For more information on this topic, see An Open Letter to General Seminary's Faculty, Staff, Students, Friends, Alumni/ae and the Church at large

Episcopal Divinity School's St. John's Memorial Chapel in 1967.

(George M. Cushing)

Several years ago, the senior administrators and the trustees of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary grew alarmed about the rate at which they were drawing down their endowments in order to balance their operating budgets. Both attempted cost-cutting efforts, but the results were insufficient to stanch the financial drain. Then, earlier this year, the schools, which are two of the 11 accredited theological schools of the Episcopal Church, concluded that they were summoned to make major changes in their lives.

EDS announced the sale of about a third of its Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus to nearby Lesley University for $33.5 million.

Seabury, based in Evanston, Illinois, announced it would terminate its residential master of divinity program and would withdraw into 18 months of "discernment" about its future. In April, Seabury went on to lay off nine members of its administrative support staff (effective at the end of the 2007–08 academic year), leaving only four to assist its three senior administrators. It simultaneously notified the school's eight faculty members that none could be assured jobs beyond June 30, 2009.

There is as well a larger picture. Dramatic change in the Episcopal Church's approach to ministry training lies behind the two announcements, which are sweeping in themselves. This evolving approach to training is also behind the news that a third, smaller Episcopal school, Bexley Hall, is shuttering its one-time main base in Rochester, New York. Bexley will continue as a propertyless partner of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

The high cost of residential theological education conducted in accordance with the traditional academic model--$50,000 a year per student at Seabury, for example,with only $13,000 covered by tuition — turns out to be only one element in the growing pressure in the Episcopal Church to develop a new system of training for ministry. Equally important are a number of other factors:

The number of candidates for M.Div. degrees enrolled in Episcopal seminaries is no longer bountiful. It's been hovering between 600 and 750 for 20 years (see Figure 1), which is not enough to sustain 11 schools, all with the principal mission of educating Episcopal candidates for full-time professional ministry.

A growing number of Episcopal congregations, especially in rural areas, can no longer support a full-time priest, and many congregations throughout the church are finding their old patterns of life increasingly difficult to pay for. Moreover, many are not currently persuaded that spending on education, especially for new clergy, should be a priority.

Only about half of new Episcopal clergy learn their theology in Episcopal seminaries. Many choose other routes to ordination because of cost and because they cannot conveniently transplant themselves to where the seminaries are. One alternate pattern is two years in an interdenominational seminary or seminary of another denomination near the candidate's home, followed by one year of "Anglican studies" in an Episcopal seminary.

Another alternative is study under the guidance of one or several clergy, enriched perhaps by online courses offered by an accredited theological school.

To some extent, the seminaries have not provided the training that bishops want their new clergy to have. Since 1970, the Episcopal Church has required candidates for ordination to take the difficult General Ordination Examination and demonstrate "proficiency" in seven areas ranging from Bible to liturgics to contemporary social issues. But under church law, each candidate's bishop, assisted perhaps by the diocesan Commission on Ministry, decides whether the candidate is proficient and is qualified for ordination. Standards and expectations vary from diocese to diocese, and the bishop has the last word.

Buildings become cash

When Boston architect Brett Donham, chair of the Episcopal Divinity School board of trustees, joined the board five years ago, the administration and the trustees had just admitted to themselves that the school was drawing down its endowment too rapidly, Donham said in an interview (See Figure 2). "And the endowment was not being very well managed," he added.

Donham credited the wake-up call to findings and recommendations of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, which EDS had hired as consultant. (Auburn has also worked with Seabury-Western on its restructuring.) In response, the EDS board retrieved the endowment from its solo manager and retained an adviser who spread the fund among three management firms for greater diversification.

Then the board directed Bishop Steven Charleston, EDS's president and dean, to make significant cuts in the school's operating budget. And architect Donham called for an appraisal of the school's eight-acre campus, which lies just a few blocks from Cambridge's Harvard Square.

"We were astounded at its value," Donham recalled. Among other discoveries: Some faculty members were living in seminary-provided houses that were worth $3.5 million each.

