Louis B. Weeks: How to start a new seminary campus
A Christian leader reflects on what it took to create a satellite seminary campus in Charlotte, N.C.: planning, strategy – and prayer.
During my tenure as president of what is now Union Presbyterian Seminary, we undertook two major projects. One consolidated two separate theological institutions; the other expanded our presence to another campus and another state.
Both endeavors originated with the trustees, who named these challenges in 1994, soon after I took office as president.
Our top priority was a merger with the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. The other came as a challenge from the trustees from North Carolina, who wanted an active academic presence of Union Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.
So for the next three years -- as we negotiated the merger -- members of the administration and the board, and interested Presbyterian leaders in North Carolina, prayed together and studied the possibilities of a Charlotte campus.
Many lessons learned from the merging of Union and PSCE were applicable as we began the new campus and programs, especially the importance of prayer and worship together, the dependence on teamwork, and keeping simple lines of authority.
This Charlotte campus of Union has now graduated 96 pastors and educators who serve congregations throughout the world, but especially in the Carolinas. The Charlotte campus today flourishes with a student body of more than 70 and a faculty of seven -- newly located in a 22,000-square-foot building accompanying the Sharon Presbyterian Church.
I hope the lessons we learned in the process of establishing this institution will help others who may be considering such a move.
When we began, we knew there were more African-American Presbyterians in Charlotte Presbytery than in any other presbytery in the country. But we gathered more information that bolstered the case for a Charlotte campus. We learned that more Presbyterians lived within 100 miles of Charlotte than within 100 miles of six cities with Presbyterian seminaries: Richmond, Dubuque, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.
We also learned that many pastors and elders in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas had begun relying on non-Presbyterian seminaries already in Charlotte. And we discovered that these and other pastors cared enough to support theological education, especially African-American Presbyterians. According to our research, no other Presbyterian seminary was willing to begin programs of study in Charlotte.
As soon as we created a steering committee, some problems arose. We thought at first we’d offer one year of coursework in Charlotte, and that students would complete their degrees in Richmond. But we discovered most of the committee and most of the prospects wanted a complete-degree campus in Charlotte instead.
Our study of other seminaries’ satellite campuses sobered us. One was closing in Florida. Another seemed fragile in California. Faculty members at home campuses complained about being stretched by commuting. Longtime supporters worried about taking assets from the home campus.
As word of our planning spread, some African-American Presbyterian leaders criticized a program of studies that would compete with Johnson C. Smith Seminary, which had moved from Charlotte to become an important part of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
During the four years of exploring the idea, we worked to address a number of concerns.
The committee, which included several African-American leaders from Charlotte and elsewhere, requested that our program include at least 25 percent African Americans among faculty, and we met that challenge. We promised Richmond faculty members they would not have to teach in Charlotte. We promised loyal donors we would find new money to support the new campus.
We constructed a business plan with a realistic course of study to complete the M.Div in about six years, the M.A. in about three. The plan outlined a budget and the division of labor among faculty and administrators in Charlotte and Richmond. The plan also offered an exit strategy should our efforts meet with failure.
The partnerships began with our committee inviting the five presbyteries to make commitments of prayer, money and energy in recruiting students. We then invited congregations large and small to make commitments, and we invited individuals into partnership as well, seeking six-year commitments from everyone.
Despite the economic constrictions of 2000-2002, we received pledges permitting us to proceed. Meanwhile Charlotte leaders led a companion effort to endow the four professorships. Queens University in Charlotte graciously became a partner, renting us space and permitting free use of some other facilities.
In short order, we had the faculty we desired, and excellent students came courageously to the new institution. Our team included the Rev. Dr. Thomas Currie as dean of Union-PSCE at Charlotte, a theologian and teacher with more than 20 years of pastoral experience. Richard Boyce and Rodney Sadler, both in Bible, had good pastoral experience as well as impeccable academic credentials. And Pamela Mitchell-Legg, a veteran member of the Richmond faculty in Christian education, volunteered to move to Charlotte and teach there.
In April of 2002, the Association of Theological Schools gave permission for the institution to offer full degree programs at the new campus. This accreditation was affirmed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Thus we completed years of learning, planning, discussing, exploring, deciding and entering into partnerships with several institutions. In addition to the lessons we applied from the merger process, we benefited enormously from new insights:
- Plan carefully for contingencies. Our plans included alternative campus locations, arrangements for library support and faculty appointments.
- Find ways to engage churches in supporting the seminary. We carefully rehearsed our presentations for church councils and individuals, describing the historic involvement of each and the benefits each would derive from giving support.
- Remain flexible while maintaining stringent standards for students and programs. We did not anticipate the numbers of transfers and the varied circumstances of the talented students.
- Never forget the importance of prayer and worship together.