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General Theological Seminary struggles for viability


By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
August 26, 2022

The General Theological Seminary, fondly called "The General," was conceived in 1817 by the Episcopal General Convention through two specific resolutions: 1) That it is expedient to establish a General Theological Seminary which may have the united support of the whole Church in the United States and be under the superintendence and control of the General Convention; and
2) That the Seminary be located in the City of New York.

The New York location would be more or less centrally located in the original nine Episcopal statewide dioceses of: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and South Carolina. These founding dioceses are memorialized by the nine small white stylized Jerusalem crosses in the classic blue field in the top left corner of the Episcopal shield and church flag.

In 1820, by action of the Episcopal General Convention, the newly formed seminary was moved to New Haven, Connecticut. But in 1821, New York's Trinity Church vestryman Jacob Sherred said he would will $60,000 to The General if it returned to New York.

Since 1826, The General Theological Seminary has occupied the block bounded by Ninth and Tenth avenues and 20th and 21st streets in Manhattan through the giftedness of inherited land by Clement Clarke Moore, the author of the children's favorite Christmas poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." It was Moore's 1823 Christmas Eve poem that introduced the concept of Saint Nicholas (modern-day Santa Claus) into the American celebration of Christmas.

The Seminary's street address is: 440 West 21st Street, New York City, New York 10011-2981.

The dictates of Sherred's will read: "... there shall be established within the state of New-York, under the direction or by the authority of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, or of the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York, a College, Academy, School, or Seminary, for the education of young men designed for holy orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church."

In 1821, the bequest of $60,000 was a princely sum roughly equivalent to more than $1.5 million today. GTS' Neo-Gothic Sherred Hall is named in Jacob Sherred's memory.

The seeds for the Virginia Theological Seminary were planted in 1821 by the Diocese of Virginia Diocesan Convention seeking to establish a regional seminary to meet the educational needs of potential Episcopal seminarians in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. VTS officially opened in 1823 with 14 theology students and two professors.

Now the two Episcopal theological seminaries are joining forces to bolster The General and keep it from fading into history and becoming an asterisked footnote.

As early as the mid-1990s, the question was starting to be asked about ways to help struggling seminaries that were facing financial difficulties: Could seminaries close or merge with one another, or share administrative tasks and faculty?

But it was in July 2008, when then Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary, Ward Ewing sounded the Clarion call stating that unless finances were improved, the historic seminary may not live to see its third century of service to The Episcopal Church.

Even a full decade before that, in 1997, the Episcopal News Service reported that the Board for Theological Education (BTE) "raised an alarm about what it calls a state of crisis and urged the church to start paying attention now, while creative solutions may yet be found."

A part of that crisis the BTE identified was the "financial difficulties that seminaries face as the number of students dwindle."


The Board for Theological Education was created by the General Convention in 1967. Its creation flowed from the Special Committee for Theological Education (SCTE) organized by Presiding Bishop John Hines. The Committee commissioned an 18-month-long study, funded by the Episcopal Church Foundation, on the education at seminaries. The study was designed to improve theological education which was already being described "as outmoded or severely deficient."

That report, officially called "Ministry for Tomorrow" but popularly called "The Pusey Report," was presented to the 1967 General Convention.

"Despite occasional heroic efforts, the Episcopal Church as a whole has been unexpectedly remiss in its concern for theological education," Charles Taylor wrote in presenting The Report. "This report describes the present situation, resulting from a long debilitating lack of concern for theological education."

Taylor, the executive director for the American Association of Theological Schools, joined forces with Nathan Pusey, President of Harvard University and the Chair of the Special Committee on Theological Education to produce The Report.

At the time of The Pusey Report, The General Theological Seminary was numerically The Episcopal Church's largest seminary with 183 students, followed by the Virginia Theological Seminary at 171 students, and the then the Episcopal Theological School at 128 students.
However, The General's student body was on the decline: there were 215 students in 1958; 217 students in 1959; 215 students in 1960; 213 students in 1961; 204 students in 1962; 215 students in 1963; 197 students in 1964; 207 students in 1965; 204 students in 1966; and 183 students in 1967 ... finally 53 students during the 2021 fall term.