Meanwhile, the board and the administration found that endowment performance couldn't be improved enough, and costs couldn't be cut enough, to balance the budget. Furthermore, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, which rented some of EDS's buildings and collaborated with EDS on library services, gave notice it was moving to Boston to join forces with Jesuit-sponsored Boston College. The next step for the Episcopal school, painful as it might be, was clear. It was going to have to part with some or all of its property if it was to return to health.

Donham likened the board's reaction to the stages of grief outlined in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's classic formula: first denial, then anger, then bargaining and depression, and finally acceptance. In EDS's case, this acceptance was even filled with hope. Abandoning the piecemeal solutions to problems it had previously pursued, the school and the board launched a comprehensive self-study of seminary operations.

"We found we were deluding ourselves about the efficiency of the use of our space," Donham said. In fact, 40 percent was unused--a partial sale might hamper expansion at some future date, but if well crafted, it wouldn't interfere with present operations at all.

Alternatives explored

Planners investigated moving EDS to the campus of Andover-Newton Theological School in suburban Newton Centre. Not enough space. How about creating a campus in downtown Boston? Too expensive. Buying a defunct Roman Catholic high school in another Boston suburb? Nixed by the "ick" quality of an ugly building. And then Bishop Charleston had lunch with Joseph B. Moore, the new president of neighboring Lesley University, a rapidly expanding school that was already leasing one of the EDS dormitories. Neighborly conversation quickly became serious negotiations, and a deal was struck. For $33.5 million, Lesley would acquire seven EDS buildings and assume shared ownership of Sherrill Hall, EDS's library, which was about to become half empty with the withdrawal of Weston Jesuit's collection. EDS would retain 13 other buildings.


Episcopal Divinity School plans to sell about a third of its buildings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Red buildings will remain part of EDS, while green buildings will be sold to Lesley University. Sherrill Hall, which contains the library, will be jointly owned.

(Image courtesy of Lesley University Campus Planning)

When final, the sale will increase EDS's endowment to around $71.5 million. Moreover, "Lesley is picking up $1 million in annual operating expenses," Mr. Donham added. "That's the equivalent of another $20 million in endowment." (In other words, $1 million is 5 percent — the normal annual rate of endowment draw — of $20 million.)

In its newfound prosperity among Episcopal schools, EDS will be exceeded in endowment only by Virginia Theological Seminary, which reported reserves of $154 million in 2007 (see Figure 3 ). But money is far from the full story. Donham and the board are confronted with immediate challenges and opportunities just ahead. As the agreement with Lesley was consummated, Bishop Charleston, 59, announced he would step down as president and dean June 30. The board must launch the search for both an interim and a permanent chief executive as it and other senior administrators concurrently pursue the details of the covenant that will govern the school's collaboration with Lesley. Lesley is strong in distance education, which EDS is committed to improve in. Lesley offers a graduate degree in social work, a possible congruent profession for priests in a church that wants more bivocational clergy. In addition, EDS is committed to pursue and deepen its collaboration with other Episcopal theological schools.

"We will not be the same institutions in five years," Donham said. Surveying the coming months for EDS, he added, "People feel we're on the road to success and they want to be part of it."

Indeed, as a token of that confidence in the future, EDS announced recently it had created and filled two new faculty positions.

Changing course

"We believe that the church does not need Seabury in its present form," said the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall, Seabury-Western's dean and president, in February as he announced his board of trustees' decision to close down the school's residential M.Div. program and suspend for 18 months the admission of new students to any of its programs. "There are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do."

In a subsequent interview, Hall explained that money concerns forced the decision to launch a radical restructure at this time. By moving now to balance the budget by terminating the residential M.Div. program after current students graduate, laying off administrative staff, and starting the process to end tenure and dismiss some or all permanent faculty, Seabury would have sufficient resources to offer appropriate severance packages and pay for rethinking the school's structure while still retaining some endowment for future operations. The school was contemplating an expected $500,000 deficit in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2008, and a debt of $2.9 million accumulated since the board voted four years ago to reduce the annual draw on the endowment to 5 percent and open a line of credit to cover operating deficits.

