Boston-area seminary, a leading training program for Unitarian Universalist clergy, hopes pared-down program and sale of campus will cut down on student debt.
Wilson Chapel is part of the hilltop campus of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. The graduate school plans to sell its campus. (Courtesy Andover Newton Theological School)
In November, administrators at Andover Newton Theological School announced plans to sell the school’s historic campus in Newton, Massachusetts, slash the size of its faculty and student body, and radically overhaul its academic programs.
The move didn’t come as a surprise to Debra Guthrie, a third-year Master of Divinity student at Andover Newton and a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ordination. But it was still heartbreaking.
“It’s a beautiful campus, and it’s been my home for three and a half years. I just love it here, and I love all the people, the staff, and the faculty,” Guthrie said. “I guess, in the back of my mind, I thought it would always be here in some form for me to come back to, sort of like a home.”
Any changes at Andover Newton are sure to ripple through UU congregations. The school is one of the largest training centers for Unitarian Universalist ministers. In the past decade, it has produced nearly 15 percent of recently or soon-to-be ordained UU clergy, according to statistics provided by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The school has a long history of moves, mergers, and splits. Founded in 1807 in the midst of a schism between the liberal “Unitarian” and orthodox “Congregational” churches in Massachusetts, Andover Theological Seminary took its current form in 1965, when it merged with Newton Theological Institution. At various points in its history, it has shared campuses with Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard Divinity School. It nearly merged with two other predominantly Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist institutions—Harvard Divinity School in the early 1900s and Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2010.
The current changes come in response to decades of declining enrollment and falling revenue that have left the school’s campus four times too large for the current student body, according to the Rev. James Sherblom, chair of Andover Newton’s board of directors and senior minister of First Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts. Those problems mirror what many congregations have faced in recent years, and Sherblom expects more theological schools and churches to downsize moving forward.
“We're going to see this not only in theological schools but in a lot of churches,” Sherblom said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the congregations were growing across the board, and so people built a lot of infrastructure up. It turns out that by deferring maintenance, you can live for a long time without replacing infrastructure. But the buildings don’t last forever.”
School administrators tried to hold onto its large, historic campus by making incremental changes, according to Andover Newton’s president, the Rev. Martin Copenhaver. Eventually, he said, they realized those changes were not enough.
“What somebody said to me when we were looking at some of our options is that the biggest danger was to not be bold enough,” Copenhaver told UU World. “We've tried to avoid that by seizing this opportunity to strike out in a bold new direction.”
Administrators announced the changes to students and alumni during a series of meetings in late November and early December. They also sent a letter to alumni, donors, and trustees that laid out the school’s options moving forward.
Andover Newton stopped admitting new students to its Master of Divinity program this fall. Current students will have an opportunity to complete their degrees by May 2018, according to Sherblom. After that, the school plans either to move to a non-residential, cooperative model on a much smaller campus or to embed in a larger institution.
If the school remains independent, it will move to smaller, more flexible facilities and refocus on training ministers for Christian and UU ministry, the letter said. The cooperative model would focus on the Master of Divinity program. Much of the training would shift from the classroom to congregations and other field education placements. The letter did not directly address the fate of Andover Newton’s Master of Arts and Doctor of Ministry programs.
A cooperative model would require the school to slash the number of faculty and students by about half, according to Sherblom. Even then, administrators expressed skepticism that the cooperative model can solve Andover Newton’s long-term problems. “[I]t is not yet clear that this model would bring us to financial sustainability,” they wrote.
The cooperative model would also still require students to take on large amounts of debt, according to Sherblom. That’s something Andover Newton administrators hope to move away from by merging with a larger institution, he said, freeing up the school’s endowment for student scholarships.
Andover Newton is currently in a “preliminary conversation” with Yale Divinity School, in New Haven, Connecticut, about a partnership, according to the letter sent to alumni.
“If we can make that work well between ourselves and Yale Divinity School, our goal, over a couple of years, is that people won't take on any additional debt to prepare for ministry,” Sherblom explained.
“That's the way it used to be up until the 1970s in America,” he continued. “The reason ministers could serve congregations at the kinds of salaries congregations could afford is that they didn't come with a lot of extra debt.”
Any merger would give Andover Newton some degree of independence and allow it to maintain a separate identity while embedding it within a much larger institution, the letter said. An Episcopal seminary, Berkeley Divinity School, has had a similar school-within-a-school arrangement with Yale Divinity School for decades.
Whatever decision the school ultimately makes will likely affect the training future generations of Unitarian Universalist ministers receive. Andover Newton provided the denomination with sixty-eight ministers between 2006 and 2015, placing it in the top three, according to data provided by the UUA. Only Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, train more UU ministers, with Harvard Divinity School coming in fourth.
Andover Newton’s other ministry students primarily come from the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA.
The UUA doesn’t anticipate any significant impact on students currently studying for UU ministry at Andover Newton, according to the Rev. David Pettee, UUA ministerial credentialing director. Nor is the school planning to reduce the number of UU seminarians it trains moving forward. “We will have the capacity and the desire to train about as many full-time equivalent UU ministers as we historically have done,” Sherblom said.
Still, some wonder whether ministerial formation will suffer in a non-residential program.
The Rev. Seth Carrier-Ladd graduated from Andover Newton in 2011. He now serves the Unitarian Universalist Church of Muncie, Indiana. While his classes were invaluable, Carrier-Ladd said, it was meals with classmates and late-night conversations about theology in the residence hall that really formed him as a minister. That’s an experience he worries future generations of Andover Newton graduates will suffer for missing.
“I can't picture how it does the same thing in the same depth,” Carrier-Ladd said of the non-residential program Andover Newton is considering. “I can see how it might do some of the important things. Maybe it will work just fine. For the sake of the future of our churches and ministry, I sure hope it does. But I worry.”
Casey Guet, a third-year Master of Divinity student at Andover Newton, is more optimistic. While Guet is saddened to see Andover Newton give up its current campus, she said it’s more important for the school to continue training ministers in liberal religious traditions.
Andover Newton’s long history of changes and transformations also gives Guet hope about the school’s future, she said.
“Over the last 200 years, every 50 to 60 years there's been some change or move. It's not as if we've been on this campus for 200 years and have always been the same,” Guet laughed. “It's kind of always been dying and resurrecting, in a very Christian way.”
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Joshua Eaton is an investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
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