A New House

Three years ago the board of Swedenborg School of Religion closed its doors and sold its Massachusetts campus. Now the authors tell what happened afterwards, fueled by the assets the board preserved.

Preserving Particularity in Partnership

After 130 years of operations, the Swedenborg School of Religion found itself with a small handful of students, unacceptable annual deficits, and a sense that something had to change. Faced with these mounting challenges, the school’s board of trustees knew it had to act. As the Summer 2001 In Trust reported, after exploring a number of options, the Swedenborg School of Religion reorganized by selling its Boston area campus and reconstituting itself as the Swedenborgian House of Studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Now in its third academic season at PSR, how are things going for the Swedenborgian House of Studies?

For the Swedenborgians, the reorganization has offered two critical benefits. First, they gained greater fiscal stability through 60 percent cuts in the faculty payroll and substantial savings in the structural costs that they had shouldered when they operated an autonomous full-scale seminary. Second, Swedenborgian students are now receiving a stronger education for ministry through an accredited program, a refocused Swedenborgian faculty, and access to one of the finest theology consortiums in the country. Also, student enrollment increased exponentially from one student in Boston to ten in Berkeley, and SHS has enjoyed two consecutive balanced budgets on a 5 percent endowment draw—something that hadn’t occurred for a very long time as a self-standing seminary.

For PSR, the partnership has meant Swedenborgian financial support, more students, two additional professors, and an opportunity to support the kind of ecumenicity that has been a central commitment since the seminary’s founding in 1866. Many wondered whether this small Swedenborgian community would be swallowed up by the larger PSR and lose its distinctive spiritual heritage. SHS anticipated this challenge in its planning and built in protections for particularity that can be expanded over time. SHS and PSR negotiated a master of divinity program for Swedenborgian-affiliated students that permits a minimum of twenty-one units (seven courses) in Swedenborgian studies.

Some students will come away with even more than that. The house also hosts a mandatory weekly community- wide contexting seminar in which dialogue occurs with various facets of PSR’s larger theological program. In this “enhanced” house of studies model, two Swedenborgian professors, additional adjunct faculty, and a program director (who is a recent graduate of PSR) provide a constant denominational presence and resource for students as they study with PSR faculty for the majority of their training. Two physical locations on the PSR campus (including a specialty library collection and an SHS building, which has a main meeting room and offices) offer popular gathering spaces for Swedenborgians. This attentive denominational support is in fact the envy of some other students at PSR! Swedenborgian particularity is amply preserved. A well-attended SHS open house event in 2002 for national Swedenborgian denominational representatives proved effective in helping these church members understand the strengths of the new partnership with PSR. And favorable testimonials by the new Swedenborgian seminarians are now being heard throughout the church.

The denomination at large has moved fairly rapidly from anxiety and caution to warm support. The SHS-at-PSR story pushes the envelope for denominational partnering in theological education. Swedenborgian students are now heading into ministry better equipped with an accredited degree and exposure to scholarship that’s on the cutting edge of theological education. There is still a lot of hard work to do to build on this initial momentum, but early indications are that this new model is both suitable and sustainable in meeting the present challenges and hopes of both partner institutions.

William McKinney is president and professor of American religion at Pacific School of Religion. James Lawrence is dean of the Swedenborgian House of Studies at Pacific School of Religion and instructor of Swedenborgian studies. 

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