It was 2015, and Rev. James McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), was facing a problem. Or, as he optimistically framed it, an opportunity.
Across the landscape of traditional Christian seminary education, enrollment had been dropping for decades. From just 2011 to 2015, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) tracked a 3 percent decline within the United States and Canada. Support from affiliated mainstream Protestant organizations, themselves facing shrinking membership rolls, had been unable to make up
for the shortfall.
For SFTS in particular, a high of more than 700 students in 1996 had fallen by more than half in 2011 when McDonald received the offer to become the seminary’s president. Nonetheless, he accepted the position.
“I think I came to SFTS with my eyes open, at least in part,” says McDonald, who had spent the previous 13 years working for hunger-relief advocacy organization Bread for the World. “Despite their challenges, I saw seminaries as undervalued institutions, not only for the Church, but for society itself.
“Where else do people focus so intensely on values?”
A lot to offer
Once at SFTS, McDonald adopted a practical approach, making a new round of budget cuts. But he knew it was only a first step.
“The Board of Trustees said very clearly to me that cutting expenses only goes so far,” he recalls, noting that trustees had made the decision to close SFTS’s 21-year-old Pasadena campus in Southern California a few months before he arrived. “We were going to have to pay attention to revenue. Expenses and revenue—it’s a very simple formula; they have to match.”
At the same time, McDonald began to realize the challenges facing SFTS were more profound than he had realized. It was not just seminary education that was in “a period of disruption,” but also its larger sectors—higher education in general, which had vulnerabilities in a tuition-dependent model, and the traditional Christian Church, which was struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing society. “It was a perfect storm,” McDonald says.
At McDonald’s prompting, SFTS launched a strategic planning process involving the Board, administration, donors, and alumni to formulate a response. This process, along with related efforts in fundraising and branding, wrestled with big-picture questions of vision and identity.
What would be lost in the world without SFTS? What was its special essence? An unusual combination of core values of spirituality, social justice, and innovation was one cornerstone. So was a history dating back to 1871, affiliation with the progressive Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and founding membership in the Bay Area’s Graduate Theological Union consortium, which enabled cross registration with institutions ranging from the Institute of Buddhist Studies to University of California, Berkeley.
These factors had attracted a diverse student body. One-third came from outside the United States. Sixty-five percent were over age 44. SFTS students aspired to serve their communities—but only half envisioned becoming ordained ministers; the others set their sights on nonprofits, the arts, entrepreneurial activities, teaching, and other areas. How could these—and future— students best be served?
“[The strategic planning process] was about a different way of opening ourselves to look outward,” McDonald says, “and to connect with the community and to reconnect with churches.”
A merger was aligned with these aspirations. As SFTS’s resources included a significant endowment and a pristine 14-acre campus in the town of San Anselmo in Marin County, only 15 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, McDonald did not feel a merger would be a last-ditch effort. Rather, he saw a merger as an informed response to thinking broadly about the organization’s mission and how to expand that mission in the current environment.
But if a merger, then with whom?
The search for the perfect match
SFTS launched an Exploration Task Force to examine the possibilities.
“Everything was on the table,” says McDonald. “We wanted to think strategically about what we were going to do.”
There was no dearth of examples of mergers involving seminaries. In fact, a wave of mergers over the past decades had changed the seminary landscape from 60 percent standalone to 60 percent embedded within other institutions, according to ATS.
Some seminaries had become part of universities of a similar religious affiliation, such as Jesuit School of Theology’s merger with Santa Clara University in 2009 or Claremont Graduate School of Theology’s anticipated merger and move to Methodist Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Other seminaries had joined with formerly separate institutions of theological education, such as Andover Newton Theological School’s move to Yale Divinity School in 2016.
After briefly considering corporate partners such as Kaiser Permanente (which supports some programming at SFTS), the task force systematically examined Presbyterian and historically Presbyterian colleges and universities on the West Coast, which some members of the team believed could offer an easier cultural and geographical fit than institutions in the East.
Eliminating schools in Idaho, Montana, and Utah, whose partnerships would not build on the strength of SFTS’s Bay Area location, the field was narrowed to California and Oregon. Occidental College was taken off the list, as McDonald reasoned a strictly undergraduate institution would hesitate to embrace a seminary as its first venture into graduate education.
That left Lewis and Clark, a historically Presbyterian liberal arts college with graduate programs in education and law. “We had a couple of meetings, but it was clear that they didn’t want to maintain a campus in San Anselmo,” McDonald says. “It was, ‘Will you sell the campus and move up here?’ Long story short, we said, ‘no.’”
Would merging with another seminary be a better option? Setting aside their locations on the East Coast, the task force initiated conversations with some top-tier institutions, including Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
“Yale was interested—in our endowment and selling the property,” McDonald says. “We also had other Presbyterian seminaries on the list, but it became clear that if you put two seminaries together, the stronger seminary is going to be dominant. We would basically be giving our physical and financial assets to another school, and we would lose whatever identity we had.”
The team looked again at its list of potential partners, and there was the University of Redlands, known to some at SFTS through James R. Appleton, who had been president of the U of R from 1987 to 2005 and 2010 to 2012, as well as an SFTS trustee from 1985 to 1995.
