By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Wanted: partner in Chicago for Episcopal seminary with local roots and high hopes for a future in the Windy City. Must be ecumenically minded and open to long-distance relationships.

That’s the courting call of Bexley Seabury Western Theological Federation as the two-campus school moves to consolidate in Chicago in 2016. Having operated on campuses in Chicago and Columbus since a merger in 2013, Bexley Seabury is now making Chicago its hub for serving students, including those who might be in town for only a few days.

“We’re in discussions with partners that will help us continue to live into our commitment to collaborate ecumenically,” said the Rev. Roger Ferlo, Bexley Seabury president, via email, “and to offer a program that is innovative, flexible, and prioritizes accessibility to theological education for people for whom the three-year residential model may not be possible.”

The courtship ritual is unfolding discreetly. Ferlo declined to say who is being wooed, as did James Nieman, president of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). But seminary-watchers say Bexley Seabury is apt to have a particular fondness for two types: Lutherans and universities.

A strong Lutheran bond is already in place. Since 2011, Bexley Seabury students in Chicago have been taking their classes at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where the seminary leases space for classrooms and offices. In Columbus, Trinity Lutheran Seminary has housed Bexley Hall (and later Bexley Seabury after Bexley Hall and Seabury-Western merged). The hosting arrangement with Trinity dates to 1998, when the Called to Common Mission agreement was opening doors for new Lutheran-Episcopal collaboration.

Bexley Seabury partnering with LSTC is a logical next step, observers say. It’s an ELCA seminary with aging facilities and legacy costs that could use a financial boost, whether in the form of new tuition revenues, cost containment through faculty sharing, or other changes.

“It would be good cross-fertilization,” said Don Richter, associate director of the Louisville Institute, a research center for revitalizing American Christian institutions. “Students would have a stronger faculty to draw from, whether you’re talking about residential classes or online ones.”

Partnering with LSTC would renew a relationship familiar to Seabury-Western graduates, who routinely took classes at LSTC when Seabury-Western was located on the campus of Northwestern University. What’s more, it would stoke the flames of ecumenism by placing Bexley Seabury in the same Hyde Park neighborhood as McCormick Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary, and the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“You’d get Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians kind of in the same arena down there,” Richter said. “I could see that making a lot of sense.”

But an LSTC partnership could also pose challenges.

“Is there room for residential students there, and for what cost?” Richter said. “That’s a big question.”

He noted that full-time residential costs can be prohibitively high in Hyde Park, especially for a family trying to put a parent through seminary. But housing costs might be manageable if the model calls for lodging students only for a few days or weeks at a time during learning “intensives.”

Wherever Bexley Seabury forges partnerships, the consolidation will mark a stewardship milestone, according to Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.

“This question was on the table from the time the two institutions merged: where would the final location be?” Aleshire said. By joining forces in an urban center with many Episcopal congregations, he said, “it’s going to be a better use of the resources they have.”

But some possibilities are especially intriguing for those who follow trends in theological education. Perhaps being near the University of Chicago might not be all Bexley Seabury has in mind. If other partnerships serve as precedent, Bexley Seabury could be angling to become an embedded school within a school, i.e., as an integrated part of the University of Chicago.

Such models have worked in the past. The embedded model of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University has captured increased attention as an option for schools struggling to become sustainable. In November, Andover Newton Theological School said it was in talks with Yale to explore moving from Newton, Massachusetts, to New Haven, where it would operate largely on the Berkeley model.

Others have followed a similar course. Two years ago, California Lutheran University opened its doors to make Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary part of its university structure. Also in recent years, Weston Jesuit School of Theology became part of Boston College, and Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley joined Santa Clara University.

“Why couldn’t you have a similar type of model in Chicago?” Richter said. “Maybe they’ll figure out and decide to go that way.”

Advantages of a university affiliation could be numerous for Bexley Seabury. The school could tap into existing infrastructure for everything from dining halls to back-office support. And sometimes universities find reasons why it’s in their interest to weave a seminary into their existing fabric.

“The story is always that somehow there’s something in it for the university,” Aleshire said. “Universities and colleges don’t do this just out of the goodness of their hearts.”

In negotiations with universities, seminaries do not necessarily bring a weak hand to the table, even if they are having trouble making ends meet as freestanding institutions. What they can offer varies, Aleshire said, but it can often be compelling.

“Sometimes it’s going to be facilities,” he said. “Sometimes it’s going to be missional. Some universities or colleges may have secularized and realized that they really do need a way of connecting with their historic constituency. And a seminary related to that constituency might strengthen the relationship that they want to have.”

Aleshire says Bexley Seabury is not in the same position as Andover Newton. He sees Bexley Seabury as deciding how to leverage its resources best.

A partnership announcement could come sometime in December, according to Ferlo. Until then, he’s keeping quiet and letting the courtship run its course.

Image: The Rev. Roger Ferlo, president of Bexley Seabury

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