By Robert Dilday
Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond will sell a significant portion of its campus to a private secondary school by June 30 and is aggressively exploring options for a new location to hold classes in the fall of 2013, seminary officials announced Jan. 18.
Trustees voted at a called meeting to sell two of BTSR’s four buildings to Veritas Classical Christian School for an undisclosed price, completing part of a process begun in 2011 to change its business model to adapt to changing trends in theological education.
Veritas is a private K-12 school with about 270 students currently based at a Presbyterian church in Richmond.
Included in the sale are Graves and Virginia halls — which house the school’s classrooms and offices — and two nearby parking lots. The seminary will temporarily retain ownership of Kraemer Hall — an apartment facility for students — but will sell it on or before June 30, 2020. Veritas has first right of refusal on that building.
The fourth building — the former nursing dormitory of a closed hospital nearby — is on the market but not part of the sale to Veritas.
The 21-year-old BTSR has been on Richmond’s north side since 1997, when it bought buildings originally owned by the Presbyterian School for Christian Education, across the street from Union Theological Seminary.
In March 2011, seminary trustees approved the “orderly selling” of its campus and eventual relocation, both to broaden its mission and to address its debt, which at the time totaled about $7 million.
But the new strategy was never exclusively about the school’s finances, president Ron Crawford said in a Jan. 18 press release.
“When trustees made the decision in 2011 to relocate the seminary most people focused on debt,” said Crawford. “Few stories noted the seminary’s significant debt was the byproduct of our business model. Clearly, a crippling debt helps an institution embrace reality. With this strategic sale, BTSR is creating a business model that will allow the seminary to thrive in the 21st century; the new model requires shedding excess buildings.”
That said, the sale will enhance the seminary’s financial stability, Crawford added.
“The sale of property means we reduce debt and overhead, long-term goals of our new business model,” he said. “These debt reductions will be reflected in all budgets going forward. In addition, we have another building on the market, which is not part of the campus proper. When we sell that building we will further reduce our expenses and debt.”
BTSR enrolls about 100 students, and has an operating budget of $3.4 million and endowment of $4.5 million. Earlier this year the school successfully completed a $1 million matching gift fundraising campaign and received another $1 million donation from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation of San Antonio, Texas, to be distributed over five years.
The property sale, though not unexpected, has accelerated the timetable for relocation — a process under scrutiny by a trustee committee.
“One can be taken aback when prayers are answered more quickly than you expected,” Crawford acknowledged. “Two months ago we expected to move in 2014. Our plans changed six weeks ago when Veritas moved up their timetable. We are looking at a number of location options for classes for 2013. We will do right by our students.”
Though essential to the seminary’s future, a relocation decision won’t be taken hastily, said Crawford.
“I know BTSR’s friends want to know about our future plans, and the sooner the better,” he said. “We are following a very deliberate process and we are not going to rush the process. The new business model and decisions about the location of the seminary will set the agenda for the seminary’s next few decades. Trustees are focused on a healthy, vibrant and a financially secure future for the seminary in the Richmond area.”
BTSR opened in 1991 with support from the Alliance of Baptists — the first theological institution to emerge as an alternative to the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, which by 1990 had taken sharp shifts to the right. Eventually it received significant funding from both the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Its legacy inspires fierce loyalty among its students and alumni and keen attachment to the Georgian buildings, brick walkways and sweeping lawns that comprise its campus. Crawford acknowledged the BTSR community’s ambivalent feelings about the sale.
“While the selling of building is good news, it is also bittersweet for many,” he said. “This campus has been our home for 15 of our 21 years. Graduates, staff and faculty have profoundly significant memories attached to these buildings. It will be painful to pack up offices and classrooms and think about a new location.”
“Even so, we are called to a new chapter filled with exciting possibilities,” he added. “Walking by faith is no easy task, but it is an essential task. From deep roots we will grow in new ways.”