LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is closing its 65-year-old School of Church Music and Worship, combining it with the School of Leadership and Church Ministry into a new School of Church Ministries.
The seminary's board of trustees approved the move, based on recommendation of a task force, at a meeting April 21 on the school's Louisville, Ky., campus.
Seminary President Al Mohler said the intent is to preserve the tradition of the music school, which has produced thousands of ministers of music for Southern Baptist churches over the decades, while adapting to current trends.
"The bottom line is there has been a substantial drop in the number of music students at the graduate level in Southern Baptist Convention seminaries," Mohler said in an interview.
Mohler said the music school, started in 1944 by then-seminary President Ellis Fuller, currently is at 30 percent of its optimal enrollment. While a valuable program for its time, Mohler said it is "not economically viable today" to sustain a stand-alone music school.
Mohler said about 80 percent of ministers of music in Southern Baptist churches also have another staff assignment, like education or youth, so by combining its music and church-leadership programs the seminary will "look more like the churches" it serves.
He said the music faculty, which currently numbers 11, will be downsized to the equivalent of four full-time positions. The staff reductions, he added, will take place by attrition.
Southern Seminary opened the music school at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention's growing seminary system began moving beyond training preachers to additional tasks, like improving the quality of worship and discipleship training in Southern Baptist churches.
While taken for granted for more than a generation, combining classical music training with theology studies in a seminary setting is primarily a Southern Baptist innovation, said Paul Richardson, professor of music at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Richardson said Southern Baptists began purposeful training of church musicians in the early part of the 20th century. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary established a School of Gospel Music in 1915.
In the 1940s, the SBC's Sunday School Board established a church-music department led by B.B. McKinney, a famous writer of hymns and gospel songs who taught at Southwestern Seminary from 1919 to 1931. Under his leadership the board released the Broadman Hymnal, creating a common worship tradition in Southern Baptist churches so pervasive it earned comparison to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
The National Association of Schools of Music began accrediting undergraduate degrees in church music in 1952. Before long many Southern Baptist congregations came to expect that a full-time minister of music would complete seminary training or comparable training at a university.
Influenced by the models of Westminster Choir College and Union Theological Seminary, SBC music schools focused on sophisticated choral music, graded choirs and more formal worship. While not alone in the effort, Southern Baptist seminaries were often considered unparalleled, in the theology-school world, in their commitment to church music. They grew into programs unsurpassed in size and scope.
For instance, only three schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools offer doctorates in musical arts, and all are SBC seminaries.
By the 1980s and 1990s, enrollments in schools of church music reached record highs. At the same time worship styles began to change, shifting away from hymnals, choirs, organs and Brahms toward more casual liturgies and popularly influenced musical styles. Recently the Sunday School Board's successor, LifeWay Christian Resources, unveiled a web-based SongMap application allowing anyone to select songs and download sheet music and audio files in any key for as little as $1.49.
Mohler said the music school made a significant contribution to the denomination, and its closing does not indicate a failure by the faculty. "The world has changed around us," he said.
Mohler said discussions about closing the school have been going on about two years, but current economic pressures sped up the process.
In December Mohler announced a projected $3.2 million shortfall in a $30 million budget. In January seminary officials eliminated 35 administrative positions — 20 full-time and 15 part-time — but no faculty jobs were lost.
Southern Seminary's School of Church Music opened in property bought and donated by trustee V.V. Cooke that now serves as the seminary president's home. The seminary built Cooke Hall, attached to Alumni Chapel, in his honor 1970, and enlarged it in 1985.
Deans of the School of Church Music have included Forrest Herren, who held the post from 1952 to 1981; Milburn Price, 1983-93; and Lloyd Mims, 1993-2000. The current dean, Thomas Bolton, is retiring as part of the downsizing.
While on campus trustees also took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new $5.5 million Sesquicentennial Pavilion, a white-columned welcome center that Mohler said will function as "new front door" for the seminary as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.