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Baptist Seminary Takes Steps to Secure Its Future

Trustees recently concluded two very productive days of meetings and brought to a conclusion the work of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond’s Open Door Committee.

The committee was created to study and recommend changes to the seminary’s business plan with the purpose of securing the seminary’s next 20 years.

Titled “The Bridge to the Future,” the document is the result of the committee’s work and sets a new agenda for the seminary’s future; and yes, it secures the seminary’s financial well-being.

Actions of our trustees represent a fundamental institutional shift toward a more creative, innovative and effective model for preparing women and men for ministry and a clear shift away from bricks and mortar.

In many ways the new vision rewraps the seminary’s original vision. In 1990, seminary founders imagined an innovative, creative and bold endeavor in theological education.

We aim to retool that original vision for the 21st century. We intend to rewrite the book on theological education for a new generation.

How might this be accomplished? What are the foundation stones on which such an enterprise might go forward? Several come to mind:

·We reaffirm our historic heritage as expressed in the seminary’s covenant and mission statement. We train women and men for ministry and that is all we do.

·We reaffirm the hand of God at work in our midst. BTSR’s birth was nothing short of a miracle. We sense a new visitation in refocusing our priorities in our 20th year.

·We reaffirm our historic perspective of academic excellence. We have and will continue to put our students “through their academic paces.”

·We reaffirm our historic values including, but not limited to, the following: a focus on the practice of ministry, women in ministry, social and economic justice, the servant role of leadership and reverence for biblical authority and respect for open inquiry and responsible scholarship.

We also affirm the following:

·A renewed commitment to innovation and creativity.

·A sense that the church needs more flexible expressions of theological education, including a sharper focus on equipping people for the practice of ministry in local congregations and nonprofits.

·A deeper and more encompassing commitment to collaboration with other ministry partners who share similar priorities and values. This might include sharing building space with a local congregation, hosting a university’s degree completion program or graduate programs and providing a wide array of conferences (in cooperation with partner organizations) for high school students, college students and laity.

·A sense that theological education cannot be sequestered into a three-year period but rather extends throughout a lifetime; thus, the need to work with partner organizations to provide a wider array of services and programs to address an emerging sense of call to ministry, formal theological education and continuing education for ministers and laity throughout life.

·A sharper focus of financial resources on the essential mission of the seminary: training and equipping women and men for ministry.

·A sense that our mission is evolving in three dimensions: we are on the ground (a campus program), in the air (online course offerings) and in the world (classrooms in Kenya, Japan, Appalachia, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter and so on).

We will empower our new mission by doing three things: shedding buildings, raising $2 million to assist in the transition to a new vision and committing to raise $10 million in endowment funds over the next decade.

Why sell buildings? Because we have too much unused space. To fulfill our essential mission, we need about 25 percent of our present space. While our buildings are beautiful and have served us well, they limit our flexibility and compete for essential resources better invested in educating students. A location that provides us with a better context for collaboration and innovation is essential to live into our new vision.

We originally located on Brook Road partly for proximity to the library on Union Presbyterian’s campus. Within five years, several very fine theological libraries will be available online, including Princeton Theological Seminary’s library.

This allows BTSR to contemplate a different context for its ministry and work, one that will help us live and work collaboratively with a much broader range of partner organizations.

Why a $2 million campaign? We have talked with our bank, and it is satisfied with our new vision and financial plan. Because so much is unknown in the real estate market, we want to raise additional funds to ensure the smooth transition to a new business model.

Trustee pledges are being collected, and we will shortly expand our efforts to include former trustees and long-term friends before we enlist new donors.

Why $10 million in new endowment funds? Seminary education is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as most private colleges.

Our students pay about one-third of the cost of their education; scholarships reduce the amount students pay. Virginia Baptists (BGAV) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship provide funding to cover the non-tuition costs of educating about 16 students.

A larger endowment will provide the non-tuition costs for the other 104 students – a total of 120 students in classes this spring. With denominational dollars limited, endowment earnings will provide the seminary with the financial stability it needs to flourish in the future.

Staff members are putting together necessary publications that will more fully describe the seminary’s new vision. It will take us a while to work out the language, consult with marketing professionals and fully organize our development efforts. I ask for your patience.

There are a few things you can do for us.

1. Share the good news. BTSR has established a clear way forward with its renewed vision of the future.

2. Chuckle at the naysayers. We are not a “sick seminary.” We are busy making healthy decisions about our future. Yes, in this economy money could be more plentiful, but trustees are leading us into a much brighter future as the above noted decisions illustrate. Much of our struggle over these last years has been related to our business model – a residential seminary with low tuition, modest endowment and slight denominational support. In transitioning to a new business model, we will substantially solve our long-term financial challenges.

3. Pray about giving a gift to the seminary and help enlist others to financially support BTSR.

This is a new day for BTSR. This is the most significant decision made by seminary trustees in 15 years and sets a new agenda for the future. Based on trustee decisions over two recent days, our future became much clearer and much brighter.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.