"We were making it clear to ourselves that we were unable to balance the budget," said the Rev. Elizabeth Butler, vice president of advancement and administration, explaining the line of credit. Although the accepted wisdom is that prudent endowed institutions should withdraw no more than 5 percent of principal annually, many fiscally troubled organizations do draw down more. Some label the proceeds as "income from investments," a label that accounting principles permit, even though "withdrawal to cover the deficit" would be more revealing.

Seabury's financial options are more limited than EDS's. Its endowment is significantly smaller ($12 million in 2007), and half its campus just north of Chicago is built on land it leases for $1 a year from Northwestern University. The lease agreement limits Seabury's use of the land solely to the operation of an Episcopal theological school.

After his acknowledgment that some other existing Episcopal residential M.Div. programs are as good as Seabury's, Hall went on to say in the original announcement: "But we also believe that the church very much needs a seminary animated by and organized around a new vision of theological education — one that is centered in a vision of baptism and its implications for the whole church, one which is flexible and adaptive and collaborative in nature."

In the phrase "centered in a vision of baptism," the dean was pointing to a principle enunciated in the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The church's fundamental rite of ordination is baptism, says the Prayer Book. Ministers of the church include all baptized people, not just its deacons, priests, and bishops. For both theological and practical reasons, the Episcopal Church is moving toward a "nonprofessional" ministry of part-time or unpaid clergy. And an increasing amount of pastoral, spiritual, and educational work is being carried out by lay volunteers. By some estimates, between 60,000 and 100,000 lay people have been trained in Bible, church history and theology in an intensive four-year program called Education for Ministry that was devised at the University of the South School of Theology. That school (usually called simply Sewanee, for the Tennessee town where it's based) is another of the 11 Episcopal seminaries.

Hall estimated that 40 or more of the 100 U.S. dioceses of the Episcopal Church are now ordaining priests who are locally trained and have little or no seminary experience. Such clergy were once restricted to serve in the congregations in which they were ordained, but recent changes in church law now permit them to serve wherever they are called, if the local bishop approves. Noting that a "two-tier clergy would not be healthy" for the church, with some priests theologically educated and some not, he suggested one scenario for Seabury's future might be providing online and extension education for such men and women.

Uncertain future

The Seabury board's charge to the dean is twofold: bring expenses into line with revenue and develop a detailed plan for the future operation of the seminary. He is to be assisted in these tasks by a committee of six officers or trustees of the school and two faculty members.

The goal of the planners, Hall said, is to remake Seabury into an organization with a Chicago presence that will serve unserved parts of the church, working through a series of collaborative relationships. It may remain in Evanston in association with its present neighbor, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Or it may relocate, perhaps to Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, where six other seminaries cluster around the University of Chicago, or to downtown, where the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago are located.

The dean said he expects the planning group to have the broad outlines of the prospective restructured school ready to unveil to the board at its meeting this autumn. The first challenge is to establish the value of the present campus and to negotiate with Northwestern on the purchase of at least the buildings that stand on Northwestern land. Only then will the planners have a clear picture of the school's total financial resources and hence the size of the faculty it can employ. A second challenge is to determine the future of the united library, owned jointly with Garrett-Evangelical, which Hall said is one of the 10 largest theological libraries in the United States.

Through a temporary collaborative agreement with Garrett, all current Seabury M.Div. students will be able to complete their course work and receive Seabury degrees. What degrees the future Seabury might offer is still up in the air, although the planners are eager to retain ATS accreditation. Hall predicted the doctor of ministry program to be a probable survivor; an M.Div. degree through distance education is also a possibility. But any degree programs will be collaborative with other institutions. "The days of the stand-alone institution are over," he said firmly.

