When leaders of theological schools and seminaries consider a merger or consolidation, they often want to know how to get started. But the real work begins after the decision is made.
Here’s a report from the trenches.
For two years, Byron Klaus, president of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS), has cautioned colleagues that consolidating Central Bible College, Evangel University, and AGTS into one institution would be more like a marathon than a sprint.
But even Klaus has been surprised by the time required to reach the starting line. After earning the approval of the denomination’s membership in 2011 — no easy task — leaders began what they describe as the “heavy lifting” of designing and implementing a plan that would meet various accreditation requirements. “The work has been more complex than I would have dreamed,” says Klaus, now president of the embedded seminary and vice president of the blended Evangel University.
Integrating boards, meshing operations, downsizing staffs, and realigning curriculum have been a few of the challenges that leaders have faced. “We all know in our hearts this is the right thing to do, but some days that knowledge is more compelling than other days,” says Klaus. His strategy for maintaining morale during the transition period has been to “keep talking about the future—five years down the line—when these challenges will be behind us.”
The decision to consolidate the three Assemblies of God campuses, located within four miles of each another in Springfield, Missouri, was based on logic. The schools’ debt was rising, their enrollments numbers weren’t encouraging, and they were often vying for the same students. An unwritten “noncompete understanding” prevented Evangel, a liberal arts campus, from offering courses leading to career ministry, because that was Central Bible College’s bailiwick. Likewise, the Bible college took care not to duplicate the seminary’s postgraduate curriculum. Logic aside, emotions ran deep within the three fiercely loyal communities.
“Probably the greatest barrier we’ve dealt with is institutional autonomy,” says Robert E. Cooley, the veteran consultant hired to create and oversee the consolidation process. “Each school has its own history, traditions, and culture — not to mention thousands of alumni.” One of the keys to achieving unity has been to remind the various constituencies that a single, strong university would better serve the global church and its mission. “That has enabled us to get beyond some of the more parochial resistance,” says Cooley.
Several milestones, recently reached, indicate progress toward the targeted consolidation date of 2020.
Accreditation. The regional accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has approved the application for change of control.
Leadership. Carol Taylor, who led a successful turnaround effort at Vanguard University of Southern California, was unanimously elected president of the blended university.
Governance. A slimmed-down university board of 33 members has been installed. A seminary board of advisors is in place to keep university trustees abreast of seminary business.
Enrollment. The first “unified” freshman class entered Evangel in the fall of 2013.
Finances. The consolidation plan already has yielded an annual savings of $4.4 million.
Although Cooley and Klaus admit that the marathon is far from complete, they believe the pace toward completion is steady and picking up speed. For schools contemplating consolidation, they offer words of encouragement, tempered with notes of caution. “It takes a while to get momentum going,” says Klaus, “then it takes constant effort to make sure the momentum continues.” He and Cooley cite four elements that have boosted the likelihood of success for their denomination’s schools: leadership, funds, structure, and a shared mission.
Fact: Institutional leaders representing different constituencies are not going to agree on all issues. To avoid an impasse, someone must have the authority “to step in and keep the process on track,” says Cooley.
In the case of the Assemblies of God schools, that “someone” has been George Wood, chief executive officer of the denomination. Of particular concern was articulating the place an embedded seminary occupies in a university context. Wood’s role was to assure ecclesial stakeholders that consolidation wouldn’t cost the seminary its identity — and that the development of leaders for the church would remain critical to the consolidated university’s mission.
At the same time, he had to convince liberal arts advocates that consolidation wouldn’t turn the liberal arts institution into a Bible training school. “Some resistance grew out of a lack of understanding or incomplete vision of the goal of an embedded seminary,” says Cooley. He credits Wood with clarifying that goal for the three presidents who, in turn, communicated the clarification to their constituencies.
Another key leader — the glue who held together a thousand loose strands — was Joanne Strom, coordinator of consolidation, who provided administrative support to the transition team. Without her attention to detail, says Cooley, the consolidation process might have come apart.
Cash on hand
Consolidation comes with a price tag. The Assemblies of God received a $5 million gift to help address disparity in tuition between Central Bible College and Evangel University, equalize faculty salaries, offer severance packages, and underwrite early retirement for more than 20 employees. About 80 percent of the gift covered personnel issues, and the remaining funds enabled the transitional board, comprised of the three partnering boards, to meet twice a year. This blended board hammered out a new mission statement, bylaws, and presidential selection process.
Of some concern to Klaus was the need to update the building that the theological school has occupied since 1997. The $5 million gift didn’t include funds for renovation, and Klaus knew that once consolidation occurred, the seminary would have to wait its turn to address deferred maintenance projects.
“We announced a small capital campaign of about $350,000,” Klaus explains. Because the well-publicized consolidation raised questions and created doubts about the seminary’s future, no one knew if donors would respond to the plea for support. But it was a smashing success, says Klaus. Not only did the campaign reach its goal, but 342 gifts (none larger than $10,000) came in from congregations and individuals across the country. “I think that’s a testimony to our brand,” says Klaus. “Donors understood our need and they funded it.”
Cooley estimates that at least 200 persons representing four governance structures have been involved in planning and implementing the consolidation process. Denominational leaders, plus the boards, administrations, and faculties of the three schools, had mechanisms in place that enabled them to share ideas and plans that would accommodate their unique situation. Changes in what Cooley calls the “macro-environment of higher education” supported the joint efforts and kept everyone in the communication loop. A website and internal newsletters informed the global constituency as well as the campus communities of progress toward consolidation.
“The emergence of digital technology, the power of networking and the more horizontal approach to governing authority provided impetus to our work,” says Cooley. “They allowed us to be innovative and forward-thinking. As I look back on my years of involvement in mergers and consolidations I can’t think of a time when change has so radically favored new approaches to education.”
Part of the work that the governing boards and faculties jointly accomplished was to create a mission statement that reflects the common theological foundations of the partnering schools. The process required two years to complete but resulted in “a new statement that everyone could buy into,” says Cooley. It speaks to a “comprehensive Christian” university, an apt description for a school that now offers continuity and, for students majoring in theology, a direct path from bachelor’s degree to Ph.D.
Reminding constituents of the seminary’s history of preparing students to become “servant leaders” — words implicit in Evangel’s mission statement — has become an effective tool in explaining the role of the newly embedded school. “At the last meeting of the seminary’s board of advisors, we took care of our usual business and then we spent 90 minutes telling story after story of our successes in terms of our graduates,” says Klaus. “We wanted to provide the board with a reservoir of reminders that in spite of all the adjustments and recalibrations of the past two years, we continue to do what we’ve always done; we continue to do it very well, and we will continue to do it very well in the new equation.”