At the time of The Pusey Report, the Episcopal Church had 11 operating theological seminaries or divinity schools scattered around the country including: The General Theological Seminary (New York City); Berkeley Divinity School (New Haven, Connecticut); Bexley Hall (Rochester, New York); Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Berkeley, California); Divinity School of the Episcopal Church (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania); Episcopal Theological School (Cambridge, Massachusetts); Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (Austin, Texas); Nashotah House (Nashotah, Wisconsin); Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia (Alexandria, Virginia); the School of Theology of the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee); and Seabury‐Western Theological Seminary (Evanston, Illinois).

Even as the Board for Theological Education was getting its feet firmly planted on the ground, the call was being made to cut the 11 Episcopal seminaries down to no more than five because there were far "too few seminarians in too many schools."

Today there are nine seminaries associated with The Episcopal Church, two fewer than in 1967 and about double what was called for. Even though there have been several merges between seminaries, there has been no significant reduction in the number of theological schools.

As a separate entity, Seabury‐Western Theological Seminary has disappeared from the list of Episcopal seminaries. In 2013, it joined forces with Bexley Hall to become the Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Seminary Federation. The two seminaries forged together to become a single federated school.

In 1974, the Episcopal Theological School (ETS) and the Divinity School of the Episcopal Church, locally known as the Philadelphia Divinity School (PDS) -- catering to black seminarians -- became historical footnotes when they merged to form the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) which was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2017, the Episcopal Divinity School affiliated with the Presbyterian-based Union Theological Seminary in New York City to become the Episcopal Divinity School at Union, which is basically an Anglican track at the independent ecumenical ultra-liberal seminary that is currently a bastion of progressive Christian thinking and scholarship.

In 1971, Berkeley Divinity School amalgamated with Yale Divinity School at Yale University. Yale confers the divinity degrees, but Berkeley offers two separate Anglican-focused courses of study -- a Diploma in Anglican Studies, and a Certificate in Anglican Studies.

In 1975, after The Pusey Report was released, the Episcopal Trinity School for Ministry (TSM) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, was established as a seminary with a curriculum based upon solid orthodox Protestant theology coupled with evangelical principles. In 2007, TSM dropped "Episcopal" from its name to draw more students from the growing Anglican Continuum and then on New Year's Day 2022, the school formally disaffiliated with The Episcopal Church, leaving nine seminaries still tied to TEC.

The remaining Episcopal seminaries have remained untouched by yoking, merging, amalgamating, federating, disaffiliating, or dissolving. Still standing are the Church Divinity School of the Pacific; Seminary of the Southwest; Nashotah House; and the School of Theology at Sewanee.

Number wise, Virginia Theological Seminary is now considered the strongest Episcopal seminary with 187 full-time students. At one time, General Theological Seminary held that honor.

According to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the latest figures published during the 2021 fall Michaelmas term showing full-time student body numbers reveal the following student bodies: Virginia Theological Seminary 187; Trinity School for Ministry 152; Suwanee 142; Seminary of the Southwest 140; Nashotah House 127; Church Divinity School of the Pacific 65; The General 53; and Bexley Hall 42.

Both Berkeley and the Episcopal Divinity School are tied in with larger university or theological schools, so their exact Episcopal student body figures are not readily available. Union Theological Seminary, home to Episcopal Divinity School, has a student body of 236, of which 29 are apparently seeking Episcopal ordination. Yale Divinity school, home to Berkeley Divinity School, has a student body of 319 of which approximately one third are considered to be Berkeley students.


Now Virginia Theological Seminary, and of course, The General Theological Seminary have united forces to save The Episcopal Church's first theological seminary from extinction.

Under the agreement forged this summer, both The General and Virginia will retain their strategic initiatives, accreditations, endowments, and campuses. But they are now joined together through an "innovative overlapping governance structure, common executive leadership team, and a range of shared services and programs."

