By Kirk Petersen

The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary and its largest seminary are in talks that may lead to a formal partnership in which they share faculty and resources, the two schools announced.

General Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary both announced on January 13 that they had agreed to look for ways to expand the partnership they began in 2018 with the launch of TryTank, an “experimental laboratory” funded by both institutions, designed to develop new models of conducting church.

The Very Rev. Ian Markham

The schools emphasized that they have no plans to merge. The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, told TLC “there’s no financial exigency driving this. In other words, this is an idea born not of desperation but of potential.”

The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, dean and president of General, said “we want to see how this model can extend to other project possibilities.”

In a letter to the VTS community, Markham said:

Both seminaries are strong. General has no debt, a solid endowment (with a responsible draw-rate), operating surpluses over the last three years, and over sixty students. The identities of both seminaries will continue; the assets – endowment and land – will be safeguarded. You can still make your gifts to one or the other seminary. This venture is not a takeover nor is it a merger; instead, this is an opportunity to work together closely; to provide additional programs; and to give the faculties and students access to both institutions.

General went through a financial crisis a decade ago, but currently has an endowment of $34 million and 50 students, according to the Association of Theological Schools. Dunkle told TLC that General went from an annual deficit of $3 million when he arrived in 2013 to a modest surplus over the last three years.

Virginia, on the other hand, is the largest and most affluent Episcopal seminary, with an endowment of $176 million and nearly 200 students. Markham said the endowment provides 80 percent of the seminary’s operating budget. VTS also receives occasional seven-figure donations from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, because Ms. Evans, a Coca-Cola executive and heir, supported the seminary during her life.

Dunkle acknowledged the financial disparity between the seminaries, and said “the only reason this is going to work is that we’re both stable organizations.” He likened it to a marriage, and noted that a human relationship can succeed even if one partner has more financial resources.

“None of this was propelled by cost savings,” he said, “but I certainly expect there will be cost savings, in the midterm and in the long run.”

TLC published an extended interview with Dunkle in November 2020, when the dean announced plans to step down at the end of the academic year. That decision is unrelated to the new partnership, Dunkle said, but “whenever you have any alteration, a change, in stable organizations, it creates opportunity.”

A master’s of divinity (M.Div.) is typically a three-year program. Markham said one possible outcome is a “two and one” program, where a seminarian at one school would spend a year, or perhaps a semester, at the other, thereby taking advantage of a broader curriculum than either school can offer alone.

The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle

“You can get a degree from General, or you can get a degree from Virginia, but you can draw on the resources of the other for your educational and formation experience,” Markham said. He noted that this would give a seminarian experience in both a suburban and an urban environment, which could serve as preparation for a variety of ministry settings. Dunkle said this is one of the most exciting potential benefits of the partnership.

The two seminaries launched TryTank in 2018. The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija, TryTank’s founder and sole employee, explained that the discernment process will start with a due-diligence period, in which each can review the legal and financial status of the other. The boards are scheduled to receive reports in February, and would then explore program and governance issues, in the hope of having some decisions to announce in November.

“What might we do programmatically, what can we do together that we can’t do right now by ourselves,” said Lebrija, who reports both to Dunkle and Markham. “If we have 30 faculty, rather than 10 and 20; if we have a larger budget, if we have more staff, if we’re in multiple locations, does that allow us to serve the Kingdom of God better?”

The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija

TryTank has launched dozens of experiments in conjunction with churches in more than 25 states, and Lebrija cheerfully admits that some of them have succeeded and some have failed. A program called “Prayer Puppets,” conceived as a “Christian Sesame Street,” is expected to launch in late January, and Lebrija provided a link to a sample music video.

Early in the pandemic, Episcopal News Service reported on a TryTank experiment called “Dial a Priest,” designed to provide priests who could offer last rites by telephone to dying and quarantined COVID patients. Lebrija says that service has ended, but TryTank has used the relationships developed with priests to offer prayers by telephone in conjunction with special circumstances, such as before the presidential election.

Markham pointed to another service started via TryTank: if you say to an Alexa device, “Alexa, open Episcopal prayer,” Alexa will respond “the Lord be with you,” and then people from partner churches will launch into Morning Prayer.