Andover Newton blazes new trail in theological education

Andover Newton’s Dabney Hall.
Andover Newton’s Dabney Hall.

Responding to seismic shifts in the church and theological education, UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., has embarked on a journey of bold change.

In a letter sent yesterday (Nov. 12) to students, faculty and alumni by the school’s president, dean of faculty, and board chair, the 208-year-old school announced that in order to ensure its work and mission continue to thrive, the seminary is exploring narrowing its course offerings and relocating. It also could potentially partner with Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.

“Like most independent theological schools, enrollment at Andover Newton has been in steady decline for more than 10 years due to a contracting applicant pool,” the letter reads. Additionally, the “large campus we occupy today was built to meet the needs of another era” and “is not financially sustainable.” The letter also noted that student debt has soared to the point “where leaders at Andover Newton worry that graduates will be unable to enter ministry due to their financial obligations.”

An equally important factor, according to seminary officials, is the change in the needs of congregations and the broader culture “that require new approaches to theological education,” an idea not new to Andover Newton. Founded as an innovator, the school was the first seminary in the United States, formalizing graduate theological study for clergy, with a resident student body and faculty –– a model still used by most seminaries today.

“Being bold in response to the needs of the students is nothing new for Andover Newton,” said the Rev. Martin Copenhaver, president of Andover Newton. “It has been helpful to us [during this process] to remember that.”

Overlooking the quad at Andover Newton.
Overlooking the quad at Andover Newton.

The most immediate change may be an affiliation agreement with Yale Divinity School that would allow Andover Newton to retain some of its independence as “a school within a school.”

“We are in negotiations with Yale,” said Copenhaver. “There are hugely complex legal, financial and educational issues involved. The decision will ultimately be made by our Board of Trustees and the Corporation of Yale University.”

“The leadership of Andover Newton and its Board see the ways this potential affiliation could ensure that our core mission continues on as it has,” said Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, Andover Newton trustee and president and CEO of the YWCA Boston. “We will build on the incredible work done by Andover Newton faculty, staff, and students by joining forces with a world-class institution like Yale Divinity School.”

The decision to sell the campus, relocate, and form new partnerships for the theological education of the students came after a year-long strategic planning process that included input from various Andover Newton constituencies.

“After that concluded, the Trustees took a step back and realized that [the planning process] wasn’t bold enough –– it assumed we could fulfill our mission with enhancements and modifications,” said Copenhaver. “So they asked the administration to be bolder –– to put everything on the table –– in order to find ways to fulfill our mission and become financially stable.”

In addition to possibly becoming embedded in another institution of higher learning, a second option being explored includes offering fewer programs to fewer students while focusing on a cooperative M.Div. program with other ministry settings. Such experiential learning is a focus in many settings of higher education, and is also a logical extension for Andover Newton in its role as a leader in the field education of clergy, Copenhaver said.

Within this model, the ministry setting or local congregation would be co-equal partners with the seminary. A two-year-old pilot program with Hancock UCC in Lexington, Mass., has yielded encouraging results, said Copenhaver, but the task of finding a large number of active partner ministry settings from various traditions, and supporting them, calls into question how quickly such an expanded program could be put in place. Exploration of this model probably will not happen until after an affiliation agreement with another learning institution is in place, he said.

Rev. Martin Copenhaver
Rev. Martin Copenhaver, president of Andover Newton Theological School.

Regardless of the scenario, “Andover Newton will remain a seminary of the United Church of Christ,” Copenhaver emphasized. Although a move could happen as early as the next academic year, there will be “an additional two-year ‘teach out,'” said Copenhaver, “where students currently enrolled can finish out their degrees in the Boston area.” Additional assistance in partnership with other schools will be available for students who cannot finish in the two years.

“I am proud of President Copenhaver’s bold and courageous leadership,” said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “In a time when we all recognize that what has fed the church and its mission no longer produces results consistent with our vision and objectives, too many leaders opt for easy choices and paths of least resistance. President Copenhaver has positioned Andover Newton to lead the way in innovative thinking while honoring missional intent. I commend him and the Board for their foresight, action and decisiveness.”

Reaction from the student body has been understandably emotional, yet thoughtful, said Copenhaver. “The students love the school as it is, but want to see it survive and thrive,” he said. “I’ve been impressed and touched by the students, who’ve been very remarkable in their understanding.”

It is an understanding shared by many. “Even after having known that Andover Newton was heading in this direction for several weeks now, once I saw the news was public, I shed more than a few tears, because it is profoundly sad to know that we will be saying goodbye to a place, a beloved hill, and hallowed and historic buildings that have served and blessed so many, so well, for many generations,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC national officer and Andover Newton trustee. “But I believe that this decision is precisely the right one because it is an honest, courageous, faithful and forward-thinking move to preserve a cherished institution of ministerial formation, its progressive ethos and its resources, for a new day and a new way of serving the emerging church.”

“In this post-modern world, new approaches to theological education must be tried,” added Copenhaver. “I don’t think that in the future, there will be just one way. We need to try out and evaluate various new approaches to find out which ones are most effective and can thrive.”

Regardless of what lies ahead, seminary leaders said they are intent on continuing Andover Newton’s mission –– educating “inspiring leaders for the 21st century” by being “deeply rooted in Christian faith, and radically open to what God is doing now.”

“The idea of a free-standing theological school –– a marvelous innovation in 1807 –– is a thing of the past,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church UCC in Boston. “Today, only the nimble will survive. The church and its institutions are faced with a similar dilemma to Darwin’s famous finches: adjust and adapt to the reality of a changing environment, or go the way of the Dodo bird.”

“Thanks be to God for institutions intent on adapting themselves to serve God in a new day.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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