Episcopal Divinity School to stop granting degrees in June 2017

Future plans for Boston-area seminary are still to be determined

Posted Jul 21, 2016
Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massacusetts, was formed in 1974 through the merger of the Cambridge-based Episcopal Theological School and the Philadelphia Divinity School. it is one of the smallest of the 10 accredited seminaries of the Episcopal Church. Photo: Episcopal Divinity School

Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was formed in 1974 through the merger of the Cambridge-based Episcopal Theological School and the Philadelphia Divinity School. It is one of the smallest of the 10 accredited seminaries of the Episcopal Church. Photo: Episcopal Divinity School

[Episcopal Divinity School press release] Episcopal Divinity School will cease to grant degrees at the end of the upcoming academic year, the seminary’s board of trustees decided July 21 on a 11-4 vote. During the next year, the board will explore options for EDS’s future, some of which were suggested by a specially convened Futures Task Force to make plans for EDS’s future.

“A school that has taken on racism, sexism, heterosexism, and multiple interlocking oppressions is now called to rethink its delivery of theological education in a new and changing world,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall ’76, chairman of the board, in introducing the resolution. “Ending unsustainable spending is a matter of social justice.”

The options suggested to the task force include merging with another theological seminary, establishing a center for Abrahamic studies, becoming a center for continuing education, fostering lay ministry, and using the seminary’s assets to fund scholarships for seminarians devoted to working on issues of peace and justice.

“It is clear to us that if EDS’s special commitment to working for social justice and the full inclusion of all of God’s people in our common life is to endure, we need to act quickly while the seminary still has sufficient assets to bring to bear in the next phase of its life,” Hall said. “In fact, our commitment to just compensation for all involved was a prime impetus for acting now. Today we have adequate resources for student, faculty, and staff transitions. Given current financial trajectories, five years down the road we would not. We can do it right if we do it now.”

No faculty or staff members will be laid off during the upcoming academic year, and all students, including EDS’s final incoming class, which arrives on campus next month, will be “taught out,” Hall said. “This means that we will contract with another seminary or seminaries to accept our students at full credit and we will make sure that students do not bear the expense of this transition.”

Bonnie Anderson, vice chair of the board and former president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, characterized the vote as “a sad but hopeful moment.”

“We understand that people will grieve this decision,” said Anderson who received an honorary doctorate from EDS in 2006. “It is the end of a significant phase in the life of a significant institution that has made incredible contributions to the life of our church. But by choosing this course now, we are in a much stronger position to ensure EDS’s legacy.”

EDS, which was formed in 1974, through the merger of the Cambridge-based Episcopal Theological School and the Philadelphia Divinity School, is one of the smallest of the 10 accredited seminaries of the Episcopal Church, and had long faced financial challenges that were depleting its endowment.

“The school is weakened each day by its ongoing deficit — the future mission of the school is losing about $4,380 per day, or $133,000 per month,” wrote Anthony Ruger, former senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in a report to the board in May. “The intermediate and long term viability of EDS as a quality accredited institution is genuinely threatened. The trustees have both the fiduciary and moral responsibility to see that EDS’s mission is perpetuated, sustained, and strengthened.”

EDS’s investments are currently valued at approximately $53 million plus its campus. More than half of the endowment is restricted.

Ruger, an expert on financial sustainability in theological schools, presented numerous models to the board suggesting that even unusual increases in enrollment and fundraising coupled with significant budget cuts were unlikely to provide a long-term solution to EDS’s financial problems, leaving the seminary in a gradually worsening position to find new partners or begin new initiatives.

“We believe there are new, bold and innovative ways for us to forward God’s mission in this new day and context,” Hall said. “We also believe that living into those new opportunities requires that we stop doing some unsustainable things now.”

Debate at the meeting was intense, with Pamela Conrad, the student representative, and the Rev. Joan M. Martin, the faculty representative, who have voice, but not vote on the board, pressing the trustees to adopt a longer timeline in making its decision and to provide more details about the possible shape of the ongoing discernment process.

“Justice is never for sale. And justice always operates at a deficit,” Conrad said.

Dennis Stark, the board’s treasurer, said he “enthusiastically” supported the resolution. “We are spending six million a year from our endowment, and 30 percent of that is above a reasonable amount,” Stark said.

The Rev. Frank Fornaro ‘96, interim dean and president of EDS, announced after the vote that he would resign in mid-November. “I totally disagree with this resolution,” he said.

Hall said the board would have the details of its teach-out and faculty compensation plans completed no later than the first day of classes, Sept. 7.


Comments (42)

  1. Joan Murray says:

    I am grieving the end of EDS, as I have known it. My seminary education has had a major, positive impact on my life. My time at EDS was truly transformational and I remain grateful for the experience, for the faculty and staff, and for my fellow students.

