State of the Seminary


May 10, 2018

Molly T. Marshall, Ph.D., President

“ . . . and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Give to everyone who begs from you,

and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

(Matthew 5: 41b-42)



“Walk the Mile, Bear the Load”: A Call to Shared Governance


It was common in Jesus’ day that Romans would ask citizens of the occupation to serve as porters for the soldiers.  [The same thing happens today in Myanmar.]  Because they could get away with it, these members of the occupying force compelled ordinary folk to carry their heavy packs and instruments of war. Jesus instructs his followers that if compelled to go a mile, they should go two. To go a second mile would relieve another from the burden. One did it freely, as if to say, you cannot compel good will.  I will do this of my own volition.

You came to this board out of a love for the church; out of your concern for the future of ministry; out of a family legacy that has cared for Central; out of your own appreciation for the formation you received here; perhaps, out of my pestering you. You as a board have been forward-looking and prudent. You have supported me and the leadership team I have assembled.  We have traveled a journey fraught with challenge and joy.

Today, I offer a retrospective and prospective State of the Seminary, and I want to sound a note of urgency. When the board (Helen Moore-Montgomery, Linda Roos and Janie Fickle were members) called me to be president in November 2004, we were on life-support, not too sure if we would make it into a recovery room. We were wondering if we should give the seminary a Christian burial. When we did a governance survey in the spring of 2005, 63% of our board said that they did not think we could make it. Thanks be to God we have moved from rescue to reconfiguring identity for mission, and now to sustainability, a third epoch on my watch. [I did not want to use rescue and recovery in their usual catastrophic sense—rescue means someone is still alive; recovery means a dead body is floating.]

So much has changed since we began this journey together.  We moved a campus; we re-worked our curriculum; we learned a new form of delivery, first in multiple sites, now in technologically enhanced classroom experience; we fitted this campus for 21stcentury learning; we added a Korean Studies program, which is a shining example of being engaged with new communities; we are the go-to seminary in Myanmar for theological collaboration at the doctoral level; we are increasingly engaged with the Burma diaspora in the US; we have developed a stellar DMin program with multiple tracks; we have a Women’s Leadership Initiative; we have an Urban Missional Institute; and this weekend we will launch the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence.  Whew! We have all been busy!

That was retrospective. And God has been faithful, and so have you and the vital donors who sustain us. It is time to assess what the future holds for us.

These are not easy days for those called as congregational leaders.  Here are the current trends:

  1. Decline in church membership and attendance
  2. Increase in average age of congregations compared to general population
  3. Inability to plant many truly successful new churches; unwillingness to close failing churches
  4. Failure to attract enough young, diverse, and high-quality clergy

While I have long spoken and written about the seminary as a source of renewal for churches, I wonder if that is strong enough language.  I think theological education might actually save the church, if I may be so bold.  It just may not be in its present form.

A fellow president has described seminaries as “innovative disrupters.”  A theological school is a place for incubating new ideas and practices, which may seem impractical now but are keys to the future.  A seminary grounds its very identity in the Spirit who is always moving ahead of us, overcoming barriers and kindling imagination.

What disruptions can the seminary offer the church?  Seminaries are learning how to use the power of technology to build communities of learning and practice.  Seminaries are learning the importance of educating laypersons who will make their profession their conduit of ministry. Seminaries that practice theological hospitality, welcoming diverse constituencies will flourish.

As to the four trends,

I believe that God has given Central a unique mission in these days. We are the largest ABC seminary; we are the largest CBF seminary at nearly 500 (Truett Seminary at Baylor has 400, which gives me a little unseemly pride!)  We have a growing presence in a genuinely multi-cultural ethos.  We are seeking to address key issues that challenge the church in our time, acutely aware of the marginalization many faith communities are experiencing.

All of this requires that we practice shared governance at the highest level. Shared governance means that faculty continue to steward the curriculum, the instruction, and have voice in policy and governance.  It means that you trust the leadership team to implement the policy you set—“hands off, but noses in” as board gurus put it.  It also means that the board has a fiduciary responsibility for the fiscal soundness of the institution.

Today the Finance Committee will take a hard look at the budget.  As our mission has grown, so has our budget.  We are looking at a gap. Some friends of the seminary have changed their approach to funding; some are tapped out as requests have multiplied.  One donor said: “I need to let my money rest a bit.” We have significant grants on the horizon—Luce and Lilly—but no guarantee, although I am hopeful given our prior performance.

You will hear of the progress of the Sustainability campaign, yet much of the money will come in the form of estates in the future, which does little to alter our reserve ratio now.  The reserve ratio is how many months we could keep the doors open if no more money came in. We have about 3 months, so there is urgency to maintain/grow tuition revenue and expand our fund development.  This is not only for fiscal soundness, but to keep faith with external reviewers such as accrediting bodies and bankers.

A constant on my desk over these years as president is a little Latin phrase: Succisa Virescit, which means “Pruned, it grows again.”  We have been involved in a very intentional process of examining every area of the budget projection, and some pruning is taking place—and more will come.  Remember that in 2005-2006 we had a 3.4 million dollar budget; we now have approximately a 4 million dollar budget and 500% more mission.

Yet, we do not want to pursue our mission on the backs of students. While we are generous in our tuition discounting, we cannot allow educational debt to preclude a life in ministry.  The covenant between seminary and church has frayed; it is important to call churches to invest in scholarships for the sake of their future leadership. It is also essential that they cultivate a culture of calling.

I recently read of a program that the Anglican Church is pursuing.  Parish churches are committing to sponsor a student for a year of ministry discernment.  By shadowing the minister and learning the art of pastoral work, some have sensed their calling.  I will be exploring this concept with key churches to see if we might pilot such a program.

In the next couple of years, this board will need to do its best horizonal work! Not only will fiduciary, strategic, and generative roles be in the forefront, you will prepare for new presidential leadership.  The most important work of the board is to call and evaluate the president.

Board leadership will call you to go the second mile and bear the load. You will be asked to sustain your giving, to model for other stakeholders your own faithfulness and investment in the mission.  I will depend upon you to help find others who will care about this treasure. We must resolve our financial fragility or we will have no mission.

All of this is holy work—worthy of our energy and commitment. So, dear sisters and brothers, walk the mile and bear the load for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world.


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