Before, we had compatible missions. Going forward, we have the promise of a vibrant, singular mission. That's powerful.”
That was Marcus J. Miller, president of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, back in 2012, at the point when his seminary announced their merger with another Lutheran institution, Lenoir-Rhyne University. And it’s the compatibility of their missions that has proved to be the key to the consolidated institutions’ success.
Miller’s successor agrees. Clay Schmit arrived in 2012 as provost — a new title to reflect his role as chief executive of the seminary, which became part of Lenoir-Rhyne’s College of Arts and Sciences while remaining one of the eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “One of the strengths of the merger process was that the seminary mission was very carefully honored and maintained in the process.” He says. “This happened in part because it dovetailed so well with the university’s mission.”
|Christ Chapel at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Credit: Lenoir-Rhyne University
The 2012 merger grew out of financial issues, as is the case with many partnerships. Like theological schools throughout North America, ELCA seminaries are struggling with financial challenges, and other consolidations have followed: California Lutheran University merged with the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 2013, and today, the Gettysburg and Philadelphia seminaries are working on a consolidation plan.
So Lutheran Southern is hardly unique, though it’s venerable. The seminary was founded in 1830 and has made its home in Columbia, South Carolina, since 1911. In the years running up to its merger, enrollment had declined by about a quarter, and denominational support had dropped by 30 percent. Big endowment draws had made up for budget shortfalls. It was clear that at some point the seminary would deplete its resources unless it came up with a plan for change.
President Marcus J. Miller and board chair William Trexler wrote to constituents in June of 2012:
“In 2006, the seminary was within weeks of losing its accreditation because we could not exhibit a sustainable financial future. Thankfully, the loss of accreditation was averted because we took some severe steps to reduce costs and commit to more effective fundraising. The problems, nevertheless, did not disappear. These are problems no different from what many of you experience in your congregations and ministry sites.”
Lutheran Southern turned to Lenoir-Rhyne University as a merger partner for a couple of reasons: Located in the scenic town of Hickory, North Carolina, the university was financially stable. And it had a compatible history and mission as one of the ELCA’s 26 colleges and universities. What’s more, Lenoir-Rhyne was in expansion mode, with a new campus planned in the up-and-coming cultural center of Asheville, North Carolina.
A feasibility study helped Wayne Powell (president of the university from 2002 until the end of 2016, when he plans to retire), Miller (president of the seminary from 2006 to 2012), and their respective boards to determine that this represented the best way forward, strategically. They entered into a collaborative partnership in 2011 and then in March 2012 signed formal merger documents.
The cost of the merger was totally born by the university. Since it was financially stable, the university was “able to do things that are forward-looking and bold,” Schmit says. (Lenoir-Rhyne University has had a balanced budget for 13 years, has run surpluses as high as $2 million, and currently has a $95 million endowment). Because the university opened its Asheville site during the period of merger with the seminary, outgoing president Powell has called his institution “one school on three campuses in two states.”
Despite the strong support of institutional leadership, the merger was not without difficulties. In particular, alumni worried about the seminary’s identity, and employees worried about their jobs. Endowment issues also had to be ironed out with legal counsel: While the seminary endowment was added to the university endowment, it was restricted for seminary use only.
The merger was only possible because the seminary also pushed for a change in the denominational bylaws. Until 2011, the ELCA required seminaries to be incorporated separately from other institutions. But that year, the denomination’s Churchwide Assembly approved new bylaws stating that “each seminary of this church shall be separately incorporated or, if unincorporated, shall be a school, department, or unit of a college or university of this church.” The revisions also provided for mechanisms to elect an advisory council and appoint a chief administrative officer in consultation with the college or university in which the seminary was embedded. (Previous bylaws only accounted for the election of a board of directors and a president of standalone schools.)
Then there were the accreditation challenges — both the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and the regional accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) had to approve the merger. But before that could happen, new faculty and policy manuals had to be written that reflected both the seminary’s and the university’s concerns.
When Clay Schmit arrived as provost, he found Miller and Powell’s planning to have been very thorough. The seminary saved about half a million dollars annually in back-office services, including human resources and IT. (However, the library, which remains on the Columbia campus, did not merge with the university library because it was already in a consortial arrangement with the Lutheran seminaries in Gettysburg and Philadelphia.)
|Professor Susan McArver teaches church history and educational ministry.
Credit: Lenoir-Rhyne University
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary is now protected financially by Lenoir-Rhyne University and enriched by new programs (like master’s degrees in mental health counseling and occupational therapy) that the university is offering at its Center for Graduate Studies of Columbia, which shares a campus with the seminary. Twelve staff positions and three tenure-track faculty positions were eliminated in the merger, but the remaining seminary faculty members were generally protected in terms of workload and expectations for committee service, which did not change much under the new administrative structure.
At first, alumni reacted negatively. In a 2012 letter to constituents, Miller and Trexler acknowledged this: “In situations like these, people want to know who is to blame,” they wrote. “Some blame the seminary president, others may blame the seminary board, still others may blame the university administration, while others blame the Church, and still others blame decisions that were made years ago. We do not believe that there is a villain in this, but rather that we responded as faithfully as possible to current circumstances in order to sustain and strengthen the seminary for future years.” Schmit believes that during the two years after the merger, most constituents came to see the wisdom in it.
Schmit resigned from his position as provost this summer. An August 26 letter from president Wayne B. Powell and William B. Trexler, chair of the seminary’s advisory council, announced the resignation along with a restructuring of the university’s academic units. “The School of Theology, of which Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary is a part, will become a newly formed College of Theology,” they wrote. “The new college will be one of five at the University and places theological education and programming on a par with the other units of Lenoir-Rhyne University.”
In addition, they announced that the new dean of the College of Theology will report to university provost Larry Hall, not directly to the president. The new dean will be the Rev. David Ratke, a 17-year faculty member in the department of religion at Lenoir-Rhyne who has served in a variety of leadership roles, including chair of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and chair of the university faculty.
The restructuring is part of Powell’s long-term vision for the seminary. “If we were to take the history department off our campus and put it on an independent campus and expect it to pay for all its expenses, it wouldn’t survive,” Schmit quotes him as saying. “Why would we expect a school of theology to survive isolated, and not embedded in the life of the university?”