A New Attitude Drives Enrollment at Nashotah House

Nashotah House campus; inset: Garwood Anderson | Nashotah House photos

Garwood Anderson just celebrated five years as president and dean of Nashotah House, a 180-year-old Episcopal seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin, in the lake country west of Milwaukee. In those five years, the House has enjoyed a 93 percent increase in full-time equivalent enrollment, far outpacing its peers. According to data from the Association of Theological Schools, other Episcopal/Anglican seminaries in the country have seen growth in the same period ranging from 45 percent to minus 46 percent. Associate Editor Kirk Petersen caught up with Anderson on June 1, as seminarians were leaving campus for the summer. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

President and Dean Garwood Anderson

TLC: What’s behind Nashotah’s dramatic growth in enrollment?

Garwood Anderson: There’s a pretty strong hustle factor that comes from our staff. They do great work in telling our story, and taking every opportunity to extend hospitality, stay in touch with people, really work the admissions process in a personal way that’s pastoral and engaged with people’s vocations and options.

We’ve improved some administrative processes, and that’s always a factor.

We know Nashotah House has a bit of a checkered history. It depends on who you ask, what they’ve heard about us. We place a real premium on getting people here in person, so they’re actually seeing the place, seeing what we do, meeting our staff, meeting our faculty, engaging with our students. So they’re not just dealing with a rumor, an impression that was formed somewhere else.

However they came to us, we find they usually leave with a favorable impression.

We’ve done a lot to build new bridges, and/or repair bridges, to different ecclesial circles. A lot of what I do is to make sure that possible sending entities have a clear and up-to-date story on what makes us tick.

Most people who are making decisions on behalf of seminarians are dealing with impressions that are probably outdated.

Tell me more about the checkered history.

Nashotah House has had seasons where it’s probably related to parts of the church more antagonistically or defensively. Now we try to relate to the whole church affirmatively, just being happy to be who we are. Happy to be creedal, biblical, orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, committed to community formation, and not feeling the need to be against anything.

There’ve been seasons where Nashotah House has been better known for the boundaries that it established rather than the invitations that it offered.

“There’ve been seasons where Nashotah House has been better known for the boundaries that it established rather than the invitations that it offered.”

What kind of boundaries?

Let’s say you were an Episcopalian, but you didn’t really see yourself as a high churchman, or Anglo-Catholic. Today we wouldn’t tell you this is not your kind of seminary. If you visit us, you’ll see liturgies in the mainstream of Anglo-Catholicism, but you could find yourself very happy here even if you don’t ascribe to that churchmanship, for example.

Or, theologically, you might see yourself to the left of Nashotah House on any given issue. Well, you’d be welcome to be a student here. We’re not looking for folks to sign some sort of statement of agreement. We’re looking for folks who want to come with an open mind and learn from what we have to offer.

We’re pleased to serve an Episcopal Church constituency, which of course is our long history and heritage. We also serve without regret the Anglican Church in North America and various continuing churches.

If you feel like you can’t inhabit a space where another jurisdiction is present, we’d like you to come and see what it looks like when Christians of differences live together in harmony with one another. As everyone knows, the mutual hostility in the Anglican world hasn’t advanced anyone’s cause.

Talk about the split between ACNA and TEC, the numbers at Nashotah House, how many are on which track.

The last time I looked at the numbers under a microscope, it was remarkably even. Overall, 45 percent of our students were Episcopalians, 45 percent were ACNA, and 10 percent were something else. It was really split down the middle.

In the residential, M.Div. [master of divinity], section of the seminary, the balance is a little more toward Episcopalians. In the advanced-degree programs, like the S.T.M. [master of sacred theology] and doctor of ministry, the balance is a little bit more toward ACNA, continuing, and non-Anglicans.

Our faculty are eight Episcopalians and two from the ACNA, and we have some key staff from both, also.

What is it like having both on campus? There’s been so much hostility over the last decade.

When they’re in relationship with each other, hear each other’s stories, understand where each other’s coming from, it really doesn’t take long before jurisdictional differences fade into the woodwork.

There’s an ever-present mutual teasing of one another, but it’s an affectionate teasing.

We live in a bit of an ideal situation, in that we have a prescribed, enforced community life in which we worship and pray with one another. It’s kind of hard to pray with one another day after day, believe the same core tenets of the Christian faith, seek to walk the same walk, and not recognize one another as brothers and sisters. You almost have to will yourself to be in hostility with one another, and our environment doesn’t encourage that.