    1. Ronald Davin says:

      Is the Church planning to get out of the religious business altogether, and just be a social advocacy group?

  2. Tracy Lawrence says:

    Geez, how about training Episcopal priests and teaching Christian Doctrine and theology? I think the Sixties Progressive Liberal thing has pretty much been done and many advances have been made. Also, I am not sure what how political issue became the central themes of a seminary in the first place. Pushing so much secular politics in Episcopal Churches caused so much division that the denomination is dying.

    1. Karyn Webb says:

      I agree.

    2. George McCully says:

      I totally agree as well. While EDS’s strategy was once worthwhile, it is clear now that it was ephemeral, which is to say superficial. Today’s unconventional strategy would be a return to basics in religion and theology—saving souls, exploring the place of religion in secular culture. Above all, do not slide along with the sad decline of conventional Protestantism into oblivion.

  3. I attended this meeting and was stunned when I first heard the resolution. Discussion among the Board was contentious, some were angry, and others understood the reasons for the decision. It is more than economic; the culture has changed and so has our Church. It is time for transforming our understanding of theological education to meet the challenges of today. EDS and its former institutions have always been leaders for social justice and the ethical issues we face in our society. The School must now transition into an innovative and imaginative place that affirms religious pluralism and serves the church and society with love and spiritual vitality for all people. The shape of our institutional future is filled with hope for new life.

  4. Perhaps justice is best practiced and taught outside of institutional seminaries? We simply can’t continue to support institutions that need the overhead of something like a residential seminary. It’s not good stewardship in this day and age. I mourn the loss of these places – I loved the year I spent living and studying at Seabury-Western. But Jesus doesn’t need brick and mortar seminaries for his gospel, for his justice, or for his mercy – he needs hearts, minds, hands, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The Holy Spirit will see us through, just as She did the apostles in the book of Acts, if we keep following, praying, teaching, and breaking bread together.

  5. The Rev. Ralph Pitman "72 says:

    I share Joan Murray’s grief, as well I echo her appreciation for the transformative experience of her theological education. My time at EDS was challenging, exciting, and sometimes hard, intellectually and spiritually. It was a place where everything was examined and questioned, but always in a spirit of community, fellowship, and prayer. I met many men and women I admire to this day. It was not a trade school for parish ministry, rather it was a place where we learned to think theologically, and bring that theology to bear on the real world. I trust that the legacy will endure and, perhaps, the beloved community that gathered year after year will find a new expression in a changing world.

  6. Duane Crabtree says:

    “establishing a center for Abrahamic studies”

    Jewish and Islamic centers?

    1. Sara Hamlen says:

      Abrahamic….It has already been done and relocated to Boston University School of Theology, from Hebrew College. But it too will run out of money.

      New England is too poor now to support educating anyone in “ministry” expecting a paycheck and benefits. Parishes are shrinking and “secular” sports consume youth’s hours on Sundays. Too many online options elsewhere, and stagnant wages and the erosion of interest rates (Federal Reserve sets rate) have doomed many of our older places.

      The arts and music, if not preaching, will thrive though, as we all “migrate” to new place or get left behind. How can one repay $50K at 6.8 percent on a 20K salary? One cannot.

      I appreciated the architecture and quiet of the EDS Library, before it was sold off, and before Jesuits moved away. I benefited from the BTI exchange and took a terrific class about prayer practices. So I appreciate all the gifts of my “backpack ministry” even if the “brand” disappears.
      ANTS Class of 2008 Spring
      Masters in Theological Research
      Ezekiel Chapter 27 – weep for Tyre…

  7. James L. Bowditch, Ph.D,: Board 1989-99, Director of Development 2000-2003 says:

    I support this decision, having been on the board and the Director of Development. EDS has some uniquenesses raising awareness of the oppression our society inflicts on various minorities. It also provides space to live in community where these awarenesses are reflected upon. If we can support the uniquenesses of this wonderful place, and let other members of the BTI handle the other educational tasks, it would be a good outcome. Perhaps something like the Yale Divinity School/Berkeley Divinity School model adapted to EDS’s strengths.

    1. Art Deco says:

      Minorities are not ‘oppressed’ in this society. They are neglected to a degree. The neglect is manifest in the tolerance the civic leadership has for street crime and school disorder in slum neighborhoods, as well as for tax policies which damage the built environment. Seminary-based social justice warriors are, if anything, injurious to a project of social improvement which requires vigorous law enforcement and school discipline as its salient feature. (Instead, they bleat nonsense about the ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘mass incarceration’).

  8. Donald Heacock says:

    External theological degrees are not recognized in the secular world yet the student debt is. There has to be a les.expensive way to.educate clergy.

