Episcopal seminaries grapple with new realities — II

This is the second of a two-part article. It originally appeared in In Trust magazine, Summer 2008.

By William R. MacKaye

“We believe that the church does not need Seabury in its present form,” said the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall, Seabury-Western’s dean and president, in February as he announced his board of trustees’ decision to close down the school’s residential M.Div. program and suspend for 18 months the admission of new students to any of its programs. “There are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do.”

In a subsequent interview, Hall explained that money concerns forced the decision to launch a radical restructuring at this time. By moving now to balance the budget by terminating the residential M.Div. program after current students graduate, laying off administrative staff, and starting the process to end tenure and dismiss some or all permanent faculty, Seabury would have sufficient resources to offer appropriate severance packages and pay for rethinking the school’s structure while still retaining some endowment for future operations. The school was contemplating an expected $500,000 deficit in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2008, and a debt of $2.9 million accumulated since the board voted four years ago to reduce the annual draw on the endowment to 5 percent and open a line of credit to cover operating deficits.

“We were making it clear to ourselves that we were unable to balance the budget,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Butler, vice president of advancement and administration, explaining the line of credit. Although the accepted wisdom is that prudent endowed institutions should withdraw no more than 5 percent of principal annually, many fiscally troubled organizations do draw down more. Some label the proceeds as “income from investments,” a label that accounting principles permit, even though “withdrawal to cover the deficit” would be more revealing.

Seabury’s financial options are more limited than EDS’s. (see Part one.) Its endowment is significantly smaller ($12 million in 2007), and half its campus just north of Chicago is built on land it leases for $1 a year from Northwestern University. The lease agreement limits Seabury’s use of the land solely to the operation of an Episcopal theological school.

After his acknowledgment that some other existing Episcopal residential M.Div. programs are as good as Seabury’s, Hall went on to say in the original announcement: “But we also believe that the church very much needs a seminary animated by and organized around a new vision of theological education—one that is centered in a vision of baptism and its implications for the whole church, one which is flexible and adaptive and collaborative in nature.”

In the phrase “centered in a vision of baptism,” the dean was pointing to a principle enunciated in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The church’s fundamental rite of ordination is baptism, says the Prayer Book. Ministers of the church include all baptized people, not just its deacons, priests, and bishops. For both theological and practical reasons, the Episcopal Church is moving toward a “nonprofessional” ministry of part-time or unpaid clergy. And an increasing amount of pastoral, spiritual, and educational work is being carried out by lay volunteers. By some estimates, between 60,000 and 100,000 lay people have been trained in Bible, church history and theology in an intensive four-year program called Education for Ministry that was devised at the University of the South School of Theology. That school (usually called simply Sewanee, for the Tennessee town where it’s based) is another of the 11 Episcopal seminaries.

Hall estimated that 40 or more of the 100 U.S. dioceses of the Episcopal Church are now ordaining priests who are locally trained and have little or no seminary experience. Such clergy were once restricted to serve in the congregations in which they were ordained, but recent changes in church law now permit them to serve wherever they are called, if the local bishop approves. Noting that a “two-tier clergy would not be healthy” for the church, with some priests theologically educated and some not, he suggested one scenario for Seabury’s future might be providing online and extension education for such men and women.

Uncertain future

The Seabury board’s charge to the dean is twofold: bring expenses into line with revenue and develop a detailed plan for the future operation of the seminary. He is to be assisted in these tasks by a committee of six officers or trustees of the school and two faculty members.

The goal of the planners, Hall said, is to remake Seabury into an organization with a Chicago presence that will serve unserved parts of the church, working through a series of collaborative relationships. It may remain in Evanston in association with its present neighbor, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Or it may relocate, perhaps to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where six other seminaries cluster around the University of Chicago, or to downtown, where the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago are located.

The dean said he expects the planning group to have the broad outlines of the prospective restructured school ready to unveil to the board at its meeting this autumn. The first challenge is to establish the value of the present campus and to negotiate with Northwestern on the purchase of at least the buildings that stand on Northwestern land. Only then will the planners have a clear picture of the school’s total financial resources and hence the size of the faculty it can employ. A second challenge is to determine the future of the united library, owned jointly with Garrett-Evangelical, which Hall said is one of the 10 largest theological libraries in the United States.