Christopher Wells [the publisher of TLC] was on the General Convention Task Force On Communion Across Difference, regarding the same-sex marriage issue. So I read that report, and near the end there was something that really stuck with me. It was to the effect of: after meeting and socializing together, people stop being caricatures, and start becoming persons about whom we care.

Yep. That’s said it better than I can. That’s exactly our experience.

On a variety of theological and moral issues, we’re taking the traditional stance – but it’s not an enforced stance, it’s an offered stance. It’s an embodied, lived position. You’re welcome to come to class and disagree with your professor, but you shouldn’t be surprised at Nashotah House at what you would hear from a professor. All of our professors endeavor to give a balanced and winsome account of their position.

I think seminaries that have gone to a more commodified, purely distanced, or non-communal approach to formation, they don’t have the ecosystem for this kind of reconciling ministry. Even our shorter-term, limited-residency students enter into a cultivated life of reconciliation.

Tell me a little about the breakdown, how many are residential, how many are hybrid, and the difference that makes.

We’re still finding out what our incoming class will be, but we think we’ll be in the low 40s for residential student population, we’re roughly 45 to 50 or so in the hybrid-distance program, and about the same in the advanced-degree program.

The hybrid-distance students are here four weeks a year, a week at a time, as a requirement of their program, and the advanced-degree students normally are here two weeks per year.

We’re thrilled with our hybrid-distance program, and we’re happy to serve the church that way, but we do everything we can to commend residential formation. For those who can manage it, we think it’s a better choice. We prioritize it, without diminishing our other offerings.

What effect has the pandemic had on your operations?

We were able to continue to grow our enrollment despite the pandemic. I know it’s a cliché, but we tried to be as nimble as we could be. So we did some infrastructural changes, with technology, classroom remodeling, to make remote participation seamless.

The pandemic deeply affected our residential way of life for a season, but it didn’t affect our delivery of education.

The season of isolation was very, very difficult for all of us. We’re accustomed to being together, and we’re really structured to be together. I would say we exercised proper caution, but not a severe or fearful caution. We were together, and masked, and spaced, a little ahead of other institutions, and we’re not aware of any spreading of COVID through seminary events. Some of our people have had COVID, but it came from outside sources. We had no severe cases. In our residential community we were 95, 96 percent vaccinated, quickly. We made a priority of that.

Seminaries have been closing for lack of enrollment. You’re obviously moving in the opposite direction, so that’s good. But talk a bit about the long-term financial viability of the institution.

That’s the important question for sure. If Nashotah House were packed to its current limits, we would probably max out at student-generated revenues of 55, possibly 60, percent of our total need. The rest has to come out of endowment and annual fundraising. Right now, probably 45 percent of our needed revenue comes from students.

Nashotah House has a long history of running a deficit, and we’ve still not overcome that, despite the growth in our student enrollment. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done in development, and that’s what I devote the lion’s share of my time to.

The days of direct-mail campaigns, and hoping and wishing that alumni would put the seminary on their back and fund it, or that there would be a single donor or two that would solve all of our problems — we don’t live that way anymore. We just have to tell our story, make friends, find those people who really believe in what we’re doing, and understand the strategic importance of this institution for the good of the churches that we serve.

How big is your endowment?

All told, it’s $10 or $11 million. It’s really quite small for our size. We have a $4 million budget, roughly. Increasing the endowment is a top priority. It’s hard to raise the endowment when you have lived with a deficit. People are less motivated for endowment gifts if they’re not sure the seminary is on solid fiscal footing. So job one is closing that deficit altogether, between the growth in enrollment and growth in our annual giving, and then raising endowment gifts that take us the rest of the way.

How much of a deficit are we talking about?

It varies. A deficit of 10 to 15 percent, sometimes as much as 20 percent, has not been unusual. Our fiscal year ends the 30th of June, and we’ll see how our end-of-year fundraising efforts go. We’ve had a very good spring, and we hope to close that gap significantly, but we do expect to have a deficit at the end of the year.

What Nashotah House has had in its favor is that it owns very desirable land. At different seasons it has sold off to developers or conservationists. That’s helped to see us through seasons that were thin. At this point we don’t consider that an option. The 70 acres where we do our ministry, we don’t plan to sell any land.

We place 100 percent of our graduates, but I have a demand coming to me for three or four times what we graduate. There’s a desire to hire our students as full-time priests, and we can’t supply the church as many as they would like. Normally that’s a good problem, unless you can’t solve the supply-chain issue.

There’s a narrative out there that there aren’t jobs for Episcopal or Anglican priests. That’s not our experience. I’m sure there are people having a hard time finding positions, but it seems to me that there is a demand for folks who are well-trained, well-formed.

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