A visitor to Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College hears it over and over again, in matters large and small. “We could not have done it without the college.” It is not just a matter of money, although the savings resulting from the proximity of the two schools are considerable. The greatest gift by the college to the seminary has been easy access to good people.
It's all right there in the name: "Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College." The two schools are legally separate entities, but the seminary sits on the edge of the college campus, in a building that formerly housed the college's administrative offices and which the seminary has leased for fifty years and renovated to the tune of half a million dollars. John Martin is president of both schools. The dean of the seminary, along with the founding faculty, was recruited from the college. The schools share development, finance, library, instructional technology, and maintenance staff.
Roberts Wesleyan also provided the seminary with a ready-made board of directors when college trustees were invited to put on a new governance hat, this one labeled "seminary board member." And because members of the college board are appointed by supporting conferences of the Free Methodist Church, the school's parent denomination, and come with a deep commitment to the church and to the importance of Christian higher education, the seminary hat was an easy fit.
David Hoselton, a Rochester area businessman and chair of both boards, explains that whether it's for the college or the seminary board, "we are basically looking for the same person. There is an expectation that members of our boards will share the evangelical commitments of the institutions." He adds that trustees are asked to sign a confession of faith at the outset of their service to the schools.
But that's getting ahead of the story. First, a brief look at the process of bringing the new seminary into being.
Background to a start up
In the 1990s, faculty members at Roberts Wesleyan College, a four-year, private institution located on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, wanted to start a graduate program, and they saw a need in the surrounding region for theological education with an evangelical bent. (Much of the rest of the theological spectrum was already being served in Rochester, which is home to Bexley Hall Seminary, a school of the Episcopal Church USA, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, with American Baptist roots, and St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry, a Roman Catholic institution.) It seemed a reasonable next step for the 130-year-old institution, with its rich history of equipping theologically educated laity, to offer graduate-level theological education on its campus.
Wayne McCown, formerly the provost of the college and now vice president and dean of Northeastern Seminary, recalls how Paul Livermore, chair of the division of religion and humanities, was persistent in lobbying the administration to bring a seminary program to the college. In fact, as McCown tells it, faculty were more the champions for a seminary program than was the administration. "We had initiated three graduate programs at Roberts Wesleyan in a period of about three years, and quite frankly, I wasn't eager to start over again in another direction," he says.
But faculty persisted, some calling for a graduate program in religion. Others favored cooperation with an established theological school in providing seminary courses on the Roberts Wesleyan campus. The administration went so far as to engage in conversation with several schools, but McCown explains that "everyone wanted to offer a year here, then move the students to their campus." Since the schools in question were hundreds of miles away, that wasn't a viable option.
Next steps included a thorough analysis of the local student market, meetings with the Board of Bishops of the Free Methodist Church, and assorted other hoops. Proposals were passed between faculty committees and the academic affairs committee of the board, as faculty, administrators, and board members worked, planned, and prayed together about the potential new program.
Hoselton states that there was never any concern about whether a seminary fit with Roberts Wesleyan's mission. "It was an obvious fit," he says. "Naturally the board had questions: How much was it going to cost? Was there sufficient demand? We were aware that as Roberts Wesleyan was ramping up to deliver theological education, other seminaries in the region were seeing declines in enrollment. The board asked for a solid business plan, and the administration came through," he says.
By late 1996, it seemed clear there would be an independent seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College. Then the college encountered an unexpected obstacle. "We thought we were working toward a graduate program of the college, but we discovered this wouldn't work with the New York State Board of Regents," President Martin explains. "We were told we needed to charter the seminary as a separate institution."
Despite this setback, the planning team pushed on with starting a seminary, if not from scratch, almost. And quickly, an orderly division of labor developed within the evolving college/seminary communities.
Making and taking assignments
Over the next year or so, administrators and board leaders worked at drawing up legal documents, establishing a new corporation, delineating reporting lines, and pursuing conversations with three accrediting agencies -- the New York Board of Regents, the college's regional accrediting association, and the Association of Theological Schools. As Martin remembers, "We didn't fully anticipate how difficult it would be to separate the two institutions or how we would be challenged by accrediting groups to show the financial independence of the schools." In the end, however, the seminary moved smoothly through the various accreditation processes, and according to Martin, things are "fairly routine at this point, although safeguarding the independence of the seminary continues as an issue."
In the midst of the reorganization, McCown transitioned from provost of the college to dean of the seminary. He handpicked the seminary's faculty, and throughout the summer of 1997, the teaching team met for an afternoon every week to hammer out the curriculum.
Paul Livermore, formerly chair of the division of religion and humanities at Roberts Wesleyan College and a member of the seminary curriculum development team, describes how being part of a new entity made up of people who already knew and respected one another was an unexpected gift. "We didn't even realize at the time that turf control was not a factor," he says. Decisions were made by consensus -- albeit sometimes teeth-gritting consensus -- although faculty members are too polite to offer specifics.
As to the design of the curriculum, the faculty at Roberts had experience working with adult students in a bachelor's level degree completion program and the college's three other master's offerings. It seemed only natural to apply the block scheduling and cohort class model that were working well in other programs to the new seminary curriculum. Livermore says, "We didn't plan to be innovative. The first thing we put down on paper looked pretty traditional. But then I think it was Scott (Caton, who was finishing his PhD in history from the University of Rochester at the time) who came in offering the possibility of a different design for the core curriculum."
And so it was. Faculty shouldered responsibility for crafting the curriculum. Administrators worked through the tangled web of accreditation issues, prepared a careful business plan, and gave attention to attracting students and dollars (beginning with a campaign to cover start-up costs) to the seminary. The board asked tough questions, required that the administration do quality business planning, and made the campaign for the seminary their priority. In short, credit for the school's current success is rightfully spread around.
One becomes two
Along with their continuing care of the college and now the seminary, the board is also caring for itself -- in both its incarnations. The seminary board was formed in 1997, and since then, trustees have organized and reorganized to provide their best service to both schools. "The seminary board happens to have the same personnel as the college's board, although the two are legally separate entities, governing legally separate institutions. Board meetings are differentiated by the bang of a gavel. One ends, the other begins," McCown explains.
Initially, selected representatives from the standing committees met together at a time other than the regular board meeting to consider seminary-specific issues. However, it didn't take long for board leadership to realize the representational committee wasn't working. Attendance at the extra day's meeting fell off, and for board members who did show up, the agenda felt disconnected from their other work.
The board then tried a model where the standing committees allotted time as needed for seminary business. Discussion items and recommended actions were reported and voted on when trustees convened as the seminary board. Over time, this also proved less than effective, in part because the seminary's administrative staff (a dean and an associate dean) found it difficult to divide their time among all the standing committees.
Two years ago, the board created a seminary committee that meets simultaneously to the other standing committees. The advantage of this governance model, according to McCown is that "it assures there is a group of trustees who make it their assignment to really get to know seminary education" and who have become his "talking partners."
For now, the board, administration, and faculty agree that governance is working well, although no one in either school considers this a permanent state of affairs. In fact, the full board has charged the seminary committee with continuing to study governance options and coming back to them with a detailed report. Committee members have compiled a list of university-related divinity schools and college-related seminaries and are making contact to look at governance patterns in the other institutions.
If it sometimes feels the board at Northeastern Seminary is starting, if not from scratch, almost at the beginning again and again, trustees are determined to continue fine tuning the governance model as needed. Board Chair David Hoselton explains, "Our most significant challenge is keeping board members attuned to the fact the seminary will never be completely self-sustaining. It's our job to make certain the seminary is well funded, holding to a steady course, and fulfilling the purposes for which it was started."