Through a temporary collaborative agreement with Garrett, all current Seabury M.Div. students will be able to complete their course work and receive Seabury degrees. What degrees the future Seabury might offer is still up in the air, although the planners are eager to retain ATS accreditation. Hall predicted the doctor of ministry program to be a probable survivor; an M.Div. degree through distance education is also a possibility. But any degree programs will be collaborative with other institutions. “The days of the stand-alone institution are over,” he said firmly.

Bishop Charleston, the outgoing president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, elaborated on this point and cheered Seabury-Western’s boldness in an essay published recently on Episcopal Café. He wrote:

The deeper question is not what happened at Seabury, but what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives. Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology, and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

The end of stand-alone, go-it-alone Episcopal seminaries is very much the hope of Donn F. Morgan, president and dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and former head of the Episcopal Council of Deans. “If we don’t serve the Episcopal Church, there’s no need for us,” he said of the 11 schools.

In an article published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Anglican Theological Review, Morgan wrote: “Institutions in financial crisis are often guilty of a ‘silo’ mentality, too preoccupied with their own problems to have much inclination or ability to dream bigger dreams, dreams which might offer new and better ways of doing education.”

Under his leadership, the council—formerly a once-a-year affair—met several times in 2007 in an effort to quell the silo tendency. These conferences culminated with a four-day meeting in January in Charleston, South Carolina, where the deans were joined by trustees—in most cases board chairs of the schools—and several diocesan bishops who are board members.

“Our thesis was simple,” Morgan said. “We (seminary heads) can’t effect change without the help of the church and the boards.”

Out of the meeting emerged a commitment for schools to work collaboratively in four areas:

• Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury-Western are to team with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Bexley Hall on programs of education for “total ministry”—that is, group ministry that includes both clergy and trained laity.

• EDS, CDSP and Bexley are to work with the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (ETSS) in Austin, Texas, on theological education via distance learning.

• Seabury, CDSP and ETSS are to collaborate with The General Theological Seminary in New York on education for Hispanic ministry.

• General, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Nashotah House in Wisconsin, Sewanee, and Virginia Theological Seminary are to develop an education program for underdeveloped areas of the Anglican world, especially in Africa.

The seminary board chairs also agreed to meet at least annually, possibly without the deans.

It’s Morgan’s hope that the joint projects mean that the days of Lone Rangers are over. “The Episcopal seminaries, in doing theological education in a new way, must no longer work separately and secretly,” he said, “but transparently and in accord with agreed-upon common goals.”

The noncrisis at Bexley

How did Bexley Hall become part of the news stories earlier this year that arose from the financial crises at Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury- Western? The Very Rev. John R. Kevern, Bexley’s dean and president, noted that the closure of the school’s Rochester program was the end of a gradual process that began with Bexley’s establishing an alliance with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 1998. The Rochester closing was actually announced in May 2007. In his view, the story was revived this year by critics eager to suggest that Episcopal seminaries are failing enterprises.

“Actually, our enrollment is growing,” Bexley’s dean said.

A major factor involved in the closing of the Rochester program, he said, was a state ruling that with the termination of the school’s cooperative venture with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Bexley was no longer entitled to award degrees in New York. It was also doubtful that the Rochester campus could qualify for reaccreditation. Bexley has found its collaboration with Trinity Lutheran more comfortable than the arrangement with Colgate Rochester Crozer, which it ended several years ago. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Trinity’s sponsoring denomination, have a concordat of full intercommunion and mutual recognition of ministries.

In Columbus, Bexley rents a building on the Trinity campus as its headquarters and enrolls its own student body, the dean explained. It passes on to Trinity three-quarters of the tuition it receives, and Trinity in return offers most of the courses that Bexley students take. Bexley’s three full-time and one half-time faculty members offer courses in Anglican studies (which attract some Trinity seminarians) and preside over Bexley’s spiritual formation program.

One of Bexley’s points of pride is this emphasis on formation. Students and faculty participate in an annual extended retreat, much of it in silence. Faculty members commit themselves to a rule of life. And students are asked to draw up and pursue a similar rule for themselves in consultation with a spiritual director.

With only about 25 full-time-equivalent students currently, Bexley is the smallest accredited Episcopal seminary. But that doesn’t mean it’s a failing institution. It has agreed to participate in two of the Episcopal multiseminary collaborations now in creation.

“Closing Rochester freed up money for Columbus,” said the Rev. Carlson Gerdau, Bexley’s board chair. “We’ve got $9 million in the bank and no buildings to worry about. We’re in good shape.”

William R. MacKaye is editor emeritus of In Trust magazine and a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, D. C.

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