A 200-year-old Episcopal seminary in Virginia has thrown a financial lifeline to a struggling Episcopalian school in New York City — in part to head off a looming, critical shortage of clergy in the denomination.
Over the next five years, Alexandria’s Virginia Theological Seminary will support the master of divinity program at New York’s General Theological Seminary while the latter school undergoes renovation and a refocus to serve its community better, the Most Rev. Ian Markham, president of both schools, said in an interview.
The denomination is facing serious headwinds, both in the pews and behind the pulpit. In 2021, membership stood at 1.52 million, a drop of 20% over the previous 10 years, and 42% from the 3.5 million Americans who self-identified as Episcopalians in 2001.
The membership decline has led to some church closings and consolidations, but clergy is still needed. Mr. Markham said the church is “retiring 400 Episcopal clergy a year and only ordaining 200. We do have a shortage of clergy. And this [arrangement] will help us fill that gap.”
Although six years older than VTS, General Theological Seminary had not fared as well financially in recent years. Its physical plant declined while deficits rose, reaching more than $2 million annually.
GTS, whose campus is in Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood, cited stock market downturns that presumably affected its endowment, a drop in revenue, increased staffing costs, and necessary repairs as contributors to the deficit.
The schools are two of the nine Episcopal Church seminaries listed on the church headquarters’ website.
“Virginia Theological Seminary was very well managed and attracted significant support, especially in the form of legacy gifts, throughout the 20th century,” Mr. Markham said. “We do have the resources to deliver a residential program, which is very expensive. … General never had that sort of support and got to a point, acutely over the last two years, where its options were very, very limited, including closure,” he said.
Mr. Markham said the New York school had decided to cut its residential program — where students live full-time on the campus — and instead embrace a “hybrid distributed learning program,” featuring brief “residencies” for students.
GTS will also reduce its faculty from eight to four positions, and faculty will no longer reside on campus after the school’s 2023 fiscal year ends, the school said in a news release.
An affiliation agreement between the two schools, which also share chief financial and chief academic officers, “enables us to bring together shared services, where one institution can help the other. That enables the operation to be more efficient, which in turn enables the operation to survive and thrive,” Mr. Markham said.
Each school remains separately incorporated as its own nonprofit organization and each is separately accredited to offer degrees. Mr. Markham emphasized the hybrid program “still resides at GTS” and said neither school is sending a “formal subsidy” to the other.
He compared the linkage of the two schools to the University of California system, where there are separate campuses but also “a sort of collaboration around certain services that are available to the entire system.”
Mr. Markham said GTS could decide on having a different president, adding that he’s told the board of his intention to retire in 2028, “so I’ve got five years in this journey.”
He said it was important to keep a presence in New York City “because Manhattan [and] urban, coastal America is where secularization has taken hold to the greatest extent. So we’ve got to find ways to address this mission field and connect to people who often talk about spirituality but never about religion. [They] thought about an awareness of social justice issues or God, but never about churches, so that the dots will start connecting.”
Correction: This article has been updated to note the location of the hybrid Master of Divinity program and to note neither school is formally subsidizing the other’s work.