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Economic woes may lead to seminary consolidation

A contracting national economy may lead to a contracting of theological schools, too.

News out of Boston that a bunch of theological schools may be consolidating is probably the most obvious sign of how the 2008-09 recession may continue to impact seminaries across the country.

Not only has Boston College absorbed the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, but also Andover Newton Theological School has been talking merger with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge is in the midst of a new partnership with Lesley University.

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), thinks such consolidations are bound to multiply as seminaries reshape their budgets amid what appears likely to be a long and difficult recovery.

Seminaries, Aleshire says, “can’t tread water and snorkel. They’ll have to do some fundamental shifting to survive.”

The end result, he predicts, may well be fewer schools. The ATS accredits 252 U.S. and Canadian graduate schools with professional and academic degree programs in ministry. Aleshire thinks this recession may leave fewer around when it is all over.

In spring 2009, the ATS launched what it calls an Institutional Viability and Financially Stressed Schools project, which seeks to identify problems and suggest solutions to the ongoing economic crisis. A 2009 survey of nearly half the ATS-accredited schools found that most made immediate cuts of up to 12 percent to their 2008-09 budgets and that, on average, schools planned to cut their 2009-10 budgets by an additional 7 percent.

The ATS magazine Colloquy devoted its spring 2009 edition to the financial crunch by running a cover photograph of a Sisyphus-like boy pushing a boulder uphill.

Aleshire said theological schools have never been affluent, and in the current climate it may take them longer than other sectors of higher education to catch up. Among those schools first to feel the effects of the economy were ones dependent on their endowments. Those institutions— and they form a majority of ATS schools, with heavyweights such as Princeton Theological Seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago — have seen a 30 percent drop in their endowments’ values. Some responded by reducing the annual number of withdrawals from those funds.

Schools that receive the majority of their funding from denominations may experience the biggest shortfall of funding in the 2009-10 academic year as denominations funnel fewer dollars to seminaries.

Finally, schools dependent on tuition tie their futures to enrollment growth. If the past two years are any indication, it may not be easy. Enrollment in theological schools declined in fall 2008 and in fall 2007. Final numbers for 2009 are not yet available, but it’s possible that the nation’s high unemployment rate will produce more graduate school applications.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the percentage of 30-year-olds and under doesn’t continue to grow,” Aleshire said. “If they’re thinking about working, their job prospects aren’t very good this year.”

In the short term, nearly all theological schools face salary and hiring freezes, administrative and staff reductions, deferred maintenance and cuts in travel and library budgets.

In the long term, Aleshire said, a reordering of the theological school landscape is a distinct possibility. About 100 of the ATS schools are affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations. Yet those have been in decline for 40 years now. It stands to reason that some of those may have to close or share administrative functions with other schools.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a good example of this dilemma. This year, 350 students graduated from the nation’s 10 Presbyterian-affiliated schools with hopes of getting ordained and receiving their first call to preach. Yet nationwide, only 220 Presbyterian churches had vacancies for first-time ministers.

“You can’t oversupply the market indefinitely and be a healthy system,” Aleshire said. “We’ll probably have more schools that will merge with other schools.”



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