Amid financial and enrollment challenges, UMC-affiliated Saint Paul School of Theology is going forward with a plan to move from its Kansas City, Mo., campus to the nearby United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, in Leawood, Kan.
The plan and how it’s been pursued has been criticized by one former trustee of the seminary, Sally Firestone, and it leaves in doubt the future of the current campus.
Saint Paul board members voted Oct. 9 in favor of taking the next steps toward what they’re calling a “collaboration” with Church of the Resurrection.
The church, with 16,000 members, is the largest in the denomination and is led by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, who chairs the seminary’s board.
The Rev. Jim Oman, vice president for advancement at Saint Paul, said the plan has many details to be worked out, but would definitely maintain the seminary’s separate identity and governance.
He said the collaboration promises both cost savings and a chance to be innovative educationally, with students having exposure to ministry leaders at the church, as well as professors.
“We want to see how we can utilize the resources we have, and the strengths, to build a new model of theological education that is sustainable,” he said.
The Rev. Myron McCoy, president of Saint Paul, said in a brief phone interview that the move “will distinguish us from other seminaries, which is quite important, as we’re dealing with a shrinking economy of students.”
The plan now is for Saint Paul to hold classes at Church of the Resurrection next fall, with the church providing chapel and library space as well. Administrative and faculty offices would be located near the church.
A committee is being formed to address the future of the northeast Kansas City campus.
Mr. Oman said school officials and board members understand the campus to be “sacred ground” and will proceed “with care and integrity” to decide what happens to it.
He cautioned that the plan for moving to Church of the Resurrection still must be approved by the seminary’s accrediting agencies.
“We don’t anticipate that there will be a problem but we want to make sure we have everything lined up,” he said.
‘Hard to understand’
Ms. Firestone served on the Saint Paul board for 21 years. Though no longer a member, she asked and received permission from Mr. Hamilton to make a statement at an Oct. 8 board meeting.
“Earlier this year I started hearing rumors that Saint Paul School of Theology was going to move to the Church of the Resurrection,” she said. “I had received no communication about such a change and I couldn’t believe this campus would be abandoned.”
Ms. Firestone told the board she questioned the wisdom of the move and the lack of information that had been shared about it. And she said that she was speaking for a range of people—past and current professors, alumni and current students, even board members—who shared her concerns.
“It feels like this decision for changing the future of Saint Paul is moving entirely too fast and overlooking creative solutions,” she said.
In a phone interview, Ms. Firestone elaborated on her position.
“A lot of people have invested a lot of time and effort and money in the campus as it is today,” she said. “It’s a beautiful campus. Why they would just want to leave that is very hard to understand.”
Ms. Firestone added: “There hasn’t been transparency in decision-making.”
Mr. Oman said the board formed committees a year ago to study different aspects of the seminary’s future. The school has issued two press releases saying collaboration with the church was under consideration, though news that the school might move to the church has only become public recently.
Mr. Oman said the board can’t share all the details because many still aren’t decided—and won’t be, until the accrediting agencies weigh in.
“We can’t write about what we don’t know for sure,” he said.
The seminary has set Nov. 1, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., for a question-and-answer session for alumni, donors and other friends, at the Holter Center on campus.
Saint Paul had 43 first-year students this fall, roughly double the year before. The seminary has seen ups and downs in enrollment, but has been on a flat to gradually lower trajectory in recent years, Mr. Oman said.
“The United Methodist Church is declining in the Midwest. Therefore the number of persons entering the ministry is declining,” he said.
The drop of enrollment revenue has come as the recession has hurt fundraising, and as the UMC, shrinking in the United States, has pared back its Ministerial Education Fund help for seminaries, Mr. Oman said.
Mr. Oman confirmed that Saint Paul, founded in 1958, has in recent years had to use some proceeds from its $32 million endowment to meet expenses. That’s not uncommon among small liberal arts schools and stand-alone seminaries, but it is a factor in the decision to collaborate with Church of the Resurrection, Mr. Oman said.
“We would rather focus our resources on more scholarships for students than to use the majority of our funding on bricks and mortar,” he said.
Saint Paul’s campus consists of 10 buildings, three used as housing, for a total of 215,000 square feet of useable space.
The seminary’s plan to move was news to Thomas Turner, executive director of the Bishop Sullivan Center, a social services center near the campus.
“Just like any neighborhood, you want to have good homeowners, and they would obviously be described as a good homeowner, given the way they’ve maintained their property and given what they do,” he said.
Saint Paul has in recent years offered classes in Oklahoma City, at Oklahoma City University. The plan with Church of the Resurrection would not affect that, Mr. Oman said.
He added that in a time of struggle for denominations, seminaries must be innovative.
Both the Oklahoma City presence and the planned move to Church of the Resurrection represent that approach, according to Mr. Oman.
“This potential collaboration is with one of the premier teaching churches in the country for Methodism,” he said.