MURFREESBORO, N.C. (ABP) – Cash-strapped Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is considering a merger with Chowan University, a 162-year-old North Carolina Baptist school 99 miles south of the seminary’s Richmond, Va., campus, in hopes of solving lingering financial problems made worse by a bad economy.
Chris White, president of Chowan University, said a subcommittee of Chowan’s board of trustees is “doing due diligence” investigating the possibility of a merger with BTSR, which he said is in “serious financial difficulty.”
BTSR’s trustees meet March 21-22, a date when White anticipates either a formal request to or a decision from BTSR not to request merger. Chowan’s next regularly scheduled board meeting is April 7. White said a decision can be made that day because due diligence will be completed.
Ron Crawford, president of the Richmond seminary, didn’t confirm or deny the report. But since last fall, he said, a trustee committee has been exploring a variety of options to secure the school’s future.
“Last October our trustees looked hard at our business plan in light of our future,” he said. “They asked a committee to study possibilities and make a recommendation at the March meeting of the full board of trustees.”
Crawford said those possibilities include “partnering” with other institutions, but added, “We’re still in the process of seeing what the best options are. It’s a little premature to say we have focused on one option and that’s the only one we’re looking at.”
“We have a very fine and very financially healthy university,” said White, age 67 and president of Chowan for eight years. He said BTSR is financially “a very sick seminary and we must make sure we don’t hurt the mother by taking on the baby.”
White said BTSR is $7 million in debt, a figure confirmed by the seminary’s finance office. Most of the debt was incurred in the purchase and renovation of BTSR’s campus, which originally housed the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now affiliated with Union Theological Seminary.
Money, however, isn’t the only consideration in initiating discussions, said Crawford.
“We’ve not been brought to this conversation solely by financial considerations, though everyone knows these are hard economic times,” he said. “In our 20th anniversary celebrations this year, our trustees looked at what it would take to make this institution thrive for the next 20 years. That includes the financial side, of course, but it also includes the overall approach to our task. Many considerations are wrapped up together.”
Even though “the big elephant in the room is money,” White said, the financial picture is just one element of difficulty in merging two schools. White said it might be difficult to merge the two cultures of an old, rural university and a young, metro divinity school, even though “we are of like mind theologically.”
BTSR receives significant funding from both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. It’s not clear how or if a merger would affect those revenue streams.
Currently, BTSR is one of only two theologically moderate seminaries not affiliated with a university. That has not proven to be an advantage to date, and White said it would be important for BTSR supporters “to realize this is in BTSR’s best interest.”
White, who was president of Gardner-Webb University from 1986 to 2002, has led a turnaround at Chowan that has produced record enrollments and income. The 1,100-student school that once was in jeopardy itself is now in a position to consider absorbing an institution in similar jeopardy.
He said he “used a lot of what BTSR did as a model” when he led Gardner-Webb to form its divinity school in 1993. Gardner-Webb trustees then named the school for him — the M. Christopher White School of Divinity.
Chowan is just 10 miles from Virginia and historically receives a large percentage of its students from Virginia, particularly the Hampton Roads and Richmond areas. “We would love to have a foothold” in Virginia, particularly the metro area of Richmond, White acknowledged.
In 2008 BTSR downsized its faculty and staff by seven due to lack of funds. Last year BTSR suspended a continuing-education program, also in part to save money.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder. Robert Dilday is managing editor of the Religious Herald.