“My goal as president is for Saint Paul to be the solution for the Bishops’ challenge of having enough effective clergy to appoint to our United Methodist Churches,” said Saint Paul School of Theology President Neil Blair.
Blair recognizes that solution is a different kind of seminary than what was needed when Saint Paul School of Theology opened in 1959, or when he was working on renovations there 20 years earlier.
“The days of pastors relocating their families to attend seminary were over,” Blair said, noting that before the move the residential halls at the Truman Road campus had been mostly empty for years.
Also gone were the days of student enrollment of 300. The current need is about one-third of that. That meant large budget cuts were needed, but excellence in theological education must be maintained. Owning the large campus on the hill was a luxury Saint Paul School of Theology could no longer afford.
“When you compared how much space we had to the next largest of the 13 United Methodist seminaries, we had more than 100,000 square feet more than anyone else,” Blair said.
The Truman Road facility was sold, and the seminary moved to the Church of the Resurrection Campus in Leawood, Kansas in 2013. The budget impact was felt immediately.
“Our facility budget at Truman Road was $600,000 a year. Here it is $142,000 a year,” Blair said.
Of the 13 United Methodist seminaries, Saint Paul School of Theology has the highest percentage of graduates serving in local churches.
Those who don’t have direct connections to Saint Paul School of Theology may have fallen out of touch with the school. Blair understands the concerns people had associated with the move six years ago. He was one of the most concerned. When he learned that Saint Paul School of Theology was selling it’s property and moving in with COR, he didn’t take it as good news.
“I was mad,” he said. “I got egotistical about it.”
It wasn’t just nostalgia for his days there as a student in the 1980s. Blair had served as Vice President of Development for the seminary from 1988 to 2007.
“During that time, we invested $25 million into the campus on Truman Road, and never missed balancing the budget,” Blair said. They also added staff. A campaign by the Missouri Conference helped fund a new Chair of Evangelism. An estate gift funded a Chair of Town and Country ministry. Another new chair of Health and Wellness was established.
So it was natural for him to feel the move from that campus was a downward spiral. That was soon to change. Blair was in the intensive care unit of a hospital when he got the call asking him to apply to be the next president of the seminary. He recovered quickly from the heart surgery, and went to work interviewing friends, recent graduates, bishops and others before he decided about the position.
“They all assured me that there was still a call for a United Methodist seminary in the Midwest,” Blair said.
Initially after the move Saint Paul School of Theology just used the Church of the Resurrection education wing as classroom space, and they rented office space nearby for administrators and faculty. But office space doesn’t come cheap in Overland Park, Kansas. A building project at Church of the Resurrection meant that the seminary then had access to space there that they could have “24/7.” They now rent 19,000 square feet there.
Rent is a generous word. Church of the Resurrection made Saint Paul School of Theology part of their capital campaign. Rather than donating a lump some of money to the school, they subsidize it’s rent. Typical office space in that area rents for $22.50 a square foot. COR is renting the office space to the seminary for $7.50 per square foot.
Jeanne M. Hoeft is the academic dean and the associate professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care. She’s been with the seminary since 2001 and has lived through the changes. Although most people would consider moving from a high crime, impoverished inner-city to neighborhood to one of the most desirable neighborhoods within a 200-mile radius as a big step up, for an institution comprised of people with a strong social justice mindset the move six years ago was difficult for many.
“I did a lot of reflecting at that time,” she said.
Changing from owning a large, physical presence to rental space also took some adjustment.
“We had to consider what we had to offer as a free-standing seminary,” Hoeft said.
Now with a campus at a church, and another at a University, but still “free-standing” in administration, Hoeft feels the seminary is in the right position to best serve students in 2019.
“We are able to be very nimble and responsive when we are not tied to maintaining properties,” she said.
There are some tangible benefits to being co-located with a large church. The seminary has a practicum in memorials, in which students shadow a pastor through the entire process related to a funeral. Being a large church, COR offers plenty of opportunity for that.
Students are on campus from noon Monday through 9 p.m. Tuesday. Meals are served in the dining hall on those days. There are also intensive weeks in the fall, spring and summer. Each class is linked via the Flex system with the Oklahoma campus, and the instructor can be in either location. Worship takes place at the Wesley Chapel on the COR campus.
The school passed a milestone this spring when it was released from probationary status and returned to being fully accredited. The Higher Learning Commission posted a notice on March 14 saying the probation for Saint Paul School of Theology had been lifted due to improvements in financial stability and other areas. Blair said the primary aspect that put the seminary on probation was financial. It had been digging too deep into its endowment for operating expenses.
“The end result was the probation was probably the best thing that could have happened to us,” Blair said. “It has helped us face some deficiencies and correct some policies and practices.”
Now Blair is happy to be a renter rather than a owner, feeling free of the worries of antiquating heating and cooling systems, leaking roofs and other headaches that plague many institutions.
Rev. Andy Bryan, who is moving from Campbell UMC in Springfield to Manchester UMC in St. Louis this July, is an alum of Saint Paul School of Theology and has served on the board since 2015. He is pleased with the developments he has seen in the past few years.
“Saint Paul is in a really healthy place right now. We are committed to formation for innovative and creative ministry, through a variety of degree programs that are geared for the 21st century church,” he said. “We have given the student a lot of flexibility in pursuing theological education, especially in terms of scheduling and program design.”
The Missouri Conference and Saint Paul School of Theology have recently partnered together in expanding Course of Study offerings through a new program for Part-Time Ministry Leaders (PML).
“Our expansion in Course of Study is likely to be our largest area of growth,” Blair said.
During a development visit to a donor not long after the seminary’s move, the donor was more mad than Blair was about leaving the Truman Road campus, and was having trouble seeing himself giving to a seminary that gone from a prestigious campus of brick high on the hill to office space at a church. Blair knew the man was a proud supporter of the law school he attended, so he asked him to close his eyes and describe the windows, floors, doors and roofs of the campus. He couldn’t.
“I told him that showed the buildings of his law school really weren’t that important. What was important was the experiences and education that he had there,” Blair said. The donor agreed and continued his support of seminary.
Blair said there have always been some people who didn’t support the seminary because it was too liberal. He says the free-thought posture of the seminary isn’t political, it is Methodist.
“I was a conservative Iowa farm kid when I went there as a student,” Blair said. “I think the worst thing that could happen to a student is to go to a seminary where everyone thinks exactly like you do. That wouldn’t create any opportunity to learn.”
At a transitional time in history for the United Methodist Church, Bryan is glad to see an institution like Saint Paul School of Theology stabilize itself for the future. He appreciates what he has seen from all of the staff at Saint Paul during this time of transitions.
“I am really impressed with the work that has been done by the staff and faculty over the past several years. Their tireless, faithful dedication to Saint Paul is really the energy that drives the school,” he said. “It’s a really good time to be a part of what’s happening at Saint Paul, and I encourage anyone seeking deeper theological education for whatever reason to look into what we have going on.”