The president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul has resigned amid rising maintenance costs and declining enrollment.

Considered the country's largest Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) seminary, the school wants to "take a fresh look going forward" after losing nearly $4 million last school year, Luther's board chairman Jim Lindus said Tuesday.

The seminary announced Monday that Richard Bliese stepped down from the job he's held since 2005. Officials plan to name an interim president by January and launch a national search for a successor.

Enrollment is down from 822 nearly five years ago to 764 students this year.

"We kind of had a perfect storm here of financial challenges in the last year or two," Lindus said. "Rising maintenance costs; our buildings are older and so we've had more deferred maintenance.

"We had a lower investment performance than we were expecting, and education costs in general are going up. And we're trying to figure out how do we adjust to that in a church that ... has become smaller."

The school's annual report for 2012 showed a total income of $23 million while expenses were $27.1 million. The total market value of its endowment has also taken a hit in the down economy. As of June, it was $65.4 million compared to the same time last year when it was $76.8 million.

Lots of seminaries struggle

Other ELCA seminaries nationwide are also dealing with "very challenging times," Lindus said. "They're all facing the same problems. The scale is different because we're much larger than the rest of them."

Minnesota has the largest number of ELCA members of any state, with close to 800,000. The ELCA is the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, with nearly 4.2 million members.

The ELCA has seen at least 600 of its congregations leave since its controversial policy change in 2009 allowing for openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to serve as pastors.

Other mainline Protestant denominations have also seen their numbers dwindle in the past several decades, according to religious scholars. "There are seminaries that are growing," said Charles Foster, professor emeritus of religion and education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

But in general, he said, "There has not been a strong support for youth ministry in the churches for some time ... so that there has not been a kind of trajectory of people moving from high school to college campus ministry programs to seminary. That doesn't exist like it used to in the mainline Protestant denominations. There is some movement in evangelical [Protestant] circles."

Enrollment decline is tied to church attendance, said Eliza Brown, a communications director for the Association of Theological Schools. The association has seen overall enrollment across its nearly 270 member schools in the United States and Canada fall between 1.4 percent and 3.3 percent a year since 2006.

"It's all related -- and that both limits the number of people who are launched from their congregations to pursue a vocation in ministry and it also means there are limited positions waiting for those people when they come out," Brown said.

Only about half of the students last year who earned master of divinity degrees had job offers once they graduated, she said.

"And yet the debt they've incurred as students has gone up and up. So they're coming out with higher levels of debt and fewer prospects for ever being able to service that debt," she said.

Creativity required

At Luther Seminary, tuition is nearly $15,000 per year, although the actual cost of attending is closer to $32,000 with room and board and other costs.

Theological schools will need to be more "creative in responding to the market and to the interest of students and the realities of how those students can actually play out their calling to ministry," Brown said. "And they can do that in so many different venues beyond traditional congregational ministry. ... They're looking at chaplaincies, social work, a variety of venues.

"And hopefully, there will continue to be a need for congregational ministers."

Staff writer Patrick Kennedy contributed to this report. Rose French • 612-673-4352