    1. James Yazell says:

      Most chaplain positions, including those in secular institutions such as the military and federal prisons, require an MDiv degree.

      1. Sara Hamlen says:

        Yes, but do they also pay for it?

    2. Bob Stephenson says:

      Don, what about facilitating the worker-priest model which you have epitomized? Since knowing you in Shreveport in the 1970’s, I’ve wondered why there weren’t more priests in secular roles. The answer is that our institutions were too heavily invested in training us to do one thing! Even the suggestion of a non-parish based ministry has been met with shock and awe in my experience. Ironically, it’s why campus ministries are the first to be unfounded in stressed diocesan budgets.
      Bob Stephenson
      VTS 1976

  9. Arthur House says:

    I’m sorry to see EDS fail as a stand-alone institution, and I hope there is a meaningful future for it. But I share the concerns of those who believe that the church has transitioned too far in becoming an agent of socio-political advocacy, and that EDS has played a not insignificant role in that transition. We must always, of course, have a positive social conscience, but if we continue to evolve into a politically partisan action group , we will surrender any claim to be part of a universal church. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that things that are God’s.”

  10. susan zimmerman says:

    …the teaching ministry is dying all over our church…the most nourishing…thy kingdom (must) come (of course thy will be done)…

  11. Jeff Kesselman says:

    They can’t run the school at a loss… but they want to give the endowment away in scholarships?

    Tell me that makes ANY sense. There is an unspoken agenda here.

    1. Brad Purdom says:

      Endowing scholarships can be done at a sustainable rate that doesn’t deplete the endowment.

  12. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I agree completely with Tracy Lawrence, Arthur House and others who seem to feel as I do that it is fundamentally the transformation of the Episcopal Church into a left-wing social welfare organization with only minimal interest in saving souls that has caused the difficulties at EDS. Do we all remember Katherine Ragsdale who seven years ago referred to abortion as a “blessing” and whose appointment to the Presidency of EDS “thrilled” the then-Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts? Just as many lifelong Episcopalians have left and continue to leave the church in disgust, so has the pool of potential EDS students presumably shrunk in recent years when they see the school specializing in courses like “Feminist Theories and Theologizing.” EDS has brought upon itself its own financial problems as have so many other Episcopal institutions but none of those responsible seem to care.

  13. The Rev. Gwin Hanahan says:

    One solution for the closing of seminaries is the humbling, yet ultimately practical and joyful move to join forces for the good and important role of residential seminaries that are ecumenical. A residential, ecumenical seminary is a unique and valuable learning community which broadens relationships among future clergy, promotes broader and deeper, more challenging learning and teaching, and mirrors the population. With strong academics as a foundation taught by a slate of broad-minded ecumenical professors tenured in in their academic fields and churches, their seminarians may begin to see themselves and other seminarians less as categorical slogan-shielded Christ-owning soldiers locked into one (“the true one!”) denomination and more as open minded, Christian, Spirit-led, fallible but relationship seekers after God’s truth in Jesus Christ. And in turn these seminary graduates may then see people not as needful of one denomination or another but who need the loving God. Ecumenically educated priests with a substantial varied-in-approach education can see this truism that translates after ordination into the priest’s broad spectrum call with social justice being one of many other partners in every call.

    1. Lawrence Womack says:

      The Rev’d Hanahan speaks my mind and heart. Thank you! While not without a significant sense of grief, I do thoroughly believe that this difficult situation can serve to strengthen our participation in the ever-coming and ever-present reign of God. We are not Episcopalians/Anglicans, first and then followers of Jesus; we are followers of Jesus – first and foremost – that happen to have been called into relationship with the Almighty in and through the Episcopal/Anglican Church! I have no personal connection to EDS, but being formed through the rigorous education and loving debate and relational sharing of Bexley Hall (in it’s Rochester, NY-Colgate-Rochester-Crozier Divinity School iteration) has been a great and wonderful blessing by which I am still reaping benefits. I became a stronger Episcopalian through the work done with some brilliant and committed (some not so “broad-minded”) ecumenical faculty and students. Incidentally, I was not a residential student, but still experienced the richness of the community and came away fully formed in my Episcopal/Anglican identity. While I mourn anytime one of our institutions feels forced to consider a significant change, I am reminded that the Holy Spirit is still at work and that our faith and our church are living, breathing, dynamic organisms. Through the prophecy of Isaiah, could this not be our God (again) asking: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

      1. Selena Smith says:

        Some people identify as Christians first, others identify by a denomination first. I wonder if being challenged to “what we are first” misses the mark? I believe it is a both/and experience of God and Church. I am an Episcopal/Anglican Christian because I came to encounter Jesus Christ through a parish community, and I value that unique spiritual experience. Perhaps EDS as well as the former Seabury-Western gradually lost valuing that, and became blended with other traditions or movements. Both seminaries closing are a great loss in many ways for spiritual formation in training for ministry.

