Seminaries respond to COVID-19 by moving classes online, cutting budgets

April 9th, 2020 / By: Rob Collingsworth | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Seminaries respond to COVID-19 by moving classes online, cutting budgets

As the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis continue, the churches and entities of the Southern Baptist Convention are no exception to the effects being felt in every sector. 

For the convention’s six seminaries, the last two months have forced drastic changes, including moving students off campus, transitioning classroom instruction to an online format and adjusting budgets.

The TEXAN submitted questions to each of the seminaries to gain a clearer picture of how COVID-19 is affecting these institutions, among them inquiries regarding recruitment prospects, student enrollment, housing occupancy, finances and expectations for Cooperative Program giving.

The majority of responses indicated that, for many of these questions, it’s too early to tell precisely how extensive the impact will be.

“At this point many of these questions cannot be answered with any accuracy because we do not know as of early April of 2020, even when on-campus classes may resume and under what circumstances,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “At this point, it is clear that the COVID-19 challenges faced by our seminaries are nothing less than massive.”

Most of the seminaries said that they are hopeful but cautious regarding fall enrollment, acknowledging that many of the traditional methods by which they would be recruiting students—or retaining current ones—are unavailable.

A statement from Gateway Seminary said the school is “focused on reaching prospective students through texting, phone calls and email” and that “more than 1,000 individuals have been personally contacted” by Gateway staff.

“It is too soon to know in granular detail how the coronavirus is altering the plans of current and prospective students,” said Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary. In order to adapt to a social-distancing world, they chose to move some of their planned recruiting events online, holding Virtual Preview sessions for prospective students.

Midwestern Seminary president Jason Allen said, “For us, we are projecting hours taken to be down this fall, but it is too early to tell by exactly how much. As far as applications initiated and completed, we are trending very similar to where we were this time last year. Again, it is still a bit too early to tell, but we are definitely planning for a downturn.”

Ryan Hutchinson, executive vice president for Southeastern Seminary, said fall numbers “continue to look strong.”

Hutchinson also indicated that, while some students have been forced to drop classes due to family circumstances, Southeastern still has record enrollment this semester and “the percentage that has dropped at this point is not much different than a normal semester.”

Mohler said that, while Southern is being forced to cancel graduation ceremonies for May—something many colleges and universities are doing to comply with national and local recommendations regarding social distancing—they are continuing with registration for summer classes, which they expect to be held online.

“We're committed to return to on-campus instruction just as soon as this is possible and advisable,” Mohler added.

Greenway noted that SWBTS’s new 8-week online courses, planned to begin April 27, were already “in the final planning stages” before the seminary experienced any disruption due to COVID-19.

While the seminaries went into varying degrees of detail, each acknowledged they expect the economic end of the pandemic will affect their upcoming budget.

Gateway said that although they didn’t have firm data, they are “anticipating and budgeting for a decrease in CP giving.” According to Hutchinson, Southeastern has instituted a hiring freeze and “a halt to most non-critical spending,” though CP giving remained ahead of budget for the year.

Allen said that Midwestern “has taken a conservative budgetary approach towards next year as we anticipate that COVID-19 will have a negative impact on revenue sources,” though he again acknowledged that it is too early to know exactly what that impact will be. At Midwestern’s March 30 board of trustees meeting, Allen reported the seminary has “in reserve nearly one year of operating expenses” in cash and unrestricted financial assets.

“The leaders of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College are currently assessing the potential impacts of COVID-19 on enrollment and finances,” a statement from NOBTS read. “A clearer picture of the impacts will come after the executive committee of the board of trustees meets later this month.”

Mohler and Greenway went into more detail regarding the financial impact for Southern and Southwestern.

“We already know that we're going to be facing very significant financial challenges. We have lost virtually all auxiliary income, which at Southern Seminary amounts to millions of dollars,” Mohler said. “We also know that our endowments and investments have suffered significant loss in the midst of the economic downturn.”

Greenway, noting the “historically negative effects on the American economy due to necessary governmental measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 pandemic,” pointed out that SWBTS has already taken drastic measures to cut costs, including “budgetary reductions of approximately 25 percent campus-wide through a combination of faculty and staff position deletions, furloughs, and discontinuation of certain academic programs.”

Additionally, during their April 7 board meeting Southwestern trustees deferred action on the budget until July and authorized the seminary administration to execute special distributions of the unrestricted portion of the seminary endowment through the end of 2021. Unrestricted endowments were last reported totaling $13.3 million, according to Baptist Press.

Each seminary expressed similar sentiments regarding the value of CP giving for Southern Baptist theological education. The CP contributes a significant portion to each seminary’s operating budget. According to Allen, the CP represented about 27 percent of budget revenues for Midwestern in 2019-20. Southeastern reported about 35 percent of its operating budget comes from the CP.

“All this [financial loss] makes the support of Southern Baptists through the CP all the more important,” Mohler said. “This demonstrates all over again, for this generation, just how important the Cooperative Program is and just how vital it is to the work of Southern Baptists all over the world and in our programs of theological education.”

“Cooperative Program giving is fundamental to our mission of shaping leaders for gospel ministry,” said Gateway president Jeff Iorg, adding that it “represents the shared beliefs, vision and direction Southern Baptists hold firmly in one hand while they reach for the lost with their other.”

“In a more personal way," Allen said, "the more than 4,000 students training for ministry at Midwestern Seminary are here in part because of Southern Baptist generosity through the Cooperative Program."

“Ultimately, the seminaries can only be as faithful as the churches we serve," Mohler said, "and our call is to be faithful to those churches no matter what challenges face us.”