Cherry Hill Seminary at crossroads

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Students and supporters of the South Carolina-based Pagan seminary may have been surprised or worried about an announcement placed on the institution’s Facebook page entitled, “The Future of Cherry Hill Seminary.” While there are no plans to close the school at this time, the message reads in part:

Unpredictable cash flow has compromised our ability to be sustainable. The nature of the extended Pagan community, the economy, and even the very face of higher education have all changed dramatically in the past decade. While many of you have been dedicated and committed, we are now considering the reality that we may not be able to continue as we are without a significant increase in participation by many more people in our community.

We spoke with Holli Emore, who has served as executive director of the 20-year-old institution since 2007, to learn more.

“We haven’t been able to make ends meet for several years,” she acknowledged. “It’s been really difficult.”

Cherry Hill SeminaryOver the years, Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) has become a model for the sort of formal infrastructure for which some in the Pagan community yearn. However, every step of the way has required the effort of blazing a new trail.

“We’ve never had a sugar daddy, somebody to help us get launched,” Emore said. “Most schools are heavily endowed” at the outset. That means that majority of the seminary’s expenses are paid for on a cash basis out of tuition. Those expenses are include the per-student fees paid to instructors and the modest pay given to Emore. However, she herself hasn’t been paid in quite some time.

The seminary was founded in 1996 by Kirk White, with classes originally being conducted through the mail and then online. Its name was taken from the name of the road that once ran past White’s family lands. For many years, “Christian Hill Road” was the mailing address for Cherry Hill Seminary.

A board of directors was established in 2007 as part of a process to become a formal 501(c)(3) nonprofit with Emore as its chair. Those board members elected to hire Emore as executive director and move the entire operation to South Carolina, where the seminary’s Master of Divinity program was established in 2009 with the first graduate receiving her degree in 2012.

In years since, a priority has been accreditation and formal recognition by the Distance Education and Training Council. While CHS has completed all licensure requirements in South Carolina, accreditation would make the program eligible for student loans, and its graduates would be able to apply to become military chaplains. This process, however, has been stymied both by the expense and by the fact that Pagan theology doesn’t fit the implicitly Abrahamic expectations set forth for seminaries.

“It’s a big deal, and very expensive,” said Emore. “Just sending in the application is $10,000, plus you need the ability to host five people that come in and audit your program over several days.”

Cherry Hill Seminary has no physical campus, making the hosting requirement a complex issue beyond the raising of funds for the application fee. Another financial challenge is that faculty must be salaried; instructors are presently paid based on the number of students in their classes, which is more practical given the decidedly not-deep pockets of the institution.

Emore said that there is significant interest in a seminary program that trains potential military chaplains, but there are again some complicating factors. Accreditation would make the process easier, but an alternate route onto the approved list involves representatives of three other schools vouching that the Cherry Hill Seminary Master of Divinity is equivalent to their own degrees. This is how Oral Roberts University was approved.

While three liberal Christian schools had people willing to work through this process, the schools couldn’t, in the end,  say in confidence that the degrees were equivalent. CHS students “don’t have to study Greek, or Hebrew, or the Bible” as a matter of course, Emore explained, and “while they could see it was a solid program, they couldn’t be sure it was comparable.”

Muslims faced a similar problem, since the training of an imam is not at all similar to that of a Christian priest or minister. Emore said that with “a five-figure infusion of cash and some graduates to use as test cases,” Pagans could follow the administrative process used by adherents to Islam. One of the issues that would have to be addressed is the implicit assumption that graduation from the seminary includes ordination. Since students at this Pagan seminary come from diverse traditions, they must seek ordination from legally-recognized Pagan churches, representing another step that Christians can often skip.

DancersAd1smallerWhat’s not a factor in the problems facing CHS, Emore stressed, are the recent controversies that have involved the seminary, such as former faculty member Ruth Barrett signing a petition against trans* inclusion at a festival. “It was certainly very unpleasant,” Emore said, “but those were not our students or donors, with minor exceptions. Only one person pulled a contribution and said it was over that.”

The statement on the Facebook page included an invitation to support the long-term existence of CHS by taking a course, pledging funds, or providing other ideas. Master-level classes are $435, with courses toward certificates running only $240 each. “We’ve had people offer ideas,” Emore said, but “they all require human or financial resources” that the nearly all-volunteer organization lacks right now.

More than an appeal for money, the school’s announcement is seeking guidance. The Master of Divinity program “is what the Pagan community wanted eight years ago, but it’s hard to say what people want now.” In the past, the offered scholarship seats have been left unfilled, and an annual program, offering a class nearly for free if a student recruited a first-timer to join, was abandoned due to lack of participation.

“We’re finally going public and asking, ‘What do you want?'” Emore explained.

She went on,”We debated stating a dollar or registration goal and decided against it. That would imply that if we reach that everything would be okay, and that’s not necessarily true. We want to see if people see a need for this, and want to keep it open. We think there is, but we need to hear from other people because we can’t be unbiased.”

By the end of the year, board members will make a decision on whether to continue the work of this organization. If the end is indeed no, through a process called “teaching out” the existing 10-12 Master of Divinity students would either complete their degrees or be given support in continuing their studies elsewhere. One thing that Emore makes clear is that the preferred option would be to continue the work for the Pagan community. However, in reality, that work will largely depend upon what Pagans themselves do in the coming months.