Bishop Charleston, the outgoing president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, elaborated on this point and cheered Seabury-Western's boldness in an essay published recently on Episcopal Cafe ( He wrote:

The deeper question is not what happened at Seabury, but what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives. Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology, and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

The end of stand-alone, go-it-alone Episcopal seminaries is very much the hope of Donn F. Morgan, president and dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and former head of the Episcopal Council of Deans. "If we don't serve the Episcopal Church, there's no need for us," he said of the 11 schools.

In an article to be published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Anglican Theological Review, Morgan wrote: "Institutions in financial crisis are often guilty of a 'silo' mentality, too preoccupied with their own problems to have much inclination or ability to dream bigger dreams, dreams which might offer new and better ways of doing education."

Under his leadership, the council — formerly a once-a-year affair — met several times in 2007 in an effort to quell the silo tendency. These conferences culminated with a four-day meeting in January in Charleston, South Carolina, where the deans were joined by trustees — in most cases board chairs of the schools — and several diocesan bishops who are board members.

"Our thesis was simple," Morgan said. "We (seminary heads) can't effect change without the help of the church and the boards."

Out of the meeting emerged a commitment for schools to work collaboratively in four areas:

  • Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury-Western are to team with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Bexley Hall on programs of education for "total ministry" — that is, group ministry that includes both clergy and trained laity.
  • EDS, CDSP and Bexley are to work with the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (ETSS) in Austin, Texas, on theological education via distance learning.
  • Seabury, CDSP and ETSS are to collaborate with The General Theological Seminary in New York on education for Hispanic ministry.
  • General, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Nashotah House in Wisconsin, Sewanee, and Virginia Theological Seminary are to develop an education program for underdeveloped areas of the Anglican world, especially in Africa.

The seminary board chairs also agreed to meet at least annually, possibly without the deans.

It's Morgan's hope that the joint projects mean that the days of Lone Rangers are over. "The Episcopal seminaries, in doing theological education in a new way, must no longer work separately and secretly," he said, "but transparently and in accord with agreed-upon common goals."

The noncrisis at Bexley

How did Bexley Hall become part of the news stories earlier this year that arose from the financial crises at Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury-Western? The Very Rev. John R. Kevern, Bexley's dean and president, noted that the closure of the school's Rochester program was the end of a gradual process that began with Bexley's establishing an alliance with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 1998. The Rochester closing was actually announced in May 2007. In his view, the story was revived this year by critics eager to suggest that Episcopal seminaries are failing enterprises.

"Actually, our enrollment is growing," Bexley's dean said.

A major factor involved in the closing of the Rochester program, he said, was a state ruling that with the termination of the school's cooperative venture with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Bexley was no longer entitled to award degrees in New York. It was also doubtful that the Rochester campus could qualify for reaccreditation. Bexley has found its collaboration with Trinity Lutheran more comfortable than the arrangement with Colgate Rochester Crozer, which it ended several years ago. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Trinity's sponsoring denomination, have a concordat of full intercommunion and mutual recognition of ministries.

In Columbus, Bexley rents a building on the Trinity campus as its headquarters and enrolls its own student body, the dean explained. It passes on to Trinity three-quarters of the tuition it receives, and Trinity in return offers most of the courses that Bexley students take. Bexley's three full-time and one half-time faculty members offer courses in Anglican studies (which attract some Trinity seminarians) and preside over Bexley's spiritual formation program.


Bexley Hall has found a comfortable place in Columbus, Ohio, where it rents a small building and shares resources, students, and faculty with adjacent Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

(Photo courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Seminary)

One of Bexley's points of pride is this emphasis on formation. Students and faculty participate in an annual extended retreat, much of it in silence. Faculty members commit themselves to a rule of life. And students are asked to draw up and pursue a similar rule for themselves in consultation with a spiritual director.

With only about 25 full-time-equivalent students currently, Bexley is the smallest accredited Episcopal seminary. But that doesn't mean it's a failing institution. It has agreed to participate in two of the Episcopal multiseminary collaborations now in creation.

"Closing Rochester freed up money for Columbus," said the Rev. Carlson Gerdau, Bexley's board chair. "We've got $9 million in the bank and no buildings to worry about. We're in good shape."

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