At most colleges and seminaries, graduation ceremonies don’t feel complete unless at least one speaker comments on the meaning of commencement, emphasizing that graduation is not an end but a beginning. And while this is always true for graduating students, it’s rarely true for the school itself. This year’s graduation at Bangor Theological Seminary (BTS) will be different — the beginning of a new path for the nearly 200-year-old school, the only theological school in northern New England.
On February 10, 2012, the board of Bangor Theological Seminary gathered for their regular meeting at a hotel in Portland, Maine. The mood in the conference room was somber. In preparation for the day’s agenda items, the board had met a few weeks earlier, in late January, for an informational meeting that detailed the school’s financial situation.
The news at that January meeting had been discouraging. The numbers confirmed what the board had understood, at least intuitively, for some time— that there was no viable way for Bangor Theological Seminary to continue moving forward as it had been.
Credit: Fred Field
As explained by seminary president Robert S. Grove-Markwood, the problem was declining enrollment. “We were seeing a 15 to 18 percent decline in enrollment every year,” he said recently in an interview. Bangor, affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), has seen its enrollment decline as overall mainline church attendance has fallen across New England.
But two other factors played a role as well. First, though affiliated with the UCC, Bangor had enrolled a significant number of United Methodist students—until 2007, when the United Methodist University Senate dropped Bangor from its list of approved seminaries.
Second, fewer students were taking advantage of the school’s “Bangor plan,” an accredited program in which students who had completed two years of undergraduate coursework could work on a master’s degree at Bangor and then begin serving as pastors. After that, the seminary-trained pastors could go back to college, earn the rest of their undergraduate credits part-time, and finally receive both a bachelor’s degree (from the undergraduate institution) and a master of divinity degree (from Bangor) simultaneously.
The Bangor plan shares some similarities with the “10-percent rule” of the Association of Theological Schools, which has allowed a school to admit up to 10 percent of its master’s students without a bachelor’s degree. (The rule has recently been revised upward to allow up to 15 percent of master’s students to be admitted without a bachelor’s degree.) Grove-Markwood suspects that students have become more “place-bound” in recent years, and many who might have enrolled in the Bangor plan found seminaries locally that were willing to admit them under the 10-percent rule. But whatever the reason, Bangor plan students had been an important piece of Bangor’s overall enrollment, and the decline of this program left a hole in the student body and in the seminary’s revenue stream.
None of this caught the board by surprise. The decline in enrollment didn’t happen overnight, and the board had been addressing the financial consequences for nearly a decade. In response to aging facilities and deferred maintenance that would have cost more than $1 million to address, the board sold the seminary’s historic Bangor campus in 2005 and moved into space at nearby Husson University. It was hoped that shedding bricks and mortar would decrease expenses, offsetting declining enrollment. But the decline didn’t stop.
“Several things really hit us hard,” said Grove- Markwood, who was appointed president of the seminary last year after serving as interim president since June 2011. “Our trajectory of decline continued after the move to the Husson campus, and it was timed to the 2008 financial crisis, which hurt our investments.”
The board, meeting in February last year, had a decision to make. As chair Phil Gleason explained, “When evaluating our options, it was clear that 39 full-time–equivalent students was not economically viable. So the question was whether we could spend more money to recruit more students.”
Would Bangor continue business as usual, in decline, or would the board apply the brakes? Understanding that potential students were making decisions about where to go in the fall created a sense of urgency, but the board also sensed that this decision needed time. In the end, the board voted to suspend the granting of degrees, carefully using the word suspend rather than terminate.
The language used in February 2012 was chosen to soften the blow of the decision. Later that year, the board voted to terminate degree-granting at the end of the 2012–13 school year, explicitly outlining the final days of the seminary.
Few individuals have the kind of relationship that Robert Grove-Markwood has with Bangor Theological Seminary. As a young man from Ohio, he moved to Maine after college, eventually making his way to Bangor to work on an M.Div. He graduated in 1982 (later earning a D.Min.), and after a few years, he returned as the school’s director of admissions from 1985 to 1987. Pastoral ministry called once again, and for 20 years, Grove-Markwood served congregations. In 2006 Bangor called again, this time recruiting him for the seminary board. Given that relationship, his most recent appointment— to be the last president of Bangor Theological Seminary—is particularly poignant.
These deep ties to the seminary community have helped smooth the transition somewhat. When Grove-Markwood describes the range of feelings that alumni, students, and faculty have expressed— everything from grief and betrayal to optimism and excitement—there’s a sense that these observations mirror his own experience of seeing the end of Bangor Seminary.
So what’s next for the soon-to-be formerly-known-as Bangor Theological Seminary? This is the million-dollar question, and it’s one that the president and the board have yet to answer in full. “Once it was clear that we could no longer go forward as we had been, we had to first stop what we were doing,” said Grove-Markwood. “Now we are working toward finding new ways to meet the mission.”
Looking forward to new ways of serving the church has led school leaders to look back. Bangor Theological Seminary hasn’t always adhered to the current model of graduate-level theological education, and the school’s history may provide encouragement for those questioning how it will continue to meet its historic mission—namely, equipping clergy and laity, especially in Maine and New England, for church leadership. It’s all part of what Grove-Markwood describes as the process of “discovering a way to grow.”
Originally the board floated the idea of calling the new entity “The Center for 21st Century Ministry,” but there was a desire to hold onto something of the old Bangor name. In January 2013, during the seminary’s annual Convocation event, school leaders unveiled details about the future of the organization. There’s a new name: The BTS Center. A new mission statement: “Equipping and supporting clergy and laity for theologically grounded and effective 21st Century Ministries.” And a new logo (pictured on the facing page). A glimpse into the next year of programming reveals Convocation 2014, scheduled for next January, with the theme “Heads, Hands, Hearts, and Smartphones.”
As Grove-Markwood and the board look ahead to the end of Bangor Theological Seminary, there’s subdued but growing excitement. This commencement may be a new beginning after all.