Gordon-Conwell to sell main campus and move to Boston…… | News and reports
After years of declining enrollment, budget shortfalls, and major faculty and staff cuts, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has decided to sell its 102-acre main campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts.
The historic evangelical seminary plans to move to Boston, where many of its students already live, while continuing to operate satellite campuses in Florida and North Carolina and offering online degree programs.
President Scott Sunquist told CT that if this bold move is successful, the seminary will be “on better financial footing than it has been in 30 years.”
The Hamilton campus — a property perched just outside the metropolitan area that was previously owned by Carmelite Catholic monks — has an assessed tax value of around $54 million. Gordon-Conwell should start discussions to change its zoning with Hamilton City Council on Tuesday. If the city agrees to put the property in a superimposed commercial district, the value could increase significantly.
Money from the sale of the property will go to the Gordon-Conwell endowment. This will allow the seminary to rent classrooms and offices in Boston, rehire a few faculty for positions that have not been filled, and remain solvent without significantly increasing enrollment.
“We plan to expand,” Sunquist said. “But we won’t have to grow if we can stay stable.”
Gordon-Conwell’s enrollment has grown from 1,230 full-time equivalent students in 2012 to 633 in 2021, according to data from the Association of Theological Schools. Tax records show that from 2016 to 2019, the school ended each year with an annual deficit of between $600,000 and $2.4 million.
The challenges are not unique to Gordon-Conwell. Many seminaries are facing declining enrollment with declining birth rates and increased secularization in the United States. There are approximately 4 million fewer people in Gen Z than Millennials, and 44% of those born after 1996 do not identify with a religious tradition. Only about a quarter of those under 26 attend a religious service once a week or more.
Evangelical seminaries are also grappling with tensions and divisions within evangelicalism. Gordon-Conwell is one of the greatest in the United States and has produced many notable Christian leaders, including Tim and Kathy Keller, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Esau McCaulley, Diana Butler Bass, and Ben Witherington III.
The school played a major role in defining and shaping evangelicalism in the 20th century, alongside Fuller Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. But the three schools have each struggled to maintain the trust of churches, donors and future seminarians amid polarizing arguments about race, gender, abuse, sexuality and the tough political choices of the 2010s and 2020s. .
Trinity cut spending by nearly $1 million this year, eliminating several faculty positions in the face of a financial crisis. Fuller closed three satellite campuses in 2018 and voted to sell his property in Pasadena, Calif., the following year. The planned move, however, was blocked by a development agreement the school had previously signed with the city.
When Sunquist became President of Gordon-Conwell in 2019, the New England Higher Education Commission informed him that the seminary was “in danger failing to meet the Commission’s standard on institutional resources. Over the next two years, Sunquist cut expenses by about $1.2 million, eliminating some staff and faculty and leaving several faculty positions vacant.
The school also sold student apartments and 20 acres of land to make ends meet. However, these measures did not resolve the underlying issues or place the school in a sustainable position for the future.
“We can’t run an institution like this, continuing to cut to the bone,” Sunquist told CT. “You can’t make your way to success. Either you do something as dramatic and drastic as relocation, or you make incremental cuts and die.
When administrators assessed the school’s finances, maintaining the 102 acres in Hamilton, where the seminary had been located since its inception in 1969, proved a significant cost.
The location also did not seem to serve seminarians as well as it once did. Currently, 60% of students on the Hamilton campus go to school. Many choose to live in Boston. Gordon-Conwell also began offering fully online degree programs in 2017 and has seen more seminarians graduate without ever setting foot in Hamilton.
The campus was also the school’s main financial asset, at least on paper. But seminary leaders feared the asset would become a liability and “would just suck the money out of us,” Sunquist said.
The administration considered moving to Charlotte, North Carolina. Ultimately, however, it was decided that Gordon-Conwell did not want to lose his deep ties and commitments to New England. The school moved to Boston, where it could build on and further develop ties with various churches and more easily attract students from the metropolitan area.
According to Sunquist, they have not set a specific location in the city, but believe they can rent offices accessible by six to eight subway lines. The campus of the School for Urban Ministerial Education, which offers evening and weekend classes, is located in Roxbury.
The two founding institutions, the Boston Missionary Training Institute and the Conwell School of Theology in Philadelphia, both began in urban Baptist churches. Sunquist is promoting the move to Boston as a return to seminary roots.
“We are looking at our heritage and our sense of calling,” he said. “Our core DNA has always been diverse and urban. We have this model integrated and brought together and we want to bring education to where the people are.
Hamilton won’t vote on the school’s rezoning until the fall at the earliest. The transition is expected to take several years. A move plan will be presented to the Gordon-Conwell board in October.
Claude Alexander, a North Carolina pastor and chairman of the Gordon-Conwell board, said dramatic changes shouldn’t be unexpected, even as the seminary remains committed to its mission. (Alexander is also Chairman of the Board of Christianity Today.)
“The history of the church reminds us of the permanence of mission and the transience of modality,” he said. “The seminar too. Our mission is permanent. Our modality can and must change.