Since the announcement on Nov. 13 that Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR) will close at the end of the current academic year, there has been considerable speculation – especially online – about the reasons for this painful decision by the seminary’s board of trustees.
The free-standing seminary was established in 1991 “in celebration of historic Baptist values, as Baptist life in the South moved sharply toward a narrow theological perspective,” states the school’s website. “Consequently, historic Baptist freedom has always been a hallmark of BTSR: freedom to question, freedom to discover, freedom to learn and freedom to serve in Jesus’ name.”
My perspective is through the lens of a Baptist donor and current member of the BTSR board of trustees. As others have noted in news stories, interviews, opinion articles and letters to the editor on baptistnews.com, ethicsdaily.com and elsewhere, we are all grieving the seminary’s pending closure. None of the trustees took the decision lightly or made the decision quickly. There were many difficult but honest discussions, sometimes leading to tears and always undergirded with prayer.
I do not live in Virginia, but I am on the board of a family foundation focused primarily on moderate and progressive Baptist causes and organizations. The Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation has been a donor to the seminary because we believed and still believe in BTSR’s mission and its students, administrators, faculty and staff, current and past.
“Sounding the alarm broadly does not bring new students to your seminary, nor does it give donors faith in your future.”
My first significant connection to BTSR was in 2011 when the president and development director each made visits to San Antonio to ask our foundation for emergency help. Initially we provided a matching grant, hoping to incentivize first-time donors. The match was successful, though not significant relative to the debt burden of the school, which was approximately $7 million. Since this matching grant helped raise nearly $1 million, we all hoped it might bring energy, consistent giving and new students, as well as sound an alarm to any who might be interested in the health of the seminary.
However, not long after that initial grant, we had another visit from the seminary with another emergency request. This time, $50,000 was needed to make payroll. We were able to help but also expressed concern and surprise. The seminary had announced plans to sell the existing campus buildings in order to reduce overhead costs and eliminate some of the debt. Since four fulltime faculty and several staff members had been laid off in 2008, the additional request signaled that serious financial issues still remained.
BTSR was able to sell the buildings and relocate to an office park four miles north. My recollection is that the cost for finishing out the new space was amortized over time. Cash was still very limited.
Before deciding on the relocation, other options had been explored. Apparently, there was a conversation about a possible merger with Chowan University. However, for a variety of reasons all the options eventually hit a dead end. The decision to move was a step of faith and seemed financially prudent. The plan was to work on the financial health of BTSR and focus on recruiting students and approaching donors. (I was not a trustee during this time, so this information is based on my research and observations as a donor.)
Some have asked if at any time over these almost 30 years other paths could have been chosen that would have led to better results. My answer to that is to say, without hesitation, that every last decision made over the years has been done out of deep love for BTSR and the belief that the decision made, the path chosen, was in her best interest.
In a show of faith in the institution, the Baugh Foundation made a five-year pledge in 2012 totaling $1 million. My understanding is that this was at the time the largest pledge ever made to BTSR. The hope was that over the five-year period others would join in giving and that the school would be able to focus (again) on recruitment of students and developing a broader base of donors. The five-year gift was completed in 2016.
“BTSR in the final analysis was simply unable to reach the critical mass of students necessary to be sustainable.”
The foundation made additional grants of $25,000 in 2014, $50,000 in 2015, $700,000 in 2017 and $500,000 in 2018. Most of those funds were used for operations, with some put into endowment. Of course, the best case scenario would have been to put 100 percent of the funds into endowment to help with future expenses as the endowment grew. But payroll and rent needed to be paid, and tuition did not offset the costs to attend BTSR.
Many people and churches have given sacrificially to BTSR over the years. Some, however, are no longer able to give or are reluctant to continue to give. The Baptist General Association of Virginia has been a consistent and significant donor, along with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Charles B. Keesee Educational Fund. Many churches have hired BTSR graduates as pastors and staff. Many have also given financially, including Richmond’s First Baptist and River Road churches and others across the state and region. The seminary also has attracted loyal community partners through the years.
The support from these churches and groups is truly meaningful. In changing times, when churches and other religious organizations are dealing with their own financial concerns, these supporters – especially in Virginia – have put their hearts into BTSR, and I hope they will continue for many years to benefit from the ministries of more than 750 graduates.
When Linda McKinnish Bridges began her tenure last year as BTSR’s president, she hit the ground running. She made visits to every donor she could possibly see. Sometimes trustees went with her. While some past donors came back on board with financial support, others had various, legitimate reasons for not being ready to contribute again.
In my own years as a Baptist, I have never seen anyone work harder to cultivate relationships with donors and potential donors. Dr. Bridges has given a big piece of her heart to the seminary. She has endured some extremely difficult days and made great, undisclosed personal sacrifices. Any leadership change or new era is challenging, but I am amazed by all she has done.
“We decided to make the announcement of the seminary’s closure well in advance and then to spend available resources to help students.”
Why was an alarm not sounded again? As we learned, sounding the alarm broadly does not bring new students to your seminary, nor does it give donors faith in your future. Most people do not run back into a burning building.
Despite the concerted and often sacrificial efforts of the president, the trustees and others in the seminary community, BTSR in the final analysis was simply unable to reach the critical mass of students necessary to be sustainable. Enrollment had been declining for years, and minimal upticks were not enough to justify the cost per student. In fact, the institutional cost of keeping the doors open had reached approximately $84,000 per student. That is not responsible or sustainable, and donors cannot be asked to support that kind of bottom line.
BTSR’s president and trustees did not want the school to run out of funds before students could complete the academic year, students eligible to graduate next May could receive their degrees from BTSR, and remaining students could be assisted with transfers to other schools to finish their degrees. So, we decided to make the announcement of the seminary’s closure well in advance and then to spend available resources to help students. After debts are paid, we hope to be able to help faculty.
We engaged in multiple conversations with other schools. Our focus was to transition students without penalty and try to find places of employment for faculty. Unfortunately, we were not able to negotiate both of those, but several seminaries have offered assistance to our students.
In addition to the School of Theology at Virginia Union University and Union Presbyterian Seminary (partners with BTSR in the Richmond Theological Consortium), these schools include Duke University Divinity School, Campbell University School of Divinity, Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity, Central Seminary, Truett Seminary, Palmer Seminary, Northern Seminary and Logsdon Seminary. All have affiliations with CBF or American Baptist Churches USA. BTSR students should be able to transfer credits to most of these schools without penalty. Some schools also will work with BTSR students regarding existing scholarships.
While the story of BTSR as an institution is coming to a close, those who love the seminary can rejoice through our tears at all that has been done over the last 30 years. We can thank God for the 750 graduates and their varied ministries. We can thank God for the faculty and staff who have served from the school’s founding until now.
But I hope the story is not over. I hope the legacy will continue in the new Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation. There is so much potential for mission and innovation that can perpetuate and extend BTSR’s legacy. Perhaps the center could become a catalyst for research on new ways to do theological education in a changing religious environment.
Perhaps it could also become a place where BTSR’s hallmarks of freedom continue to thrive – a place where students and teachers can ask big questions, where they can be free to discover, to study, to research and to learn new ways of being God’s people.