By Mike Clingenpeel
Although I am currently a member of the BTSR board of trustees, representing the Baptist General Association of Virginia, I have known the seminary even longer as an observer—first as editor of the Religious Herald, the newsjournal of Virginia Baptists, and then as pastor of River Road Church, Baptist.
Last month’s decision by trustees to close Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond came as a shock to many alumni and friends of the school. However, it did not surprise me nor, I suspect, did it surprise a fair number of people who are close observers of the trajectory of theological education over the past four decades.
I can think of five factors that contributed to BTSR’s demise:
1. The deregulation of seminary education among Baptists in the South
Along with most of my peers, I entered a seminary system almost half a century ago that was regulated by its parent denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC sponsored six seminaries for its almost 35,000 churches. They made certain that the seminaries were widely separated from North Carolina to California, were supplied with adequate funds to thrive and did not kill each other off by competition. A degree from one of these seminaries was a union card for ministers who wanted to serve in Southern Baptist churches.
When the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, completed by 1990, left moderate Baptists scrambling for a place to educate their future ministers, Baptist seminary education suddenly faced a vacuum. BTSR was the first entrant into that educational void. But on its heels came 14 other fledgling schools, including a second seminary in Virginia and four south of our border in North Carolina. Moderate Baptists numbered about 1,800 churches, not 35,000. Wary of the top-down denominational system from which they just escaped, moderates had neither the authority nor stomach for capping the number of regional theological schools that were beginning.
Any deregulation is followed by numerous startups, and it is inevitable that some of the startups will not survive. BTSR is the first to go, but it will not be the last.
Higher education in general is a competitive arena. Schools vie to fill their quota for students, and development offices troll their alumni and friends for gifts to build buildings, endow professorships and offer scholarships.
Moderate Baptists offer a finite pool of potential students and financial supporters. Demographics suggest this pool is shrinking. State conventions and local associations continue to take actions to cut moderate Baptists away from the herd, and moderate Baptists suffer occasional self-inflicted wounds.
One of the obvious answers to the competition among moderate Baptist seminaries is consolidation, but Baptist seminaries are no more eager to merge or disband than Baptist churches are.
3. Insufficient funding at the outset
In 1987 Virginia Baptists formed a committee to investigate whether to start a seminary or divinity school in Virginia. I chaired that committee. We concluded that a need existed for an alternative to the Southern Baptist seminary system that was being eroded by fundamentalism.
We also concluded that the best opportunity for success was to begin the school at the University of Richmond which, at the time, still had a fiduciary relationship with Virginia Baptists. The president at UR was gracious to hear our appeal. He told us that the university’s focus was on undergraduate education, and it had no plans to start a divinity school. “But,” he added, “if you can bring us $40 million, we will consider it.”
He knew the level of start-up funding necessary to ensure a seminary’s future. BTSR was brave and visionary to begin, but it was inadequately funded from the start. Its reach always exceeded the customary metrics needed for long-term survival.
4. Free-standing instead of related to a college or university
All the other moderate Baptist seminaries or divinity schools founded in the aftermath of the SBC fundamentalist takeover operate under the umbrella of, or alongside, an existing congregation, college, university or seminary. They have a parent.
As a free-standing institution, BTSR was in effect an orphan from birth. This has been a blessing in that it has given BTSR freedom and independence not all other schools enjoy. But it also meant BTSR had to stretch its meager resources to share a campus and acquire property.
5. Trends in American theological education
According to statistics from the Association of Theological Schools, seminary education among Protestant denominations is facing a challenge. The number of students enrolled in schools is declining. For several decades the Master of Divinity degree has been the gold standard for students preparing for congregational ministry, but the number of students seeking this degree is shrinking.
Moreover, the seminary student profile is changing. Students tend to be older, more often coming to ministry as a second career or alternative career. They come to seminary for diploma or certificate programs, not advanced theological degrees. Or they do not come to seminary at all, but seek their seminary education online.
These rapid changes in the shape and structure of seminary education are reshaping the face of theological education in the 21st century.
Each of these five factors contributed to the regrettable decision of trustees to end classes at BTSR in 2019.
When an institution shutters operations, it is inevitable that people look for someone to blame. Who messed up? What decisions were the shot below the water line that sank the ship? It is easy to blame trustees, administrators, alumni, professors or students for the demise of BTSR.
It is also a misunderstanding of reality. The reality is that BTSR was birthed during a painful moment in our Baptist experience. It was a bold, courageous answer to a genuine need for theological education that combined authentic piety and rigorous scholarship, that prepared women and men for practical ministries, created a community of learners and made all this accessible for Virginia Baptists. And the fact that BTSR ultimately could not overcome all the factors that threated its existence from the start is no reason not to celebrate its nearly three decades of fruitfulness in God’s Kingdom.
Read more: FAQs About BTSR Closing