In March 2009, the Salem News, which serves the suburbs north of Boston, ran an article titled “Group Seeks More Cash from Seminary.” It chronicled the campaign by residents of Hamilton, a comfortable town in Essex County, Massachusetts, to get a local seminary to make in-lieu-of-taxes payments to the town, which has a population of 8,315 and a median family income of $79,886.
Ever since Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary built apartments on the campus in 1975, a few residents of Hamilton had expressed discontent. A decade of shortfalls in the budgets of local public schools, accompanied by property tax hikes, heightened the residents’ concerns. Some of them formed a group called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (sometimes known as Enough Is Enough). One of the group’s committees searched for other sources of revenue and suggested that Gordon-Conwell ought to pay money to the school system. They argued that the children of on-campus seminarians were being educated for free.
On March 26, 2009, two officials at Gordon-Conwell responded with a letter to the editor addressing not only the issue at hand, but also the wider issue of the seminary’s value to the community. They attempted to answer a question that board members may need to ask about their own schools: Does a theological school have value to a community beyond education and preparing students for ministry? Is there also a public value?
When board members start asking questions, questions tend to multiply: If a school wanted to communicate its public value to its neighbors and constituents, how would it determine that public value? Who or what is the broader public served by the school?
Once school leaders undertake to answer these questions, they are in a better position to communicate that value to their neighbors — as a response to political pressure, or to reach out to area churches, or simply to share a vision with donors and foundations.
Putting a number on “love thy neighbor”
At the heart of the criticisms raised in the Salem News article, and a flurry of subsequent letters to the editor, was that the school was not being a good neighbor. So the response — written by Robert Landrebe, executive vice president and chief financial officer, and Anne Doll, who was director of communications at the time — included a summary of the contributions the school has made to the town. During the last fiscal year, the seminary gave the local school board $84,000 and the town an additional $5,000.
But the seminary’s contributions went beyond cash payments. Landrebe and Doll cited the economic impact study that Gordon-Conwell commissioned in 2008. The study’s final report gave administrators a comprehensive look at the school’s contribution to the community. It concluded that the seminary community (through direct spending and indirectly through its vendors and their employees) brought $8 million dollars annually to Hamilton, $33 million to the surrounding county, and $55 million to the state.
The seminary employed 131 people in 2007, and its spending indirectly supported another 258 people in Massachusetts. And then there were the hours that staff and students volunteered in the community — 50,000 volunteer hours every year. (The survey didn’t talk to half the faculty or even a third of students, so the seminary estimates the actual number of volunteer hours is more than 100,000.)
And the report listed some of the more intangible benefits that Gordon-Conwell offers its community: the diversity that the seminary’s international students bring to the town and the professionals and top-notch scholars who enrich civic life.
The campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary provides ample space for seminarians, town kids, and on-campus children to interact.
(Photos courtesy of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)
A local seminary? Never heard of it
In 1999, researchers at the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary surveyed civic leaders in cities near theological schools. The researchers asked community leaders how they perceive their local seminaries. The conclusion: Seminaries are mostly invisible.
Barbara Wheeler, director of the center and co-author of the study, has continued to ask the questions in subsequent research: Do you know about the seminary in town? What do you think of it? She says the answers haven’t changed much over the years. Questioning locals about an area seminary or divinity school continues to draw blank stares, even from people who drive by these schools every day.
Though many remain hidden, Wheeler has found that some schools are in fact trying to serve their communities and reach out. For example, in 1999, three theological schools in Atlanta formed a group called Faith and the City. Led by leaders from Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary, and the Interdenominational Theological Center, the organization searches for ways for seminaries to play a larger role in civic life.
Theological schools invest in the community in a variety of ways. For example, leaders at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore have long seen outreach to the community as central to the school’s mission. In 1968, the seminary inaugurated the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, which offers evening classes that lead to certificates (in fields like biblical studies and parish nursing) and master’s degrees (in theology or church ministries). Ecumenical Institute programs are oriented toward lay students of any denomination — not just Catholics.
