membership from 1987 to 2021; and in 2022, a national shortage of “at least 600” ELCA pastors was reported.

Though downsizing may be necessary, some have expressed sorrow at witnessing the end of an era.

“This is hard news for those of us who were formed on the campus in Columbia and for all those who have precious memories of those holy spaces and places,” said Rev. Virginia Aebischer of the ELCA South Carolina Synod. “Even in the midst of sadness, however, I am giving thanks that our beloved seminary, which has a long history of pilgrimage, will go on to have a new chapter in Hickory.”

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