In July, Stephen Murray, president of Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS) in Detroit, penned a challenging, powerful letter to his constituents, detailing the school’s decision to move its library to Wayne State University. “There were a lot of false narratives out in the ether about how the seminary was doing — and rumors about whether we were making it or if we were going to close tomorrow,” he recently told In Trust. “With the letter, I really wanted to give a very transparent sense of where we actually are.”
Many constituents had been in the dark regarding the financial status of the seminary, so Murray’s letter about the new partnership with Wayne State, and his ongoing openness about the seminary, signified a shift.
|Ecumenical Theological Seminary hosted a barbecue in August 2014 to give members of the community a chance to meet new president Stephen Murray (above right, posing with students).
For 10 years, Lilly Endowment supported the Ecumenical Theological Seminary through a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grant. A number of staff salaries and program budgets were undergirded through that grant. “The institution had not really planned for how to deal with the natural end of that grant and the gap in operating revenue,” Murray says. At the grant’s end, the institution chose to continue certain parts of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program that were distinctive and connected local pastors to the seminary, but these programs had to be funded through other means.
At the same time, enrollment was declining. From 2012 to 2014, enrollment fell from 160 to 82, spurred by several factors: For one, ETS was no longer on the list of schools approved by the United Methodist University Senate, so United Methodist students were no longer eligible for denominational support. And furthermore, the school’s long-term arrangements with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Methodist Theological School in Ohio ended.
Competition had also sprung up from other seminaries with branch campuses in southeastern Michigan. Ecumenical Theological Seminary has traditionally drawn its students from 30 or more different denominations, appealing to conservative and liberal students alike who appreciate the diversity of its student body. But as other seminaries began offering classes and programs in the region, some of Ecumenical Theological Seminary’s key constituencies were drawn away.
Without frank discussion, anxiety grows
There was a lack of confidence in the direction of the seminary for a couple of years,” Murray says. Important judiciaries and ecclesiastical bodies in the Detroit area wondered about its financial viability, and Murray suspects there were concerns about whether these organizations should continue to send students to ETS if they wouldn’t be able to finish there.
Another factor was a perceived lack of leadership. Murray’s predecessor retired on short notice, and there was a gap of one year between the previous president’s retirement and Murray’s own start date. In the interim, a trio of vice presidents working together led the school.
“False narratives can start growing around a school when you don’t provide transparency about where things are economically, and don’t provide people with real data that they can count on,” says Murray. “Instead of transparency, there was a lot of concern in the air and not a whole lot of answers back from the seminary as to what reality was.”
To recover from decline and grow, Murray also needed to share more about the seminary’s finances. Despite the recent changes, ETS was continuing to operate at a 2012 budget level when there were more students and more grant revenue. “So there was a need to be realistic and figure out if we're going to live within our means,” he says. The school reevaluated every aspect of its budget and carefully adjusted it from $1.9 million annually down to about $1.2 million annually. Seven positions were eliminated.
A new approach to enrollment
To address the enrollment slide, Ecumenical re-examined its recruitment and admissions programs. “We tried to come up with a way to do recruitment differently,” says Murray. He started by enlarging the admissions director’s portfolio to include the entire recruitment process.
Then he brought in a diverse, integrated team of recruiters, drawn from the local community, who now collaborate with various networks to attract potential students. ETS also began encouraging faculty to help with the recruitment process — which has been especially fruitful for the doctor of ministry program. (The initial results of these changes have been promising. This year, enrollment has increased from 82 to 103.)
With a modest endowment of about $400,000, ETS is primarily tuition driven, so the board secured a line of credit for ETS’s operational budget deficit. “We needed time,” Murray says. “We needed time to accomplish our goals in a way that wasn’t just immediate cuts, left and right, that would leave us reeling. We needed time for a well-planned, systematic approach.”
