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Of the 11 Episcopal seminaries in the United States, one recently announced it would end its main residential program, another is shutting down one of its campuses, and a third is selling a good portion of its campus. The changes reflect not only each institution’s own financial or enrollment straits but also changes that are coming in Episcopal seminary education, which has historically played a key role in American theological life. Among them are an embrace of distance education and new, more flexible alternatives to the traditional residential seminary model thus far sustained for centuries, and ever-increasing numbers of collaborations involving other seminaries, Episcopal and non, and non-sectarian colleges, as tiny institutions struggle to survive.

Among the developments:

  • Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), in Cambridge, Mass., sold seven buildings on its eight-acre campus to Lesley University, a non-sectarian institution, for $33.5 million. Under the terms of the sale, announced Thursday, EDS will maintain ownership of 13 buildings. As part of the agreement, Lesley, which has already housed undergraduates on the seminary's campus under a leasing arrangement for about three years, will now own residence halls and a dining facility on EDS' grounds. The two institutions will share a library.
  • Bexley Hall Seminary, which in 1998 began a gradual move from Rochester to its native state of Ohio to affiliate with Trinity Lutheran Seminary, is completely closing its Rochester satellite, prompted by concerns about re-accreditation of a very small branch campus and limited prospects for future growth.
  • And, most dramatically, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Ill., recently said it would shut down its three-year residential master of divinity (M.Div.) program, the traditional backbone of a seminary's offerings. Seabury-Western has scaled back its course offerings significantly for the coming year -- suspending recruitment and admissions for all programs, pledging to help masters’ and certificate students "find alternative arrangements for the completion of their programs” as needed, and negotiating the terms of a teach-out with a Methodist seminary located across the street. All those who graduate through 2009 will receive Seabury-Western degrees. Beyond that, officials say, details are still to be determined.

Seabury-Western insists, however, that it is not closing -- instead entering a period, as officials put it, of "discernment," or "transition" to a new model of theological education.

"We have come to the realization that we cannot continue to operate as we have in the past and that there is both loss and good news in that. We believe that the church does not need Seabury in its present form; there are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do. 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," reads a statement from Seabury-Western's dean and Board of Trustees.

In each of the three cases, of course, the story is different. Seabury-Western, which is partly based on land on long-term lease from Northwestern University, had a projected budget shortfall of half a million for this fiscal year, $3 million in debt, and an $11 million endowment (seen as too small to support the costly residential program).

Bexley foresaw future problems with re-accreditation of its 13-student Rochester branch campus. "We were accredited by virtue of affiliation with the Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Incrementally that affiliation had really ceased to exist," Bexley’s dean and president, The Very Rev. John R. Kevern, said in an interview. Told that their operation in Rochester was likely going to be "too skinny" for re-accreditation in 2012, Bexley opted to focus instead on continuing to build its Columbus, Ohio, campus, which has grown to about 25 students.

EDS, meanwhile, had identified the heavy costs of maintaining century-old (or more) buildings as a drain on its financial resources.

“Back in 2003,” said Nancy Davidge, an EDS spokeswoman, “our trustees recognized that our current operating patterns and spending patterns were, if you’re looking out 25, 50, 100 years, unsustainable. At that time, they made the decision to begin to actively look at what options were out there to help us firm up our financial foundation so that we would be able to continue to offer theological education for the next 25, 50, 100 years.”

Changes in the Church and Its Seminaries

Yet, so does EDS’ major sale make sense given the direction it’s increasingly going – the distance. The seminary’s overall enrollment has stayed fairly steady in recent years at about 100 students (about half what it was in the 1970s), but the proportion living on campus has sharply dropped as new, limited residency programs have grown from a start of six students in 2004. Today, 38 EDS students complete much of their coursework online, coming to campus for two weeks each in January and June.

Common across Episcopal seminaries, church and seminary leaders say, is a need to diversify what each of the institutions can and does offer beyond the traditional residential approach. Full-time enrollment in the three-year residential M.Div. program has fallen by 25 percent across the 11 Episcopal seminaries over the last three years, even as the number of individuals ordained has stayed relatively constant, said the Rev. Canon John L.C. Mitman, executive director of The Society for the Increase of the Ministry. His group, which provides need-based scholarship support to Episcopal seminarians, has also surveyed one major factor likely contributing to the declines: increasing debt loads.

For the class of 2006: While a third of Episcopal seminarians enrolled in three-year residential M.Div. programs had no debt whatsoever, of the two-thirds with debt, the amount averaged $39,085 halfway through a student's seminary career, Reverend Mitman said. That cumulative figure includes consumer and automobile debt as well as all education debts, including those accumulated in the undergraduate years.

For those graduating this May, the average figure rose to $48,978. Estimating that those seminarians will accumulate another $14,000 in debt before finishing, that leaves them with $63,000 or so in average debt upon entering a profession where $45,500 is the average beginning compensation.

Contributing to the costs are the reality that many of the Episcopal seminaries are located in exceptionally expensive places to live: Manhattan, Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., for instance.

