BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor Theological Seminary board of trustees has unanimously voted to suspend the school’s Master of Divinity and Master of Arts programs at the end of the 2012-13 academic year.
The move will allow the school to explore a range of options in line with its historic mission of service to the church, Chairman H. Lowell Brown said in a news release issued Friday.
“As stewards of the seminary, we have seen dramatic changes taking place in theological education over the past decade,” Brown said. “During that time, seminaries across the country have experienced a steady decline in enrollment for masters of divinity and masters of arts programs.”
The Bangor seminary has seen a similar decline as church membership has fallen and fewer people seek a seminary education for pastoral service, Brown said.
The Rev. Robert Grove-Markwood, interim president of the seminary, noted that alternative paths to ordination have emerged, which means fewer people are pursuing full-time graduate theological education for traditional pastoral ministry.
“In the face of declining enrollment, the board concluded that our endowment cannot sustain our present operational budget,” he said. “It can, however, support a new direction for the seminary, with God’s help. The board has chosen to act decisively, while we have the resources to build a new future.”
Enrollment at the seminary’s Portland and Bangor campuses has dropped 15-20 percent each of the last four years, Grove-Markwood said in a telephone interview Sunday. This semester 71 students are enrolled in classes. That is the equivalent of 40 full-time students.
Former seminary president the Rev. William Imes in 2005 oversaw the school’s move from its historic campus between Hammond and Union streets to Husson University. Imes said a few months before the move that the seminary needed 100 full-time-equivalent students to break even. When the move to Husson was approved, 130 students were enrolled in classes in Bangor and Portland.
Since moving across town enrollment continued to drop and the seminary was forced to draw down on its endowment to meeting its operating budget, Grove-Markwood said Sunday.
“Withdrawing five percent or more from an endowment is considered imprudent,” he said. “We’re been using seven to nine percent the last few years and that is just not sustainable.”
The board is working on plans to reconfigure the seminary and plans to announce a new direction this spring, the press release issued late Friday said.
Grove-Markwood said the board decided now to allow the faculty and staff time to make plans consistent with their needs since the seminary most likely will not maintain a full-time faculty and staff in its new model. Steven Lewis, the seminary’s academic dean, will work with students to explore options for completing their studies, he said. Those options most likely would involve transferring to complete degrees for up to 25 students.
Originally named the Maine Charity School, the seminary was founded in 1814 and shared space with Hampden Academy in Hampden for three years.
The school relocated in 1819 to what is now called its historic campus in Bangor when Isaac Davenport, for whom Davenport Park is named, donated a hayfield to the seminary. The site offered a commanding view of the village of Bangor, which had 1,200 inhabitants nestled between the Kenduskeag Stream and the Penobscot River.
Tough financial times and low student enrollments aren’t new to the seminary either. In 1858, it had a deficit of $3,000 and considered asking Bowdoin College to adopt it as an adjunct campus or merging with Andover Theological Seminary located outside Boston.
Enrollment fell from nine students in the class of 1826 to only one in 1831. Seven years later, enrollment burgeoned to 50, but dipped again in 1860 as men joined the Union Army rather than God’s.
The seminary graduated its first class of six men in 1820. Over the next 150 years, students continued to be male college graduates in their early 20s seeking the education to become Congregational ministers in northern New England and missionaries around the globe. Students lived in dorms on campus, as they had as undergraduates, venturing out to practice preaching in nearby churches.
Twenty-five years ago, the seminary’s demographics began to change dramatically as women entered the seminary in record numbers and adults seeking training for a second career began taking classes as part-time students. These students commuted — some from great distances — to attend classes one or two days a week. They juggled other responsibilities, including raising children, caring for aging parents and working at full-time jobs.
There simply are not enough of those kinds of students to sustain the traditional seminary model any longer, according to Grove-Markwood.
For information about Bangor Theological Seminary, visit bts.edu.