It's the realtor's mantra: "Location, location, location." If the school system stinks, it doesn't matter how nice the house is. If there's no traffic, it doesn't matter how cheap the retail space rents for. And as student demographics change, many seminaries are learning that location matters in theological education too. For example, denomination and theological flavor don't mean much if a student has to travel more than a hour to get to class.
It's been said many times: The old model of young men leaving the comforts of home to spend three years in cloistered study is not what we see in the future. In many places, the model has already been replaced by a student body comprised of older men and women studying part-time at a seminary close to home. Many are not seeking degrees; others are opting for alternatives to the M.Div. that require less time (and less dough) to complete. If a student's denomination requires classes from a certain school, those courses can be taken online.
As the model changes, schools are selling their campuses and moving to new or different facilities that provide more flexibility for the changes many leaders anticipate.
A post from last year in Business Insider crunched U.S. Census data and determined that half the population of the country lives in just 146 counties (out of 3,086 counties total). Most people are aware of how concentrated our population tends to be, but even so, you often hear rumors of plans for a new seminary is rural Kentucky, northern Michigan, or some other less-populated location. To be sure, it can be argued that seminarians need a place to withdraw from the world for a while. But if too few are willing to make the journey, then the institution cannot be viable.
(For comparison, see this map of ATS seminaries in the U.S. The ATS website has a similar map that includes the Canadian schools, though the size of the markers made it difficult to get an overview.)
In Trust has already published a number of stories on schools that have sold their campuses. Some ducked under the umbrella of a larger neighboring institution; others are experimenting with new ways of delivering theological education. Some have even closed their doors altogether. In the future, we hope to share more stories of seminaries that have moved not just to survive but to thrive.
I think a big part of that story will be about location, but I am curious what board members think. How important is location to accomplishing the mission of your school? Is there more to location than just being accessible to the largest number of potential students? Does a school in large urban area make a larger contribution to the culture, or is it the other way around — schools in urban environments are influenced by the regional culture?
I welcome comments!
Image credit: Matt Forster