By Kirk Petersen
America’s two oldest Episcopal seminaries have finalized the partnership they’ve been working toward for months, with Virginia Theological Seminary bringing its relatively vast resources to bear to save General Theological Seminary from extinction. But while GTS will survive, it will bear little resemblance to the institution that has prepared seminarians for the priesthood for the past two centuries.
On November 29, the GTS Board of Trustees appointed the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, president of VTS, to the additional role of president of GTS. The Very Rev. Michael DeLashmutt, who had been acting president and dean of GTS, was named dean of the chapel and senior vice president.
In a joint interview with TLC a few days after the vote, Markham and DeLashmutt said the arrangement ensures that GTS will continue to be a degree-granting institution and a physical presence in New York City, where the Episcopal Church has its headquarters.
“We’re committed to not selling the campus,” Markham said, despite the potential value of five acres in the West 20s in Manhattan. “And we’re also committed to maintaining distinctive GTS-related programming, of which the high-quality, low-residency M.Div is going to be the flagship.”
At least for the near future, the hybrid master of divinity program will be not just the flagship, but the only ship. After a handful of remaining residential students graduate in May 2023, General Theological Seminary will no longer enroll students in master’s programs in spiritual direction, ministry, theology, and sacred theology, nor in the doctor of ministry program. And GTS will no longer offer the immersive experience of the traditional three-year, residential master of divinity program.
A majority of current GTS students already participate in a hybrid program, with lectures and events delivered online for most of the year. The entire class gathers on-campus for three “intensive weeks” each year of the program, in September, January, and May. There are currently 55 students enrolled in the various GTS degree programs, and “fewer than 10 live full-time on the Close,” Markham said later by email.
“We are recruiting cohorts of 15 students per year into the hybrid M.Div. program. The program is designed for students to complete their degree in four years or less,” he wrote.
General’s transformation has been wrenchingly swift. As recently as November 2020, GTS’s leadership was committed to the residential model. Then-President Kurt H. Dunkle said the seminary would continue “to lean into that being the default option,” even though it had begun making pandemic-related accommodations for seminarians with health concerns.
Dunkle, who had announced his pending retirement earlier that month, succinctly described the benefits of the residential model.
“At General, we do two things: education and formation. Education happens mostly, but not exclusively, in the classroom. Formation happens exclusively, almost, outside the classroom, like in chapel, and at lunch, and walking around on the Close, and sitting around at night drinking a beer, or a lemonade,” he said. “For General, and a handful of other seminaries – Virginia, Sewanee, Southwest – we’ve made very clear statements that in-person education and formation are not just important, but essential, because the Church is a high-touch business. It’s about human interaction and human relationships. Seminary needs to be the same way.”
But the pandemic had other ideas.
Only two M.Div students started in the residential M.Div. program in the fall of 2021, DeLashmutt said. “And that was a signal for us that we needed a significant change.”
With the help of a Lilly Endowment grant, the GTS trustees spent several months in “a prayerful, and also data-informed, decision-making process,” DeLashmutt said. “And the research pointed in two directions for us. The first was that in order for the seminary to continue to fulfill its educational mission, we needed to move in the direction of a low-residency model. And to find a way that we could bring theological education into the context of students around the country who were not just unable to attend residential seminary, but perhaps weren’t called to attend residential seminary — but still deserve the very best education that they could possibly have.”
Second, “we needed to pursue a partnership with another institution that would help us to live into our third century of mission,” he said.
They didn’t have to look far, because GTS already had a budding partnership with VTS, the largest and most affluent Episcopal seminary. It began in 2018 with the launch of “TryTank: An Experimental Laboratory for Growth and Innovation, funded jointly by the two seminaries. The institutions announced in early 2021 that they were looking for ways to expand the partnership, a move they said was driven not by financial concerns, but by opportunities to offer seminarians access to the faculty and resources of both institutions.
“The only reason this is going to work is that we’re both stable organizations,” Dunkle said at the time. He acknowledged the disparity between the institutions — at the time, VTS had four times the enrollment and five times the endowment of GTS.
But then General’s financial health deteriorated quickly, and by June 2022, leaders of both institutions were raising alarms at an online legislative hearing in advance of General Convention. The hearing concerned Resolution A139, which would end the last formal ties between GTS and the General Convention.
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, Nashotah House in 1842, and the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South in 1857, all with governance structures independent of General Convention. These challenges to the unified-seminary vision reflected broader conflict within the church and the country.
General Convention’s control of GTS dwindled over the coming two centuries, but until this year, the GC still retained the right to approve or disapprove any changes to the GTS constitution and bylaws. VTS considered that a deal-breaker.
DeLashmutt warned in June that if A139 failed to pass, “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. This is a high-stakes vote for us.” The resolution passed without opposition.
At the time of the legislative hearing, both Markham and DeLashmutt rejected the idea that GTS would become a “subsidiary” of VTS. “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.”
But even if GTS does not meet some legal definition of a subsidiary, that term fits in a descriptive sense. In addition to Markham’s dual role, two of his senior executives from VTS have assumed similar positions at GTS. The Rev. Melody Knowles is the head of academic affairs for both seminaries, and Jacqueline Ballou is chief financial officer. The VTS Board of Trustees expanded to 40 people, with 32 from Virginia and eight from General.
There undoubtedly is more consolidation yet to come, and the uncertainty has created a tense atmosphere on campus. One faculty member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said faculty, staff, and seminarians alike are anxious about what the future will bring. The same person questioned whether the smaller program offering would continue to justify even the modest size of the current faculty. The GTS website currently lists 10 core faculty members, including Markham, DeLashmutt, and Knowles.
“We’re in a review season, which will last some months,” Markham said.
Financial pressures remain, because of the need to address “significant deferred maintenance” on the GTS campus, DeLashmutt said. “I would say that the thing that we’re most excited about is moving forward with restoration of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, which includes structural work on the tower, addressing the roof, and restoring the chapel itself.”
He described the chapel as “a rare jewel that is has been given for the service of education, formation, and training within the Episcopal Church.” But it is no longer an exclusively Episcopal jewel. Since 2019, Good Shepherd New York, a non-denominational church, has been the only congregation worshiping at the chapel on Sundays.
The partnership between GTS and VTS is the latest example of a changing business model among Episcopal seminaries, and indeed in the broader world of theological education.
In 2019, Trinity Church Wall Street, with $8 billion in assets from Lower Manhattan real estate, reached across the country 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.
A previous version of this article said that daily chapel services on the General Theological Seminary’s campus will be discontinued. The administration says that statement is incorrect, and it has been removed from the article.