In Trust has reported on seminary mergers and other forms of partnerships for many years. When we do, I often say to myself, “We should come back in five years and see how this actually works out. Will the benefits be as great as they’re saying? Will overhead costs come down? Will the smaller school lose its identity? Will the mission change?”
The special section in this issue (on pages 13–33) examines eight mergers or partnerships in order to explore those questions. The examples vary in every detail: The oldest merger here was completed in the 1990s; the newest is now under way. Some have involved two independent theological schools; others have included a freestanding seminary and a college or university. Some aren’t even mergers — they’re other kinds of agreements.
As we’ve studied these schools, a few lessons come to mind:
Mergers are put together by leaders who trust and respect each other — but they eventually retire. When the people who negotiated the merger agreement move on to other positions or retire, things can get tense. The stronger school in the partnership may want to economize or update educational programs. The weaker partner may feel as if its faculty or students are not getting a fair shake. That’s why it’s a good idea for details to be worked out while the initial negotiators are still there.
Mergers can come together very quickly — but the details take years to iron out. While many mergers take years to complete, others are put together in mere months. And when that happens, big questions are often left unanswered. For example, when a seminary merges with a college, the seminary leader’s new role within the larger structure is an issue of monumental importance. Will the seminary leader be a part of the university leadership team? Will he or she report to a provost or directly to the president? And who will be raising funds for the seminary?
There’s little money to be saved without cuts. Many mergers start with hopes that campuses and faculties can be retained and that massive savings will come by sharing administrative functions or merging the libraries. But in reality, big savings come only with substantial cuts. A campus may have to be sold, a money-losing major may have to be eliminated, and loyal staff members and sometimes faculty may have to depart. It’s painful.
There are alternatives to merging. Theological educators are innovative, and there has recently been an explosion in seminary-to-seminary partnerships that don’t involve mergers — from cross-registration and shared library privileges to more substantial agreements. Canadian theological schools have long been leaders in these innovative relationships — many enjoy the benefits of university affiliation while retaining their own boards and faculties. Some even rent excess dorm rooms to undergraduates, generating auxiliary income.
U.S. schools are also trying new ways to work together, as we can see at Franciscan School of Theology and in the new joint degree program between St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute and Ashland Theological Seminary. You don’t have to be next-door neighbors for these kinds of partnerships, either — St. Mary’s and Ashland are 400 miles apart.
It’s our hope that this special section will spur further creative thinking about relationships among seminaries. For some schools, survival is at stake, but for everyone, the question of how best to serve students and the church in the coming years is vital. There’s no single answer appropriate for all situations, but there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of others.
The special section has been produced with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation.
For further reading on mergers, check out In Trust's 2009 article "A case study in connection."