That "innovative overlapping" means that Virginia will invite 10 members of the GTS Board to join the 33-member VTS board. The General Board members will have full voice and vote on the Virginia Board. The newly expanded VTS Board will then become the controlling members of the GTS Board of Trustees. The result will be a joint expanded board which shares oversight of both theological schools.

In addition, the schools' senior leadership will also be held in common across the two seminaries. Ian Markham will continue to serve as dean and president of VTS as well as president of GTS, while The General's Acting Dean Michael DeLashmutt will become GTS' Dean of Chapel and Senior Vice-President.

The wedding of VTS with GTS happened because The General had reached a crisis point to where it could no longer remain self-sustaining.

The historic seminary was being faced with three options: 1) Pursuing a partnership or affiliation with another seminary;
2) Selling or redeveloping part of The General's valuable Manhattan real estate; or
3) Closing the seminary, selling its assets, and establishing a fund to support theological education.

"The future needs to be one where there is more cooperation rather than competition -- where the priority is the Gospel and where we work on strengthening The Episcopal Church for the future," Virginia's Dean Markham explained.

The General's Acting Dean DeLashmutt added: "The legacy of both schools means we can accomplish more in tandem than individually."

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is delighted with the new arrangement.

"This new relationship between these two great seminaries of the Church represents a truly creative possibility for faithfully, effectively, and strategically forming leaders for the movement of Jesus Christ through the Church, and for the sake of our 21st Century world," he said.

The General and Virginia have been in the negotiations since January 2021, but it needed a change in the GTS Constitution which could only be permitted by General Convention, to allow the partnership deal to be cemented.

The uniting of The General with Virginia is like when two Episcopal dioceses yolk together for the primary benefit of the struggling diocese, yet each diocese maintains its own integrity but share a bishop.

The dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania share Bishop Sean Rowe; and the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan share Provisional Bishop Prince Singh.

In Wisconsin, the Diocese of Eau Claire is yoked with the Diocese of Fond du Lac and Bishop Matthew Gunter oversees both. However, the dioceses of Eau Claire, Fond Du lac, and Milwaukee are eyeing the possibility of uniting and reconstituting the original Diocese of Wisconsin.

However, in 2013 the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy was reabsorbed into the Diocese of Chicago, thus becoming the Peoria Deanery.

Most recently, the TEC Diocese of Fort Worth joined the Diocese of Texas thus becoming that diocese's northern Fourth Region. Both the Episcopal dioceses Fort Worth and Quincy have been wiped from the Episcopal map, but they live on in the Anglican Church in North America.


The General is unique among Episcopal seminaries. It is the only seminary which was established by General Convention, tied to General Convention and was governed by General Convention.

However, since the seminary was created by and tied to General Convention no decision about its future or changes in its Constitution could go forward without General Convention's permission.

So, Resolution A139 was presented at the 2022 General Convention to sever General Convention's hold over The General Theological Seminary, freeing it up to be autonomous and self-determining.

"General Seminary is the only educational institution with a formal relationship with the General Convention. The role of the General Convention in the governance of GTS is largely a vestigial remnant of an early 19th century dream for a centralized seminary system," Resolution 2022 A139 explains.

Resolution A139, proposed by the GTS Board of Trustees, called for a change in the Constitution of The General Theological Seminary by seeking to separate the oversight of the seminary from General Convention, thus allowing the theological school the maneuverability it needed to determine its own destiny.

"The facts of General's founding history will never change. General remains the Seminary created by an act of the General Convention and will always be the oldest continuously operating Seminary within the Anglican Communion," Resolution A139 explains. "By decoupling from the General Convention, General is not severing ties with our beloved Church, nor are we devolving into a generic Protestant seminary. Rather, this freedom grants General the ability to lead a new life in partnership with another institution, so that we can continue to serve in the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, here in our home in Chelsea."

In July, the "divorce" between The General Theological Seminary and General Convention was finalized when GTS' Article VII was amended to read: "This Constitution may be amended, superseded or rescinded upon the vote solely of the Board of Trustees."


In 2015, General Convention called for a five-person committee to evaluate the relationship of General Theological Seminary with the General Convention to determine whether their continuing relationship was still mutually beneficial in the life of the church.

