By Nancy Hull Rigdon, Special Contributor…
KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Strong, varied opinions emerged during a meeting at the Saint Paul School of Theology campus on the seminary’s pending move to United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in nearby Leawood, Kan.
The Rev. Myron McCoy, president of Saint Paul, framed the Nov. 1 event as a family meeting, saying that while family members don’t always agree, he hoped the crowd of Saint Paul students, faculty, alumni, donors, neighbors and trustees could emerge in unison.
A common complaint among critics of the plan was that they didn’t know the move was a possibility until after the school’s board of trustees voted last month to go forward with the plan.
“I sort of feel like a motherless child,” the Rev. Cleo Kottwitz, an alum of the school, said in the crowd of about 120 people. “Mama didn’t call and tell me that we were moving.”
Dr. McCoy said school leaders did communicate the possibility of the move prior to the October decision.
“Information was shared, but it was not what people wanted to hear,” he said. “We will do a better job of getting information out. Understand that this decision was just made last month.”
Outside of complaints about communication, those critical of the move expressed a myriad of concerns on topics including Church of the Resurrection’s influence on the school, the future of the northeast Kansas City campus, costs associated with the move and how the move could affect school library resources and staff office space.
School leaders and others supporting the move emphasized the financial benefits of the change as well as the positives that close collaboration between the two entities could bring.
“Today seems very simple to me. We are out of money. Accreditation is shaky. The other alternative to this is that there will be no Saint Paul,” the Rev. Hubert Neth, an alum of the school, said.
Mr. Neth continued with a comment that drew laughs from the otherwise tense crowd.
“If there is another option, I want to hear it. I don’t want to go to Kansas, for crying out loud.”
Dr. McCoy stressed that the new setup is not a bailout, an acquisition or a merger. He said it’s a collaboration—one where each entity will still stand on its own.
A year ago, the school’s board of trustees and the church began taking a close look at the possibility of the school moving 22 miles south to the suburban church campus, Dr. McCoy said.
With 16,000 members, megachurch Church of the Resurrection is the nation’s largest United Methodist congregation. The school plans to move into an under-utilized area of the church campus that primarily houses evening adult courses. (The courses will still be offered after the school moves in.)
The financial benefits of the move weighed heavily on the decision, Dr. McCoy said.
Upkeep of campus buildings has drained funding, he said.
Moving to the church campus will right-size the school’s facilities from 217,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet. Significantly lowering costs associated with running buildings should combat rising tuition costs and dwindling scholarship funds, school leaders said.
Classroom instruction and ministry will combine for what Dr. McCoy likened to the theological education version of medical school. And the church staff will have easier access to education programs, he added.
The growing and successful church could boost the school as it grapples with declining enrollment and funding, school officials said.
“We see this not as that our best days are behind us, but we see this as our best days are in front of us,” Dr. McCoy said.
Before the move will be official, the school must receive approval from its accrediting bodies. School officials say they have received the verbal OK from the authorities and that final approval is expected in February 2013. The school aims to begin the fall 2013 semester in its new location. The two entities plan to hash out an agreement that would remain for at least five years.
School leaders said they do not yet have answers on many details, including what the school will pay the church for use of its facilities and resources. The school’s board of trustees plans to discuss details more in-depth during a Nov. 14 board meeting.
David Biersmith, president of a neighborhood group near the school, had concerns about the future of the school campus—a bright spot in an area that holds abandoned buildings, graffiti and barred windows.
“This is the biggest defeat we have had yet,” said Mr. Biersmith, who represented the Truman Road Corridor Association. “We see this being vacant for years and years and years. We take this very seriously. We fear for our safety.”
School officials said they will not allow the campus to become a source of blight, and a committee to decide the future of the campus is in the works.
Former school faculty member Dr. Gene Lowry and former trustee Sally Firestone, questioned if the change was worth the moving costs. Laura Snow, the school’s chief financial officer, said that while the move will bring one-time costs, if the school doesn’t make a drastic change, it will simply run out of money.
One student said she did not find the school’s existing relationship with the church effective. Danielle Quinn said she thought the church’s focus was too narrow. As an example, she said that for a class, she read a book by Church of the Resurrection staff on church marketing that she found helpful only for churches with large budgets.
However, the school’s student council president, Shandra Yost, said following the meeting that she was excited about the move. Ms. Yost said she first learned about the potential move a year ago and that student reaction to the plan has been a mix of nervousness and excitement.
“Ministry is always changing and moving, and that’s what we are called to do. I’m continuing to look forward and find hope in what’s next for us,” Ms. Yost said.
Ms. Rigdon is a freelance writer in Kansas City.