Although Redlands was secular (with historic ties to the American Baptist Convention), the multi-campus university was in Southern California and offered several graduate degree programs. Moreover, its mission and vision seemed to overlap with SFTS’s in its emphasis on scholarship, innovation, inclusiveness, diversity, and service.
A blind date
Ralph W. Kuncl, president of the University of Redlands, had been approached twice by other institutions considering a potential merger. Neither of these talks had gained traction.
“I’ve always said that to be successful, a merger has to involve institutions fundamentally aligned financially and culturally,” Kuncl says. “Those are the two things that can kill a merger and frequently do. But there also needs to be more: ‘one plus one equals two’ is not interesting; ‘one plus one equals three’ is very interesting.”
At the top of Kuncl’s list for requirements for a successful merger—an actual “go” or “no-go” rubric used by his team—was that such a major undertaking would only be considered if it enhanced the University of Redlands’ mission and strategic goals.
When McDonald reached out to Kuncl for a “meet and greet” in late 2017, the pair hit it off. “[In Jim McDonald,] I saw someone with whom I could not only share friendship, but real intellectual partnership,” recalls Kuncl. What was scheduled to be a 45-minute introductory chat turned into a two-and-a-half-hour visit.
Later, when Kuncl visited the sylvan SFTS campus at McDonald’s invitation, he marveled at how wonderful it was. “You know, we’re going to have to sell it,” responded McDonald, who recalls that Kuncl immediately replied, “Oh no—you can’t do that!”
Like Kuncl, McDonald believed that a successful merger had to result in more than the sum of its parts: “There has to be something new,” McDonald says. “That drove the conversation going forward. What is the new thing we were going to create?”
That special something
When McDonald and Kuncl hit on the idea of coming together to build a multidisciplinary, multifaith graduate school of theology embedded in the University of Redlands, they believed they had found a way to amplify the potential of both institutions.
The University of Redlands Graduation School of Theology (GST) would operate on par with the University’s School of Education, School of Business, School of Music, School of Continuing Studies, and College of Arts and Sciences. It would form U of R’s eighth campus—and its first in Northern California, providing an entrée for programming and recruitment in the vibrant Bay Area. The seminary’s faculty would also deepen U of R’s intellectual resources.
While the U of R as a whole would retain its secular identity, under the GST umbrella, SFTS would continue to advance its mission grounded in faith and religious inquiry (a structure of embedded divinity schools also found at institutions such at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Emory, and the University of Chicago). SFTS would retain its eight faculty members (all of whom are supported by endowed funds), membership in the Graduate Theological Union, and location on the Marin campus, as well as gaining opportunities in Southern California.
Importantly, the GST structure would also introduce new opportunities for SFTS students to engage in joint programs of study, for example combining a focus on spirituality and organizational leadership.
In addition to containing the seminary’s Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theological Studies, and Doctor of Ministry degree programs, the GST would provide a home for the less-traditional parts of SFTS that had sprung up over the last decade as the seminary had sought to find other creative ways to meet the changing environment. These include:
- The Applied Wisdom Institute, a spiritual rather than religious hub, offering certificate programs, seminars, and conferences
- The Shaw Chaplaincy Institute for Spiritual Care + Compassionate Leadership, the country’s first accredited clinical pastoral education program on seminary grounds, whose interfaith programs explore the spiritual side of providing health care
- The Center for Innovation in Ministry, which acts as a think tank on issues facing the Church and a networking platform for members of other Christian theological schools
The GST would represent the largest structural change at the University of Redlands since the creation of the Alfred North Whitehead College of Liberal and Career Studies (now part of the Schools of Business and Education) for working professionals in 1976.
Evaluating the proposal
At SFTS, merging with the University of Redlands would be the culmination of a process that had spanned years. While by no means easy or obvious for the 148-year-old seminary, the option was one that had been preceded by years of longing and soul-searching.
“Programs we have long wanted to offer, students we have been anxious to reach, and resources for innovative ministry we have been eager to develop—suddenly all these aspirations have wind beneath their wings,” says Rev. Jana Childers, at that time dean of the seminary and vice president of academic affairs. “Thoughts of new colleagues to engage in scholarly discourse, new ways to reach out to prospective students, and new degree programs to model fuel our plans.”
SFTS Professor Wendy Farley, director of the Program in Christian Spirituality and Rice Family Professor in Spirituality, adds, “SFTS faculty were all aware of the financial challenges facing SFTS and mainline seminaries in general. Once Redlands emerged as a partner, we were thrilled. A burden was lifted, and we felt an unleashing of our scholarly and pedagogical creativity.”
At the University of Redlands, the potential union was more unexpected, although still aligned with the University’s North Star 2020 strategic plan by creating partnerships and pathways for students and helping to fulfill the University’s potential as a master’s institution. As the conversation expanded to the wider community, the proposal was met with a mix of excitement and caution.
