By Bob Allen
Trustees of the International Baptist Theological Seminary have proposed relocating the 63-year-old seminary from Eastern Europe to the Netherlands. If approved by the European Baptist Federation governing council Sept. 26-29 in Germany, the move would mark a third incarnation of the seminary originally begun to train pastors in southwestern Europe in the aftermath of two world wars.
Started in Switzerland by Southern Baptist missionaries in 1949, the seminary took an unexpected financial hit in 1991 when trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board withdrew about 40 percent of the school’s total funding in a dispute related to a power struggle between conservatives and moderates in the SBC.
At the same time, new opportunities for witness were opening up for Baptists in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union formerly denied opportunities for theological education. In 1997, the seminary moved to Prague, Czech Republic, with a new focus on graduate studies aimed at attracting graduates from Baptist unions and seminaries across Europe and the Middle East.
In recent years, a struggling European economy and the cost of maintaining aging buildings once again put the seminary’s future in jeopardy. In 2010, European Baptist leaders voted to sell the campus and either find a more affordable location in the Czech Republic or relocate to another EBF partner union.
The new plan, announced in a press release Aug. 29, calls for establishing a Baptist house imbedded in VU University of Amsterdam that would concentrate on doctor-of-philosophy study in Baptist/Anabaptist studies and mission and practical theology.
The Baptist house would utilize unused space at an existing Baptist church building in south Amsterdam. It would be shared with the Baptist Union of the Netherlands, which would move its offices to Amsterdam; the Baptist Seminary of the Netherlands and the office of the European Baptist Federation.
Amsterdam, host city in 2009 for the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of the first Baptist church, is historically significant because the first Baptists fled there to escape persecution in England in the early 1600s. Along with being better fitted to serve current theological education needs of European Baptists, trustees said, the move would benefit Dutch Baptists by better integrating them with the worldwide Baptist family.
“One of the joys of being Baptist is living with the provisional nature of all institutions and the capacity to reshape how we do things to meet changing situations,” said Ruth Gouldbourne, a British Baptist and chair of the IBTS board of trustees. “It is exciting to see God once again leading us into new places and to rest in the faith of this community that wherever God leads, God also opens the way and equips the people.”
While in Ruschlikon, the seminary began struggling financially in the 1970s. The Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board deeded the school’s property to European Baptists in 1989, while pledging to continue major financial support through 1992, and then gradually phasing out funding until 2008.
During their October 1991 meeting, however, conservatives on the Foreign Mission Board were incensed to learn that Glenn Hinson, at the time a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who now teaches at Baptist Theological Seminary at Kentucky, was teaching at Ruschlikon. Trustee leaders said it broke a gentleman’s agreement by European Baptist leaders to bring more conservative faculty to the seminary, and they immediately withdrew the $365,000 earmarked for the seminary in the 1992 budget.
Several missionaries resigned in protest and moved to the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed by moderates frustrated by years of politicized annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention but unable to turn the tide by electing a president of their own.
Hundreds of Cooperative Baptists from the U.S. traveled at their own expense as volunteers to repair rundown 19th century buildings on the new campus in Prague during 1994 and 1995. Those buildings were adequate at the time, IBTS official say, but nearly two decades later with today’s monetary exchange rates, deferred maintenance costs have contributed to a financial crisis since 2008.
Trustees hope the relocation will be complete by September 2014. The recommendation includes a request that proper care be taken of staff affected by the move and their families.
Concentrating on Ph.D. studies recognizes that local seminaries have grown to the point that they are now able to offer undergraduate and master’s degrees, the recommendation says, but there is a continuing need for doctoral studies.
Baptist students could still study toward master’s degrees at IBTS, but they would be awarded by VU University, a public school started by Dutch Calvinists that already embeds several seminaries, including the Baptist Seminary of the Netherlands.
IBTS Rector Keith Jones, who will conclude his term of office in 2013, said the move to Amsterdam opens new possibilities for the doctoral and research programs.
“We have all loved the premises in Prague, but in the new economic climate with old buildings, declining donor income and much higher costs in the Czech Republic than previously, this represents an imaginative way forward.”