JUST SAYING “BROKE” send chills down my spine, whether it’s describing a person or an institution. It means, “Out of options.” It means, “We can’t make it.”
Fortunately, relatively few endure the full force of such a reality. Yet many of us know what it means to feel the threat of financial decline — to worry that we won’t have the resources to function effectively, to feel our choices constrained by tight budgets, to be discouraged about the future. In fact, during the recent financial downturn, most North American theological schools operated with deficit budgets. While most were not threatened with bankruptcy or closure, all had to tighten their belts.
What do theological schools boards, administrators, and faculty members do in the face of such circumstances? We are grateful to Lang Lowrey, the president of The General Theological Seminary, for sharing candidly about their dramatic financial crisis and how everyone at the seminary faced it together. Since many theological schools are facing their own financial stresses, all of us have much to learn from his reflections.
Someone must watch. Who is on the lookout for signals of financial decline? Who raises the flag of warning? Who can mobilize the community to face issues before they threaten the future? In terms of governance, the responsibility for a seminary resides with the board and its agent, the president. But there are cases in which the faculty rises up and calls the community to pay attention to financial crises. Sometimes, a warning can even come from the sponsoring denomination or — heaven forbid — the bank.
Everyone has a role in saving a school — not just the board and president. At General Seminary, the dean, faculty, and others found ways to fulfill their educational and formation mission even during the crisis. They continued teaching, kept caring for students, and maintained the community’s daily rhythms, including worship.
Someone must pay. The sources of financial support for theological education have shifted dramatically in the last few decades, and the mix of support varies from school to school. It used to be assumed that outsiders — the denominational headquarters, wealthy donors in the pews, or interested foundations — would foot the bill. But today, students themselves are paying for an ever-increasing proportion of their educational expenses. The result: mounting student debt.
Someone must plan. General Seminary created a plan to “Choose life,” and not just the board, but the entire school embraced it. Successful plans encompass key elements — realism about the context and the institution, engagement with the core community so that it builds consensus and ownership, and a vision that captures the imagination and commitment of the community.
A range of expertise is needed to keep the ship sailing in the right direction. Jim Collins’s dictum in Good to Great —“get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats”— may be obvious but not always easy to achieve. The right board members, an effective president and senior staff, and a knowledgeable and committed faculty are essential to the survival of any seminary.
An endowment helps. Every school would like to have a significant endowment, but most never will. For most seminaries, the financial model for the 21st century will have to be constructed without substantial endowments as the anchor. Faith communities have amazing resilience and dedicated constituencies who somehow cobble together “just enough” resources to “make it” and fulfill their missions — not the ideal but the reality.
Be sure to read the entire interview with Lang Lowrey, which starts on page 9.