That report was made to the 2018 General Convention and found that the seminary was enduring a $3 million per year budget deficit, and that the 42-member Board of Trustees needed to be reduced. The General had the largest Board of Trustees of any Episcopal seminary.

More than 100 years ago, the Board of Trustees was cut by 90%. The 1913 General Convention cut the Board down to 42 members from more than 400 board members. From 1871-1913, every bishop in the church as well as clerical and lay representatives from every Episcopal diocese were members of the General Theological Board of Trustees. The Board was becoming too large to function effectively as more bishops were being consecrated and more dioceses were being created. The membership of The General's Board was ballooning. It was like trying to herd jungle cats.

Since 1968, the 42-member board was still considered too large by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accreditation agency which evaluates General Theological Seminary to see if it meets the competency standards of theological schools.

And in every accreditation evaluation since 1968, ATS suggested that The General pare down its Board of Trustees to a more manageable number. In addition, any substantial action the Board made had to be agreed upon by General Convention before it could be implemented. General Convention meets only once every three years, meaning that The General Theological Seminary could not be nimble in dealing with problems cropping up needing the Board of Trustees' attention.

In 2018, General Convention passed Resolution A083 reducing the size of The General's Board of Trustees to between 19 and 30 members. Today, there are 29 members on the GTS Board of Trustees including ten bishops, eight laity, seven officers, two ex officios, and one trustee emeritus. Another trustee emeritus has died creating an opening on the Board. Now 10 of those members are slated to join the Virginia Theological Seminary Board.

In 1997, BTE figures show that enrollments in all Episcopal seminary Master of Divinity (MDiv) programs had dropped 33 percent since 1986. In addition, over the years between 1972-1997 the average age of newly entering seminary students had risen from 27 to 40.

The Episcopal Church was starting to educate late vocation priests and second vocation priests or bi-vocational priests rather than primary vocation priests. An older newly ordained priest will not live long enough to give the church many years of parish ministry -- 10 or perhaps 20 years at most.

Newly minted young priests, after placement in their first congregations, can theoretically stay with the wider church until retirement age, thus giving The Episcopal Church 40 or more years of active ecclesiastical service.

In 2008, Dean Ewing also pointed out the "increased fixed costs, over-reliance on a limited endowment, deferred maintenance, a decline in denominational support, and a decline in the ability of students to commit to a three-year residential program" were multiple causes for the decrease in revenue and an increase in expenses.


Finances is always a burning issue with theological schools. Attending a seminary or divinity school is not an inexpensive proposition. Theological higher education results in a post-graduate degree. Seminaries offer college graduates various three-year degrees in theology, divinity, or religion -- Master of Divinity (MDiv); Master of Arts in Religion (MAR); Master of Theological Studies (MTS); Master of Sacred Theology (MST); Master of Arts in Biblical Studies (MABS); Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS); Master of Arts in Ministry (MAMin); and Master of Theology (ThM). The seminarian arrives at the chosen school of theology already carrying an undergraduate student loan debt.

The General's basic tuition rate is $15,400. Add to that housing $11,350, medical insurance $5,206, and other incidental costs that include books and supplies $3,000, a meal plan $13,500, additional living expenses $7,595, and transportation costs $1,843. So, what is called the yearly "Cost of Attendance" at The General Theological Seminary is approximately $57,974.

Virginia Theological Seminary's basic tradition rate is $14,000, single residential hall housing is $2,000, the meal plan is $4,000, and medical insurance is $4,000. Other listed incidental costs include books and supplies $1,500, transportation $500, with additional fees of $400 for a yearly cost of attendance of $26,400. Married housing can add another $12,000, $15,000 or $17,000 to the tab, but the meal plan is reduced to $1,500.

The basic tuition rate for other Episcopal seminaries include Bexley Hall $21,738; Berkeley at Yale $28,810; Suwanee $18,000; Nashotah House $16,500; Church Divinity School $16,320; Episcopal Divinity School at Union $23,670; and the Seminary of the Southwest $16,713.