In 1996, St. Mary’s opened the Center for Continuing Formation in response to the vision for pastoral preparation outlined by Pope John Paul II in a 1992 document called “Pastores dabo vobis” or “I will give you shepherds.” (The document is available online at www.bit.ly/4PqnjO.) The center’s primary mission is to provide programs for priests, but its secondary mission is important too — to provide a reflective, spiritual space for religious and civic groups in Baltimore. A 30,000-square-foot addition to the seminary’s main building, the center contains 30 private rooms for overnight guests and conference space used often by outside groups. (In Trust’s board of directors and Governance Mentors meet there regularly.)
Another school that has looked at what it can offer the community is Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. The school is in the process of converting unused dorm space into housing for patients (and their families) who visit Rochester for surgery and cancer treatment. Colgate Rochester Crozer also leases space to Ithaca College for the college’s physical therapy program, and the divinity school’s 22-acre property is used by neighbors as a public park and as a venue for catered events. With efforts like these, the school has not only generated revenue, but it has also transformed its property into a community asset.
Is there value in calculating public value?
At Gordon-Conwell, the value of its economic impact study has been obvious. With the report in hand, Gordon-Conwell has been able to communicate its contribution to its town and its neighbors. The report has given school leaders a platform for engaging community leaders. Robert Landrebe says the seminary now has a much better relationship with the town’s elected leadership. “There’s an openness now, and they feel able to call if they have a need,” he says. This November, the Boston Globe ran an article that outlined the successes of the school’s growing relationship with the town, “Gordon-Conwell’s $100,000 a welcome gift” (online at www.bit.ly/5GVv6b).
But more than that, the economic impact study changed the way students related to the community. “Students began to think of ways they could contribute more to the town,” says Anne Doll, the retired communications chief. “It has awakened them to the needs of their community, which is a very valuable experience.” This attention to the local community seems right in line with the mission of the theological school. By raising students’ awareness of local people’s needs and concerns and by modeling grace-filled communication that advances the school’s work without alienating the neighbors, the seminary is preparing students to serve as leaders not only in the church and the academy, but also in the town hall and the school boardroom.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s economic impact study is available online at www.intrust.org/GCTSimpact.
Public value can be measured
The economic impact study used by Gordon-Conwell is similar to a tool developed by Partners for Sacred Places. A nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, Partners for Sacred Places helps the members and caretakers of older and historic places of worship to steward their buildings and use them not only for worship, but also for community service.
About six years ago, Partners for Sacred Places developed the Public Value Tool, which also has potential application for seminaries and other schools. The tool guides leaders as they determine what their property is worth to the local community beyond its market value as real estate. It assesses the number of hours that people affiliated with the congregation (both volunteers and staff) contribute to programs like soup kitchens and daycare that serve the community. It includes cash support that the congregation gives to nonprofit organizations. And it adds up the cost of utilities used by groups that meet in the fellowship hall or basement.
For example, a congregation might open its meeting room (and some storage space) to a local Boy Scout troop once a week, and members of the congregation might serve as scout leaders. The Public Value Tool instructs the congregation to add up the various pieces of this program — the rental value of the square footage that the scouts use, the cost of utilities, the custodian’s wages, and the value of the volunteer hours. Once all the pieces are included, the total in-kind contribution by the congregation to the scouts might add up to several thousand dollars a year.
While no one is planning to present the Boy Scouts with an invoice, putting a dollar value on the congregation’s contribution is useful. It can aid fundraising efforts if the congregation hopes to raise money from donors or foundations. It gives the congregation itself a better idea of how members are contributing to their neighborhood. And it helps members realize that even the contributions of a small congregation can make a significant difference to a community.
Theological schools might find it useful to go through an exercise like an economic impact study or the simpler Public Value Tool. By counting the ways a school is helping its city and county, a theological school can fend off criticism that it is taking more than it gives.
— Matt Forster
Editor’s note: Jay Blossom, editor of In Trust, was formerly manager of corporate, foundation and membership giving at Partners for Sacred Places.