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SFTS closes Southern California campus

Trustees cite budget woes; 21-year-old program to end in June

February 10, 2011

SAN ANSELMO, Calif.

In a surprise announcement at the conclusion of their Feb. 8 meeting here, San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees said it is closing the seminary’s Southern California campus by June 30, 2011.  

Citing an estimated short fall of $850,000 in fiscal year 2012, the board reduced travel expenses, laid off personnel, and closed the 21-year-old Southern California program, which represented about $450,000 of the seminary’s total budget.

“We thought we had already accomplished the major budget adjustments,” said Interim President the Rev. Laird J. Stuart, referencing $1.5 million in cuts in May 2009. “But as we adjusted the financial model to reflect the realities of enrollment and financial markets, we realized we were still off.”

“This is a painful decision for everyone associated with the seminary,” Stuart said in an official announcement online. “As we mourn the closure of our Southern California campus, we all celebrate the important ministry it has accomplished over the past 20 years.”

Plans are being developed to enable the 40 currently enrolled students to complete their education.

“We need to talk to each student to find a solution that will work for them. It could mean that they may transfer to another local seminary or they may come to the North Campus. If there is a cost difference, we are required to cover it,” Stuart said.

SFTS intends to pursue online and long-distance learning for theological students.

“As one trustee phrased it, we have no intention of ‘holing up” in San Anselmo,” Stuart said. “Southern California is such an obvious place for us to be but so might be Seattle or Reno or Phoenix. This is not an effort to pretend we can be a residential campus in San Anselmo for the foreseeable future.

“We need to learn from Southern California program and we need to learn from other extension programs because everyone realizes that part of the future is reaching out to students, making yourself accessible to students,” Stuart said.

Initial reactions ranged from shock to anger.

The news came as a surprise, via email, to students just minutes before gathering for Tuesday night classes at the non-traditional campus.

“I walked into the classroom, and they all knew,” said the Rev. Jack Rogers, one of the founders of the Southern Campus program and moderator of the 213th General Assembly. “They use their computers and then all of a sudden they got an email just minutes before the class started. That’s just a very crude way to learn this.”

Rogers was informed of the possible closure, along with other Southern California Campus leadership a few days before the board met in February.

“I didn’t believe it would happen,” he said, although he made an effort to send letters to key decision makers on the trustee board in advance. “How can they embrace the future? Where is the greatest potential growth? Southern California has the greatest concentration of churches, the largest potential pool of candidates for theological education, the widest ethnic and racial diversity of students.”

The Southern California campus reached out to non-traditional seminary students by offering evening and weekend classes which allowed students to stay in place with families and jobs.

Sean Chow, associate pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and a 2009 graduate of the Southern Campus program, expressed his appreciation for the diversity in his classroom.

“We weren’t all progressive or all conservatives. We could argue our theology among ourselves and it helped me to figure out who I am,” he said.

Chow was already serving as a Commissioned Lay Pastor when he began the program. He said that many of the alumni are sending each other messages via Facebook trying to verify what had happened and if there was an opportunity to appeal the decision.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “I knew there were problems but we don’t know where the decision came from. We feel blindsided.”

Stuart acknowledged the abruptness of the announcement.

“They were understandably shocked and upset,” he said.

Stuart will be on the campus Feb. 11 to meet with students and faculty, to go over the transition plans and to answer questions.

Responses from local Presbyterian leadership began to emerge as the news of the closure spread.

“Although I can appreciate the financial challenges before SFTS, this is a sad day for those of us in southern CA,” the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, executive presbyter of San Gabriel Presbytery, wrote in an email. “The campus has served as a significant presence in San Gabriel Presbytery - as many of our inquirers and candidates have had the opportunity to earn their M.Div. there. In my tenure as Executive Presbyter, the leadership of that campus have faithfully demonstrated a commitment to the evolving needs of the church in the midst of a changing demographic reality.”

