General Theological Seminary eyes deal with Christian nonprofit to lease, renovate buildings

By ENS staff
Posted Nov 9, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] General Theological Seminary, The Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary, announced Nov. 9 that it was negotiating with an unnamed Christian nonprofit to renovate and lease space on its close, or campus, in an arrangement that would allow continued use of some buildings for the seminary’s hybrid Master of Divinity program.

The plan would provide much needed revenue for General Theological Seminary and would help address deferred maintenance estimated at $32 million, according to seminary officials. The news comes months after the seminary, located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, ended its full-residency programs to focus on growing its hybrid program.

General Theological Seminary in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood was founded by General Convention in 1817.

“We are in a position where we can share the [General Theological Seminary] close with a strong nonprofit partner, with whom we can potentially create some exciting, shared programming,” Virginia Theological Seminary Dean Ian Markham, who also serves as General’s president, said in a news release. “We are seeking to model the use of resources for the future of the church.”

General Theological Seminary effectively yielded control of its governance to Virginia Theological Seminary’s leadership a year ago through an affiliation agreement between the two Episcopal seminaries. Both institutions retained their strategic initiatives, accreditations, endowments and campuses but now share “an innovative overlapping governance structure, common executive leadership team and a range of shared services and programs,” the seminaries said at the time.

The General Convention of The Episcopal Church founded General Theological Seminary in 1817, and it remained the only Episcopal seminary with a formal governance relationship with General Convention until a 2022 resolution allowed it autonomy to pursue a cross-seminary affiliation. Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, was founded in 1823.

As seminaries across The Episcopal Church have struggled to adjust to the needs of a denomination in long-term membership decline, General Theological Seminary has faced a particularly dire financial outlook in recent years. In its 2023 fiscal year, it projects a significant budget shortfall, with $7.8 million in expenses compared with income of $4.3 million.

Under the lease agreement that the seminary is pursuing, the Christian nonprofit “would restore the exteriors of all the GTS-owned buildings on the close, including the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, cover the expenses of the close and pay GTS an annual rent,” according to the news release. “The arrangement would create income for GTS, enabling it to support and potentially expand its programs.”

The seminary would continue to own the property, and its hybrid Master of Divinity program, while operating mostly online, would be allowed in-person use of Dodge Hall, the Keller Library, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and other facilities.

The seminary declined to identify the nonprofit that is interested in leasing the space, saying only that it “was founded with the aim of revitalizing the choral tradition in worship services.” General Theological Seminary’s board of trustees voted this week to endorse the negotiations.

“While a number of different options have been explored, including selling the close and leasing it to a property developer, it was felt the nonprofit represented the best option in terms of mission alignment and potential income,” the seminary’s news release said. “If GTS moves forward with the lease agreement, it would lead to a return of regular worship services in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, many of which would be livestreamed. The arrangement also creates the possibility for potential programing synergies.”