“There’s still the residential seminary point of view -- and I have some sympathy with it because that’s what I came out of certainly, in my own background -- that you lose that Christian formation piece that comes in living in community with the same people for three years,” said Reverend Mitman. With the advent of "virtual communities," he said, “Much of the church is concerned that we’re losing a lot of the substance of theological education training and formation. But a big driver behind all of this is the whole problem of indebtedness.”

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary (the largest of the Episcopal seminaries), offered another combination of drivers at work. Among the challenges to the residential M.Div. model, he said, are an increasing number of individuals coming to the ministry as a second career -- who face practical difficulties when it comes to relocating -- and an increasing reliance on training at more ecumenical divinity schools as opposed to the 11 Episcopal seminaries. Thirdly, in many small towns with small congregations, church leaders can't leave town for training; their town, Reverend Markham said, simply can't spare them.

A "significant minority" of dioceses, particularly those in sparsely populated areas -- and including the dioceses directly to the east and west of Bexley's Rochester branch -- have developed local training programs for preparing clergy outside of the seminaries, Reverend Kevern, of Bexley, added. "These programs are springing up now as we speak across the country," he said. "It doesn't bode well for an increase in the number of traditional, residential M.Div. students across the board."

Virginia Theological Seminary, which has a large endowment and the flexibility to offer significant scholarship support, is in a position to carry on its residential M.Div. program, Reverend Markham said. In a different situation than some of its more tuition-dependent peers, “What we share,” said Reverend Markham, “is a conviction that we can’t do everything, that we’ve got to make sure we don’t do everything.”

“What we’re feeling our way towards is a strategy among the deans where some seminaries will specialize in offering certain services and others will specialize in offering different ones,” he said, adding that he believes some seminaries will evolve to specialize in flexible master’s degree programs. “The Episcopal church needs seminaries that serve the different constituencies of the church,” he said.

“For a long time, there’s been talk about do we have more Episcopal seminaries than we need?” said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an accrediting body whose member institutions represent a diversity of faiths. He pointed out, for instance, that, the United Methodists have about four times the American membership of the Episcopals but only two extra seminaries. “All of these seminaries have operated a very similar program….They've all done a residential theological education program. They’ve been doing theological education, all of them, in the most expensive way it can be done."

"The resources available to do an expensive form of education at 11 different sites at the level it ought to be funded is increasingly under stress.”

Across the association, Aleshire said, theological institutions derive about a third of their revenue from tuition. But unlike private liberal arts colleges, which are often tuition-dependent, seminaries can't usually salve financial stresses by either increasing tuition or enrollment. "Financial stress is resolved by building endowments and increasing individual gifts," he said -- pointing out too that the Episcopal church itself has been in conflict (most famously for debates over gay bishops, and homosexuality and the church more generally).

"The Episcopal church has a lot of conflict right now, and contributions to theological schools are affected by denominational conflict. If you're not sure what the church is going to be in 20 years, you're not ready to endow a chair this year," said Aleshire.

“There’s a sense in which all 11 of these institutions have been providing kind of the same product," he continued. "I would imagine that Seabury-Western and EDS and others are going to, as they make these organizational changes, develop different kinds of patterns of theological education.”

Collaborations -- Involving Seabury-Western and Beyond

“The kinds of things that we’re looking at just in a very general way are partnerships with other that we would not be a stand-alone institution but that we would be partnering with another. There are many different kinds of models for that," said the Reverend Elizabeth Butler, Seabury-Western's vice president for advancement and administration.

"We’re also looking at what are some combinations of short-term residencies and some online learning. What’s a way forward that might address the growing divide in the Episcopal church of those who are seminary-trained as priests in particular and those who are going through local ordination processes?"

In terms of collaborating with other seminaries, Reverend Butler said Seabury-Western is exploring relationships with a number of institutions, including Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a United Methodist institution also based in Evanston, Ill. Philip Amerson, Garrett's president, said that while there have been some preliminary conversations among administrators at both institutions, "those conversations are just getting started."

One possible approach, Amerson said, would be that of "denominational houses that are often attached to other schools. So one model might be an Episcopal house at Garrett-Evangelical."

"I think the odds are certainly in favor of us finding a way to work together in the future.”

Such collaborations are, as Amerson suggested, nothing new among seminaries. EDS' land sale in fact was partly precipitated by the fact that the Jesuit seminary it had shared its facilities with, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, is now "re-affiliating" with Boston College. And Seabury-Western is itself the product of a merger. Arrangements involving cross-registration across seminaries and divinity schools are common. But many of those interviewed said they saw even more opportunities for collaborations across denominations in future years, as well as across the historically independent Episcopal seminaries themselves.

The Episcopal seminaries' collaboration of late to address some pressing questions is in fact heartening to one senior official in the church.

“How do we reach out and strengthen small rural churches? How do we train people beyond traditional chaplaincy” -- for new works in social justice or youth ministry, asked The Rev. Canon C.K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. "We are going to need some fresh models of training people for ordained and lay leadership."

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