With sanctions from accrediting agencies from the Higher Learning Commission behind it, Saint Paul School of Theology can keep looking forward, its president said.
“We’re just breathing a good bit easier,” the Rev. Neil Blair said. “We continue to be the seminary, hopefully, of choice in the Midwest.”
Saint Paul, which has campuses in Leawood, Kansas, and Oklahoma City, was placed on probation two years ago along with another seminary, Claremont School of Theology in California.
Saint Paul was placed on probation for declining enrollment, financial instability and ineffective governing and administrative structures.
Blair, who was installed as president in July 2016, said two moves by the school – when it left its longtime home on Truman Road in Kansas City to become part of the campus of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood in 2013, and when its administrative offices moved from 20 blocks away to become part of the campus – made the Higher Learning Commission put it on automatic review.
“We’ve really worked hard to … correct the things we needed to correct,” said Blair, who previously worked for the seminary as vice president of development. “I think the Higher Learning Commission actually did us a favor.”
Blair said Saint Paul needed “slight monitoring” of two of 19 issues that it faced in the assessment.
Saint Paul has had three years of balanced budgets and received its largest single gift last December, he said.
Blair added that the seminary has favorable lease terms for both its campuses and used a successful $1 million capital campaign to turn its building at Church of the Resurrection into a 19,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art instruction space.
“It means our financial house is in very good order. Most seminaries are fragile, because we always need to raise money,” Blair said. “It means that we have our spending rate at a very reasonable rate on our endowment. We’ve right-sized our budget in a significant way. We’ve worked hard at that in the past 2½ years.”
Blair said enrollment is at about 100, less than he and other leaders would like. But he said applications are up, and in the fall the seminary will debut a doctorate of ministry degree program in partnership with Church of the Resurrection.
He said the quality of education at Saint Paul has never wavered during the evaluation process.
“Usually institutions aren’t in trouble because they’re delivering poor education,” Blair said. “Either they have financial challenges, or they’re not recording their assessments. They may be teaching extremely well, but they’re not tracking that and reporting the processes in which they’re assessing the good work they’re doing.”
The Rev. Dan Norwood, pastor of Washington-Haddam-Barnes UMCs in Kansas, was co-president of the Saint Paul student body and a member of the academic committee when the probation began.
“I am very pleased, because it helps the perception of Saint Paul, although from what I knew, the quality of the education was never really suspect," Norwood said.
Changes in leadership, including several interim leaders who were sidelined with health issues, may have also played a part in the deficiency, Norwood added.
“I’m elated that’s happened,” Norwood said of the sanctions being removed. “I continue to remain a great supporter of Saint Paul. It was a wonderful place for me and helped my ministry bloom.”
Blair said he’s proud of his staff’s work to get the seminary off probation.
“It was a long, arduous challenge, but everybody pitched in and did the work that we do every day,” he said. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air in the midst of what’s happening in the church right now. I still think all seminaries are still fragile and challenged, but it gives us a much more appropriate view of what it takes to run a seminary.”
The move will improve Saint Paul’s reputation, Blair said.
“People can feel confident in what we’re up to,” he said. “I think anytime an institution has been on probation and is off, it’s a great day to celebrate.”
The United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.
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