  14. Julie Watt Faqir says:

    As a lay Episcopalian, who has been disappointed by the Church itself in Massachuessetts for a variety of reasons, I find this very very sad.

  15. William R. MacKaye says:

    I find it stunning that a theological school with an endowment of $53 million dollars and a valuable campus neighboring Harvard University can’t figure out how to run a degree-granting program that attracts more than 35 students. The Episcopal Church and other religious bodies have a desperate need for theologically educated members, including clergy paid and unpaid. What have the board and faculty been doing instead of discerning and meeting the needs of the 21st century church?

  16. Fred Garvin says:

    What are the chances that these buildings/real estate will be used for low income/middle income housing, a sore need in Cambridge MA?

  17. Robert B. Hackwell says:

    My late father was a graduate of ETS, as it was known in the 1930s when he attended, and he used that education to follow his calling as an Episcopal priest for over 60 years. He would simply be heartbroken to hear this news; for his family, nothing more need be said.

  18. ArchPriest Gregory Gary E.Roth, STh.D/Ph.D says:

    I agree with Rev Ralph Pitman. I graduated from. ETS, not EDS. I did learn to do theology there, not parish ministry. Although Katie and I became Orthodox Christians 45 years ago we did it because we were attracted to the depth and beauty of that long tradition. I have been an Orthodox priest for 41+ years. And a chaplain in USAF. I am grateful for what ETS/Weston/Harvard gave us—they together transformed our life forever. We were there when they were strong and struggling for identity. They approached this struggle with a theological integrity that is rare and for that I have great respect. I gave up any right to comment on this when we became Orthodox, but that does not diminish my respect for what that community has done.

  19. As a former student at ETS in the seventies, now in my own seventies, I can attest to both the joy and the rigor of this seminary. I will always vividly remember faculty like Rollie Fairbanks, Eugene Goetchius, Jon Westerhoff, Emma Benignus, Gregor Goethals, and many others. It is heartbreaking to see that in 2016 we’re no longer up to the sacrifices required if we are to fully value love and justice as much as our pursuit of wealth and power. In the end, I plan to do all I can to support the EDS mission as it evolves and to help the learned ministry of a great seminary live on in the works its students, faculty, and fellow stewards of the mystery of life in Jesus Christ. +++

  20. Brother Tupper says:

    It is a good thing that Jesus and the early church did not make decisions based on money and prosperity! Maybe the trustees should consult Donald Trump since he is “the only one who can fix it?” The alumni certainly do not agree with the manner in which the trustees went about making this decision.

  21. Brother Tupper, TSSF says:

    It is a good thing that Jesus and the early church did not make decisions based on money and prosperity! Maybe the trustees should consult Donald Trump since he is “the only one who can fix it?” The alumni certainly do not agree with the manner in which the trustees went about making this decision.

  22. Michael Dombos says:

    Once again, another short sighted decision on the part of the Episcopal Church. This situation did not just happen overnight. Why was this not being addressed years ago? Where were the administrators and trustees? If the Episcopal Church has reached this point, maybe we should just dissolve it as opposed to watching it slowly and painfully disappear.

  23. Dr. William A Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

    The church has more community organizers than it has parish priest. It is a sad day when seminaries close especially good seminaries. The church will suffer.

  24. Jeremy Fagan says:

    In the UK, when the CofE had to take similar decisions about closing theological colleges, the one that has been inspirational is Sarum College – sarum.ac.uk. Perhaps this would be an interesting model for ETS to follow?

  25. Sally Sargeant Michael says:

    How sad, how very sad. The teachings of so many EDS voices have formed numerous Episcopalians in important ways. And now, as we are struggling to imagine what “church” will mean in this century, how will it look, and if there is a chance to survive, even to thrive. Seeing ourselves in different models– different cloaks– can be painful. But many of us want to be part of the change which will support the Episcopal Church in leading many faithful forward. Full use of all digital resources with participation and moral investment by present and future church leaders, could build an “online seminary” to prepare non-traditional ministries and ministers to flourish and serve. A strong, multicultural and educated laity and worker priests can form the basis of a new and vibrant way to be church. Other solutions are forming in the hearts of those willing to challenge tradition much as did the early church mothers and fathers who followed the example of Jesus Christ.. EDS need not fade; it simply must create change with guidance and support from our leadership. Let it be unique, and relevant in newer ways. I will worship in storefronts or alongside rivers to help the Church rebuild from within–at least in Cambridge. Who will lead this procession? Time is racing by, and it’s time to invest ourselves in the Church we love.

Comments are closed.