  1. It was a logical and wise decision; it doesn't make sense to have a separate seminary either within the campus of another theological institution (Claremont) or within walking distance of another (Fuller) The flexible schedule wasn't enough to justify its existence, especially at a time when distance education has developed the tools to prepare students through the internet.

    by Armando Esteban Quito

    February 14, 2011

  2. It was a logical and wise decision, it doesn't make sense to have a separate seminary either within the campus of another theological institution (Claremont) or within walking distance of another (Fuller) The flexible schedule wasn't enough to justify its existence, specially at a time when distance education have developed the tools to prepare students through the internet.

    by Armando Esteban Quito

    February 14, 2011

  3. I have both my MDiv and DMin from SFTS and it is a sad day for the west coast. But mistakes were made and the consequences of those mistakes will continue. 1. Major donors who represent the middle of the PCUSA were alienated in the first round of cuts two years ago, when chairs they endowed, were closed and tenured faculty were laid off. Those follow on funds were withdrawn, not by evangelical people, but centrist loyal PCUSA supporters. 2. Hiring Laird Stuart, an ardent supporter of the Covenant network, as Interim President...was perceived as a declaration that SFTS was no longer going to serve the whole church, but was going to become an advocate for GLBTQ ordination. I do not believe this is Laird's goal, but perception and branding of an institution require not going for the convenient short term hire, but working to ensure that every major hire serves the stated mission of the institution. 3. Closing the southern campus...just adds to this perception that SFTS has become a single issue polarized seminary, as the staff and leadership in SoCal, were clearly working to build understanding and harmony across racial boundaries, theological differences, and cultural diversity. The question for the west coast churches, Presbyteries and Synods now is: What would it mean to have a seminary that served the west coast, and trained pastors, both CLPs and MDivs for the building of the church of Jesus Christ and the need for missional women and men to lead the church, right here, right now and into 2050. SFTS has shown that in its current iteration it is unable to deal with this question, let alone answer it. It is a sad day for all of our churches. But for the seminary it may be an Ezekiel: Dry Bones moment. God is a God of resurrection so our prayers need to go out for the board of trustees, the leadership and the students affected by this decision.

    by Jan Armstrong

    February 12, 2011

  4. I'm sad, but I'm not surprised. I'm an SFTS alumn. The realities of the decrease of denominational affiliation, with the withholding of funds and affiliation by the so called "evangelical" churches (as if the rest of us don't have good news to share) has led to this day. Perhaps the day of regional denominational Presbyterian seminaries is over. As technology allows teaching and mentorship to occur over greater distances, residential seminary experiences will increasingly become a thing of the past. Perhaps SFTS can become a greater part of the Graduate Theological Union, and offer their courses along with the increasing number of online courses and seminars that will be offered by PSR in the near future. Of course, this raises the question of why the Bay Area needs 9 seminaries and Southern California needs Claremont School of Theology, Fuller Seminary, among others. Of course, SFTS Southern Campus offered a needed flexibility for seminarians already working in churches from very diverse backgrounds. But why couldn't another school with an established presence, campus, library, and staff not fulfill that place in the broader church? Perhaps we need to be more intentional about creating Presbyterian presences (and mentors) in or near other mainline protestant Seminaries. Why do we need all the duplication?

    by Rev. Will McGarvey

    February 11, 2011

  5. I am shocked, disappointed, and surprised as I read this sad information about closing SFTS/SC. I completed the Ministries Studies Program for CLPs about 5 years ago. My experience in that multi-ethnic-cultural, inclusive, and ecumenical educational setting changed my life in many beautiful ways. I was encouraged before I began my studies there and was very much supported by the staff during my educational process until I completed that program. SFTS/SC has been a key resource for leadership training as my husband and I worked in Riverside Presbytery. Our presbytery has been very much involved in advocating for persons from other cultural and ethnic groups who sense a call to ministry and multicultural transformation. SFTS/SC campus offered an opportunity for them to receive the required training necessary to be called to meet a need in a church or community agency, in order for them to fulfill their sense of call. It took us years for leaders in SoCal to find a location where we could open a SFTS/So. CA campus in Claremont, where I began my studies. The move from that campus to Pasadena was not a positive location, though adequate. Some staff members left the institution; some who were key to the success of the educational program. My husband completed a doctoral program at SFTS/North. Both of us have enthusiastically supported SFTS for many years with our donations. We feel some "ownership" as Presbyterians who have been involved in academic programs at both sites. We understand the practical reasoning behind this difficult decision to close the southern campus, however, we don't like it and are very much saddened by this news. Jacquie and Jerry Lyman

    by Jacquelin Lyman

    February 10, 2011

  6. It shows that White's "multi-cultural diversity" is based on charity, not solidarity. They should have informed us a year ahead. If PCUSA still thinks multi cultural ministry as its decoration, there is no hope. I cannot find any hope from SFTS any longer.

    by Sean Kim

    February 10, 2011

  7. It shows that White's "multi-cultural diversity" is based on charity, not solidarity. They should have informed us a year ahead. If PCUSA still thinks multi cultural ministry as its decoration, there is no hope. I cannot find any hope from SFTS any longer.

    by Sean Kim

    February 10, 2011

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