By Kirk Petersen
The financial health of the oldest Episcopal seminary deteriorated during the pandemic to the extent that the trustees have considered closing the school and selling its assets, according to testimony at a recent online legislative hearing in advance of General Convention.
Instead, pending approval of Resolution A139, General Theological Seminary (GTS) intends to cede significant governance autonomy in a formal affiliation with Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), the largest and most affluent Episcopal seminary.
GTS has “an unsustainable financial model, overly reliant on variable and vulnerable revenue streams, declining interest, applications, and declining enrollments in core programs,” said the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, who is Bishop of Atlanta and chair of the GTS board of trustees. He was one of half a dozen witnesses from both seminaries who testified in favor of the resolution at a June 16 hearing of the joint Committee on Agencies and Boards.
Wright said the trustees considered three possible courses of action:
- Pursuing a partnership or affiliation with another seminary;
- Selling or redeveloping part of “The Close,” GTS’s valuable real estate in the Chelsea section of Manhattan; or
- Closing the seminary, selling its assets, and establishing a fund to support theological education.
In January 2021, the two seminaries announced they were in talks about a partnership that might lead to sharing faculty and resources. But in an interview with TLC, the Very Rev. Dr. Michael W. DeLashmutt, acting dean and president of GTS, said the 2022 vision is very different.
“The affiliation that we’re proposing will effectively give the board of trustees of Virginia Seminary a controlling interest in the board of General Seminary. And, the leadership of Virginia Seminary will play a considerable role in leading General Seminary. It’s more than just a collaboration, it is a legal affiliating of the two institutions,” DeLashmutt said.
The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, dean and president of VTS, emphasized that details are still being negotiated, and that a final agreement would have to be approved by both boards of trustees.
He explained that the proposal would expand the VTS board of trustees to 40 people, with 32 from Virginia and eight from General. He and the Virginia administration would lead both seminaries.
“We will still remain two corporations, but the same people will run both of those corporations, and the administration of Virginia Theological Seminary will be responsible for General Theological Seminary,” Markham said.
Both deans rejected the idea that General would become a “subsidiary” of Virginia. “This is where it gets very very complicated, because that has a distinctive set of legal connotations. So I don’t think you can say that, actually,” Markham said. “The word we’re using is affiliation.”
“This isn’t simply a takeover of the seminary by Virginia, but rather an affiliation and an alignment, borne out of a common sense of mission,” DeLashmutt said.
All of this depends on the passage of Resolution A139, which would grant GTS the authority to make changes to its own constitution and bylaws. Under a 19th-century arrangement that is unique to GTS among Episcopal seminaries, any such change requires the concurrent approval of General Convention.
“If this resolution fails to pass the General Convention, the Virginia Theological Seminary board will not proceed with the affiliation,” David Charlton, who chairs the VTS board, testified in the legislative hearing.
Passage seems highly likely. Nobody spoke in opposition to the proposal during the hearing, and committee members posed no questions. Both deans said they have been discussing the matter with their constituencies for months, and both said they know of no opposition.
“I think most people feel that it’s better for this affiliation to happen than for General to disappear,” Markham said. “That was its dilemma.”
There is a need for “naming the sense of loss by some because things were changing,” Wright told TLC. “Rather than opposition, there was some real pastoral care that was required, and I think will be required going forward.”
General Theological Seminary was founded in 1817, and the vision at the time was that it would become a unified seminary serving the entire church. Thus the General Convention retained considerable control of the governance of GTS. But VTS was founded in 1823, and the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South in 1857, both with governance structures independent of General Convention.
The proposed arrangement is the latest example of a changing business model among Episcopal seminaries, and indeed in the broader world of theological education.
Most recently, Trinity Church Wall Street, with $8 billion in assets from Lower Manhattan real estate, reached across the country in 2019 to acquire Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. In 2017, Episcopal Divinity School closed up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and relocated to New York as the Episcopal track of the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary. In 2013, Seabury-Western merged with Bexley Hall to form Bexley Seabury. The downsizing of the Episcopal seminary structure has been inevitable since 1970, when the Pusey Report called for reducing the number of seminaries from 11 at the time down to five or fewer, because of declining enrollment.
GTS has had financial challenges for years. DeLashmutt said enrollment in the three-year, residential M.Div. program (master of divinity) declined from nearly 80 in 2011 to fewer than 10 in 2021, with only five students living on campus. Despite that, the seminary was running a modest surplus at the end of the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle’s term as dean and president.
Then the pandemic hit, leading to “a softening in our annual giving” and the complete loss of income from the seminary’s conference center. In addition, the school faces some deferred-maintenance costs, including repairs to the deteriorating tower of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. In October 2021, DeLashmutt said the seminary was facing deficits in the range of $800,000 to $1.5 million for the next three years.
The trustees had to consider “not just can we balance the budget, but is this the kind of budget that leads to the thriving of our students and our institution,” he said.
The seminary began offering a hybrid online program in November 2021, and had 50 applicants, compared to the normal 15 to 20 for the residential program. They recruited 19 students who will be starting in the fall, featuring online instruction and three intensive, week-long residential courses in January, May, and August.
If A139 is not adopted, “Plan B is the shrinking of the [campus] footprint and focusing exclusively on hybrid learning, and Plan C would be looking at some sort of significant sale or development of the institution, and possibly ceasing instruction for a period of time,” DeLashmutt said. “This is a high-stakes vote for us.”