Other fees and the cost of books and the housing with meal plans are added into the basic tuition in calculating the annual cost of attendance a seminarian must pay to seek the path to ordination.

Theological schools attached to universities have much higher cost of attendance figures than do classic seminaries. Union's (Episcopal Divinity School) cost of attendance is $51,890; Yale's (Berkeley) cost of attendance is $51,618, and the University of the South's (Suwanee) cost of attendance is north of $65,000.


Even in 1994, the parish-budgeted support of seminaries was in decline. The One Percent Program -- which encouraged each parish to give 1% of its budget to seminaries -- failed to achieve its goal.

The One Percent Plan started out as the result of Resolution 1976-A084 which called for the development of a Plan for the Financial Support of Theological Education. The Resolution urged each congregation to set a specific, significant goal for annual financial support of theological education, and suggested a feasible number for such a goal was 1.5% of disposable income as the target giving figure. The Resolution also called for the establishment of an annual Theological Education Sunday in which to have a Special Collection for Seminaries.

In 1979, Resolution A108 Requested Congregations Support Episcopal Seminaries through the Theological Education Sunday special offerings.

Resolution 1982-A125 called for the Establishment of a Policy of Congregational Giving to Accredited Seminaries and to maintain the Theological Education Sunday offerings.

By 1988, Resolution D078 dropped the 1.5% target figure to 1%.

"Each parish and mission of the several Dioceses within the fifty states of the United States, and the Convocation of the American Churches in Europe, shall give annually at least 1% of its net budgeted disposable income to one or more of the accredited Seminaries" the Resolution reads.

Resolution 1991-A224 then called for a covenant, led by the BTE, be created between the seminaries and the dioceses, parishes and institutions within the church promoting 1% giving.

And still the 1% Resolution failed to meet its goal to financially support seminaries. The One Percent Plan garnered only 31% of its anticipated revenue during the triennium.

"For most of the current decade (1990s), General Seminary's annual expense budget has held steady at around $8 million per year with annual revenue of just about $5 million. The difference is made up by withdrawing funds from the Seminary's endowment," Dean Ewing explained in an Open Letter to General Seminary's Faculty, Staff, Students, Friends, Alumni, and the Church-at-large. "Most schools, including seminaries, rely on the annual (endowment) draw to fund programs. The majority of the withdrawn funds are designated for certain purposes such as scholarships and faculty positions, and they support the budgets of those areas. Our endowment of $20 million is too small to fund everything we need to do and it would be wrong to spend it down further."

Continuing, he explained: "A decade ago (1980s), two facts were clear. Our property was our greatest financial asset¬¬ -- which we would need to leverage to improve our fiscal situation -- but it was also our greatest liability in that we faced a rapidly deteriorating plant with over $100 million in deferred maintenance. This decades-old deferred maintenance was urgent and could no longer be delayed."


Originally, the GTS had a collection of nearly twenty historic 19th century-era buildings. The exteriors are relatively well maintained, but the interiors need extensive work to be brought into compliance with updated city and state building codes.

Ten years ago -- circa 2012 -- under the leadership of then President and Dean Lang Lowery, The General sold several buildings, in a series of three major buys for approximately $100 million, to the Brodsky Organization, a high-end Manhattan-based residential developer.

At the time, The Wall Street Journal reported that "the Seminary hoped the real estate deals would allow it to eliminate $41 million of debt and to rejuvenate its depleted endowment fund.

Two years before that -- in 2010 -- The General sold 2, 3 & 4 Chelsea Square for $10 million to Brodsky. The Chelsea Square property was considered to be underutilized student and faculty housing.

"The seminary has been saddled by declining enrollment and currently is losing $5 million a year due to debt service and operating losses," Dean Lowrey then explained.

Lowery, the former GTS leader, is now the Director of the Episcopal & Anglican Studies Program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Even with selling off valuable property, GTS could not stop the financial drain which has become an albatross around its 200-year-old neck.

"The issue is not survival; the issue is excellence," Durstan McDonald, former dean of the Seminary of the Southwest once said about theological school financial struggles.

But survival is the issue for The General Theological Seminary.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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