- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

A New York City theological seminary that has been a liberal flagship for mainline Protestantism hopes to transform itself before a mounting "financial crisis" sinks its future.
Union Theological Seminary, once with filled coffers and a hub of Christian activity on Manhattan's Upper West Side, now is appealing to alumni to reverse an annual $2.75 million deficit, which is chipping away at a $65 million endowment.
"The alumni response has been heartwarming," the Rev. Joseph Hough, Union president, said of $28 millon donated in the past three years. "But ultimately we're going into a campaign mode."
The board of trustees decided last week that the school, founded in 1836 as a more liberal, nondenominational seminary, will focus its resources and marketing on its master's of divinity program, the basic training for parish clergy.
Mr. Hough said the funding crisis won't be met by raising tuition, since clergy end up working for lower salaries than other professions. "So we're going to try to increase the endowment, increase giving and cut expenses," he said.
Already the school has cut back some services and staff as the endowment was hit by the recent stock market plunge, and events such as September 11 have drawn charitable giving in New York City to other causes.
The school, built in 1910 in gothic stone with stained-glass windows, shares a neighborhood along the Hudson River with Riverside Church, the Interchurch Center, Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University.
Over the years, it has been the home of such famous modernist Christian thinkers as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, more recently, black liberation theologian James Cone.
To enhance its program as part of a hoped-for financial turnaround, the school will focus on training Christian clergy with a "new Christian theology of religion" that appreciates other faiths, works to combat poverty and relates "spirituality to responsibility for the Earth," or environmentalism.
But Mr. Hough, a former Southern Baptist minister trained at Yale Divinity School and now in the United Church of Christ, said Union will not experiment with conservative evangelical approaches.
"It's not likely that Union's going to go more conservative," he said. "For better or worse, Union has been the beacon of progressive Christianity. There are plenty of conservative schools already."
Union has 24 professors and enrolls 324 students. About a third of the students seek a master's of divinity degree and another third are earning doctorates a high rate for a seminary.
After Mr. Hough arrived three years ago, the school began to alert alumni of the financial slide. Last September the executive committee "took action to declare the Seminary in a state of financial emergency."
Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), said Union's problem matches that of many older schools a high cost of maintaining old buildings and stock market hits on endowments. Union has about $50 million in repairs, only half of which have been paid for.
"The older schools rely heavily on endowments, whereas schools opened after World War II have newer facilities and operate more on tuition," he said of the ATS membership of about 240 schools.
What is more, Union has no particular denominational support. "It is part of the Protestant mainline, and that raises the issue of constituency," Mr. Aleshire said. "The growth is now among the Catholic and evangelical traditions."
Still, he said, "A theological school is very hard to close."

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