Episcopal Church General Seminary on the ropes

By | March 6, 2023
General Seminary May be at the End of the Road

The following is reprinted from Juicy Ecumenism. The issues discussed, including declining participation, deficit spending, and wishful thinking are all too common in the Episcopal church.

Most faculty and programs at the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary will be gone at the end of the current school year.

To readers of this blog, this may seem to be a “no news” update: mainline Protestant seminaries have been in consolidation for years. Even among those Christian seminaries with a healthy enrollment, nontraditional online programs comprise most of their growth.

The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church is not, as has been rumored, on the verge of shuttering and selling its valuable Manhattan campus, according to its shared President with Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), Dean Ian Markham. It is, however, at a crucial point: the school is undertaking a five year plan that will either result in sustainability or the end of the road. Only a handful of Episcopal Church dioceses send seminarians to be educated at General; even fewer overseas Anglican provinces do.

The sustainability plan follows years of deficit spending, deferred maintenance, and wishful thinking prior to General’s governance consolidation with VTS, which technically remain separate institutions.

As part of that plan, General is to conclude its residential program and will solely offer a hybrid Masters in Divinity (MDiv) program, according to a February 9 announcement made by the seminary. VTS, the largest independent seminary training students for ministry within the Episcopal Church, stepped in late last year as part of a joint affiliation agreement that functionally subsumes General into VTS’ leadership structures in all but name.

“Teaching the hybrid MDiv requires four full-time faculty, none of whom need to be in residence,” the announcement read. “As such, the number of faculty at GTS will be reduced from eight to four, and faculty will no longer live on campus from the end of fiscal year 2023.”

All faculty contracts at General terminate at the end of June 2024 (the VTS-General Affiliation Agreement commits to keeping the Very Rev. Michael DeLashmutt on as the Senior Vice President of General). Faculty who are not reappointed will have their contracts bought out this June.

Just how far over the cliff is General Seminary?

“GTS currently has an operating budget deficit of more than $2 million per year, due to a downturn in the market, a fall in revenue, rising operating costs from urgent campus maintenance, and increased staffing costs,” seminary officials wrote in a press release.

Graduates of General include both orthodox and progressive clergy, among them Anglican Church in North America Archbishop Emeritus Robert Duncan and retired Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

Once regarded as the church’s flagship seminary, General’s position receded as the school’s enrollment decreased. Properties on its leafy campus in Manhattan’s tony Chelsea neighborhood were sold off to developers in order to pay down $40 million in debt, part of decades-long financial issues.

According to the Association of Theological Schools, the seminary counts fifty students (with a fulltime enrollment equivalent of 31.3) and three fulltime faculty (with a fulltime enrollment equivalent of 4.50). This is down from the 61 enrolled seminarians at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

General is not the only seminary within the Episcopal Church to see significant change in recent years. Episcopal Divinity School sold its Cambridge, Massachusetts campus, laid off faculty and merged into Union Theological Seminary on Manhattan’s upper west side. Seabury-Western Theological Seminary sold its Illinois campus and merged with tiny Bexley Hall Seminary. The combined Bexley-Seabury Theological Seminary Federation is still slightly larger than GTS, counting 61 students (fulltime enrollment equivalent of 26.4) and three full-time faculty.
Nashotah House, University of the South (Sewanee), VTS and Seminary of the Southwest are now the only degree-granting Episcopal Church seminaries offering traditional residential programs (Pennsylvania’s Trinity School for Ministry quietly cut ties to the Episcopal Church last year). Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the only West Coast seminary of the Episcopal Church, announced in January that it is concluding traditional residential study.

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Colin Ross

I mean why would any serious person pay money to get trained to be an episcopal priest? The church is obviously not going to make any changes and has accepted its death, if you’re under 50 there’s no reason to be there