Written by Will C. Matthews
Move to nearby college planned
The Board of Trustees at Maine's Bangor Theological Seminary, one of seven UCC-related seminaries, voted in May to shutter its 10-acre downtown campus and move to nearby Husson College.
Declining enrollment and resulting financial problems prompted the move, which had been under consideration for at least several months. The move was approved by Husson's Board of Trustees in late May.
"The frustration in this is simple," said the Rev. William Imes, Bangor's president. "We are giving up a place that that has been hallowed by all of the wonderful experiences that people have had here over the years. A lot of our alums look at seminary as being a transformative experience and they worry about whether you can still be the same school if it is not located in the same place."
Plans call for Bangor to occupy one of Husson's buildings for the next two years, and then construct a building of its own on Husson's campus in three years.
The 190-year-old Bangor was founded in 1814 as the Maine Charity School and was originally located on the campus of Hampden Academy in Hampden. The school moved to its present location on the edge of Bangor's business district in 1819.
Home to more than 100 students who went to school full-time and lived on Bangor's campus 15 years ago, there are now just 20 such students, Imes said, with the other 130 seminarians there being commuters - many of them part-time.
"I am very thankful for those 20," Imes said. "But I can't run a campus that was built primarily for residents for what basically is a commuter population."
The struggles Bangor is facing are certainly not unique. Nationally, the average age of seminarians is 37, while the average age of Bangor students is 47, Imes said. Increasing numbers of seminarians across the country are second- and even third-career students.
"That means, by and large, that you already have commitments to your family, your partner, your job, your children or even aged parents can be an issue," Imes said. "So people need to be able to commute to seminary rather than relocate to seminary."
But as Bangor works to adapt to its altered realities, Imes said he sees a lot of promise and potential in the changing face of the school.
While Imes said there is a lot of value in preparing second- and third-career students for the ministry, the long-term health of the church depends on an infusion of younger ministerial candidates. Partnering with Husson College will allow Bangor to try and attract a younger student pool.
"My dream in all of this is not only will we address the cost factors in trying to run a full-time school for a part-time population, but that we can also relate to a younger student population," Imes said.
Husson is also considering launching a doctoral program in leadership, something Imes said could benefit Bangor students.
"That is a program that is ethics and values centered. That would be excellent for us," Imes said. "Maybe we could teach some of that and maybe our students could pick up some of that which they wouldn't otherwise pick up in seminary."
Perhaps most importantly, the relocating to Husson rather than simply merging with another seminary - another option that was considered - will allow Bangor to continue to do what it does best.
"This offers us the best chance of continuing to be a school of Northern New England, heavily focused on the Maine and New Hampshire areas," Imes said. "We can stay with that historic small-church and small-town focus. We think that is our particular gift."