by Katie Langston '21 M.Div.
Artist depiction of a new entrance to Olson Campus Center
Each year in January and June, when Distributed Learning and residential students gather for a series of weeklong intensive courses, Luther Seminary’s St. Paul campus practically hums with activity.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling when the entire community comes together,” says Robin Steinke, president of Luther Seminary. “The energy is palpable.”
The rest of the year, campus is noticeably quieter. While enrollment at Luther has remained steady the past couple of years (and even increased this fall, bucking the trend of theological institutions nationwide), approximately half of Luther’s students are distributed learners. This means that Luther’s current campus—at 282,000 square feet on 26 acres—is significantly larger than the seminary needs.
To respond to this shift, the Luther Seminary Board of Directors approved in May 2018 a resolution to design the campus of the future. This involves reimagining the space in innovative ways by focusing the seminary’s footprint on the upper campus and, ultimately, vacating the lower campus.
For Steinke, this initiative is a direct outgrowth of the new vision the board adopted in October 2017. “We start with our vision of leading faithful innovation and the student experience,” Steinke says. “Everything flows out of that.”
But designing the campus of the future is about more than just space. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the deeper cultural shifts that are impacting the North American church as a whole. “The world is changing, and the church is changing,” says Steinke. “In the midst of all this change, Luther Seminary is called to be a leader in the work of innovating the way forward.”
During the past 12 months, in addition to re-evaluating the seminary’s needs for physical space, Luther Seminary has rolled out a number of innovative initiatives, including full-tuition scholarships for all incoming Master of Arts and Master of Divinity students (see page 18), an accelerated Master of Divinity program (see page 6), and the formation of an innovation leadership team headed by Dwight Zscheile ’08 Ph.D., the seminary’s new vice president of innovation.
“No one knows exactly what the church will look like in 10, 15, 20 years,” Zscheile says. “What we know for sure is that many of the social structures that have traditionally supported church involvement are disintegrating, and we are being called into new ways of cultivating Christian faith. The precise details have yet to be discerned, which is both exciting and destabilizing, and we need leaders who can serve with a sense of courage, faith, and discovery.”
It is with that sense of courage, faith, and discovery that the Luther community—including students, faculty, staff, and board members—has begun a process to discern where God is already at work in the world and how the seminary is being called to join in. Though much remains uncertain, through deep listening to the church, some glimpses of the future have begun to emerge.
For example, Zscheile says, it’s becoming clear that Christian public leaders need to know how to forge meaningful relationships in a diverse world, how to define and deepen practices that form Christian community, and how to share the gospel innovatively in a pluralistic society. In response to these discoveries, the Luther Seminary leadership team has identified growth in each of these areas as strategic priorities for the next several years.
“If we’re not doing these things ourselves, we can’t expect our students to leave seminary equipped to do them,” Steinke says. “Luther Seminary must be a laboratory for exploration, innovation, inclusion, and spiritual formation so that our students can live into the callings God has placed on their lives.”
With this understanding of Luther Seminary’s role in educating leaders for Christian communities, plans for the physical space can begin to take shape.
Over the summer, a campus steering team comprised of faculty, staff, students, alumni, administrators, and board members worked with architects and members of the Luther community to conceptualize the campus of the future. This includes flexible classrooms, learning laboratories, spaces for faculty and staff collaboration, community spaces for gathering, and spaces for worship and reflection. A contemplative walking path will surround campus, and outdoor water features that recall God’s baptismal promises will accent newly designed sustainable landscaping.
“Our learning community is no longer centralized in St. Paul, but distributed around the country and world,” Steinke continues. “This makes us all the more vibrant. Our campus is to be a hub of learning and innovation where people come to be formed as leaders, then sent back into the world to serve.”
Ultimately, Steinke envisions Luther Seminary’s campus as a place that is constantly humming with activity and energy—not just the handful of times per year when both distributed and residential students gather together.
“A more compact and sustainable footprint will bring the vibrant energy of the intensive periods to campus year-round,” she says. “The campus of the future will be a place that inspires us to innovate and respond to the radical way God’s Spirit is stirring.”