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.”