U of R’s due diligence process aimed to harness both. To manage risk, Redlands teams were formed to mine the depths of SFTS’s financial and legal landscape; estimate economies of scale from administrative consolidation; and create enrollment and financial projections. Three financial and legal consultants were hired to review financial and programmatic projections to make sure no deal-breaker had been missed.
In parallel, many Redlands faculty and administrators were invited to meet their colleagues at SFTS—and to dream big.
Dreaming of a future together
As Redlands and SFTS faculty members got to know each other, the intellectual benefits of the partnership came into focus. “At first, the idea [for a merger] was a total surprise,” says Professor Karen Derris, who chairs U of R’s Religious Studies Department. “But over time, we realized SFTS has some amazing scholars, who are also very collegial—wonderful people, interesting, and very good at what they do. The partnership offered a new dynamic to fuel our creativity and imagination.”
SFTS professors were equally enthusiastic about their potential colleagues; Farley called the meetings with the U of R Religious Studies faculty “a delight, interpersonally and intellectually.”
Ideas for new programming began to percolate.
In the U of R School of Education, Andrew Wall, the Robert A. and Mildred Peronia Naslund Endowed Dean, and his team used employment and competitor analysis as a basis for proposing initial programs on the Marin campus in counseling—commonly paired with divinity degrees—and teaching, which the school also offers on four U of R campuses (in Redlands, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, and Temecula). Also piquing interest for the future was, in Wall’s words, “a shared commitment to social justice” and the “really interesting synergy between the Doctor of Ministry program and our doctorate in educational justice.”
In the School of Business, Thomas Horan, the H. Jess and Donna Senecal Endowed Dean of the School of Business, and colleagues weighed how best to expand from the school’s seven physical locations to an eighth. In light of the residential rather than commercial surroundings in San Anselmo, the team suggested leading with the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership. A bachelor’s degree completion program at a nearby community college, such as College of Marin, was another intriguing option to explore.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Kendrick Brown also saw “a wealth of possibilities.” A Northern California campus could be used to expand Redlands’ geographic information systems (GIS) master’s degrees (particularly given a nearby training site for Esri, a GIS powerhouse with an existing relationship with the University), host School of Music auditions and activities, and augment U of R’s First-Year Journey trips, May Term options, and summer internships.
One idea for a unique Redlands–SFTS collaboration—a joint certificate in mental health counseling and spirituality—gained so much traction on both sides that those involved decided to pursue the program without waiting for a larger merger. In March, the online offering was jointly launched by SFTS’s Applied Wisdom Institute and U of R’s School of Education, administered through U of R’s School of Continuing Studies.
“We think there are more great synergies for us in the nondegree space,” says U of R Provost Kathy Ogren. “In addition, we will look selectively at potential degrees currently offered on the Marin campus—in particular, the Master of Theological Studies—that could be offered in Southern California.”
Perhaps predictably, jitters emerged on both sides—especially among those who hadn’t been intimately involved in the strategic planning or due diligence processes—as the proposed alliance became public and the projected merger date approached. Who was this new partner anyway? Could we really live together happily ever after? Could we still be a good match despite our differences?
At Redlands, Ogren addressed the issue of the secular-religious difference between the institutions this way: “I’m asked, ‘How can you be a secular institution and have people study religion or theology?’ Well, how can you be a responsible liberal arts university and not take up those questions with a long tradition as a province of university inquiry and a serious area of study? It takes some trust, but we are not ‘becoming Presbyterian or Baptist’ or bringing back mandatory chapel service.”
McDonald saw much of the chatter as missing the point: “The real question is to what extent we at SFTS can continue to do something that is valuable and embedded in the value of theological education—and do it in a way that not only offers training for ministers serving congregations, but also engages in a broader mission of equipping and empowering people for compassionate, justice-oriented service in many different settings.”
Receptions on the Redlands and Marin campuses brought alumni from the two communities together. They found much in common, as well as some unexpected connections. A few people even had degrees from both institutions.
After the final positive votes by the SFTS and U of R Boards in May, one by one the legal hurdles for a merger were cleared. California Attorney General, California Secretary of State, and U.S. Department of Education approval? Check. Approval from accrediting agency Western Association of Schools and Colleges? Check. Notification of the institutions’ bond rating agencies? Check, with a projected eventual upgrade to the U of R’s credit rating due to an influx of assets and diversification of programming.
The merger became official at the beginning of July.
McDonald, who plans to stay on at SFTS as a special liaison to alumni, philanthropists, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Graduate Theological Union, and other constituencies for a year before retiring, remains enthusiastic. “I’ve loved this process,” he says. “It has just gotten more and more exciting. I’m seeing this as all positive—there is so much alignment between us.”
Kuncl welcomed members of the SFTS community into the U of R family and predicted a happy and productive future together. “The relationship began because the U of R and SFTS share a common purpose to ‘educate both heart and mind,’” he says. “Ultimately, we are both here to make a difference and to ensure our alumni make it an ever-better world.”
Learn more about the new Graduate School of Theology, and read more about the merger in Bulldog Blog stories “Two become one, and stronger together” (the memo announcing the closure of the merger), “‘What should the U of R community know about SFTS?’,” and “Dual U of R-SFTS alumni find their paths converge."