For stronger library services, cut the library
“My mantra is, we don’t want to make cuts just to make cuts, we want to make cuts in such a way that we position the seminary to grow and to become stronger,” says Murray. To become stronger, the seminary has sought opportunities to share resources.
Most importantly, Murray wanted a solution that did not jeopardize the seminary’s accreditation. He spoke with representatives from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) about the feasibility of sharing a library with another institution, and in doing so he learned that ATS standards focus on access to resources for students and faculty rather than on the size of a book collection. There would be no problem with such a formal sharing arrangement with another institution.
Next, seminary administration reached out to four institutions in the Detroit area — one other theological institution, two universities, and one liberal arts college. ETS considered several different scenarios, including retaining its library on site, with another institution owning and maintaining it. “In the end the main interest was another library acquiring our library, with the caveat that our students and faculty would be ensured access to the full library system of whichever partner we went with,” says Murray. The school was also concerned about access to the library system for alumni.
Wayne State University expressed a strong interest in partnering with ETS because the partnership could help the university achieve its own goal of establishing a full religious studies program. “That led to their interest in bolstering their own scholarly resources in religious studies,” says Murray. “Our library would be a very important acquisition.”
“Our collection of 30,000 volumes in the basement of our building has now become part of a far larger, far superior library system. That’s more than we ever could have dreamed to have on our own,” says Murray. Under the agreement with Wayne State, ETS students and faculty have full access to the university’s library system. Moreover, because of statewide sharing agreements, students will have access to the libraries of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and other top-flight institutions.
“The University of Michigan has tremendous resources in early Christianity, and that will be very exciting for our students who are training for ministry or considering graduate school in biblical studies,” says Murray.
|Works by Nigerian artist Timothy Orikri are on exhibit throughout the seminary's two main buildings. Here, Orikri's assistant helps unveil the gift of a new painting during Stephen Murray's inauguration.
The partnership has also increased overall access for ETS students and faculty. Previously, the seminary library was open four days a week. Now ETS scholars have round-the-clock access to a major research library as well as access to a far larger collection of resources. “The loss is that there’s not a specific theological librarian to work with them,” says Murray. “It will fall more upon our faculty to give students specific direction on using the library for the research that they need to do.
To ease the transition this fall, Wayne State staff will participate in new-student orientation at ETS, showing students how to use the library system, and librarians will talk with individual classes as well.
Conversations with the seminary community — open, ongoing, and respectful
In response to constituent concerns, Murray has led several meetings to explore the upcoming changes. One meeting with students led to a commitment to create a study space and a social space on the ETS campus for the students, who are mostly commuters. Another idea that emerged from that student meeting was to retain some of the library’s holdings, such as biblical concordances and key reference materials, in a permanent resource collection
The faculty and administration response was largely positive, though one faculty member raised a concern that the mile-and-a-half distance to the Wayne State library would discourage library use. Members of the alumni brought up whether the new library arrangement would be accessible for older and disabled students. (Fortunately, the Wayne State library is fully accessible.) They also urged the administration to help the seminary librarian find a new position when his job is eliminated.
In light of the tremendous changes that are now transforming ETS, Murray has launched a weekly newsletter to keep the community engaged and informed. He is also looking to continue to build the seminary community through increased communication.
“When I first presented the idea for closing the ETS library to our board of directors, I said, this is one of those rare times in life that you actually can make lemonade out of lemons — that we actually will end up with a far better library resource for students and faculty, and with the elimination of all sorts of costs to the seminary,” says Murray.
A big believer in institutional partnerships, Murray is optimistic that Ecumenical Theological Seminary will be at the epicenter of a network benefiting religious education in the Detroit area. And he is committed to being as transparent as possible about the process, and about the seminary’s other strengths and challenges, too. By communicating clearly and frequently, he’s expecting to inspire confidence, draw new students, and continue changing the community for the better.
|The seminary's home is the former First Presbyterian Church of Detroit, built in 1889 by the noted Detroit architecture partnership Mason & Rice.