Meadville Lombard open thread

Today we hear the not-so-stunning news that Meadville Lombard plans to sell its Chicago property. The next step would be to relocate to metro-Boston to participate in some kind of educational situation with the UUCF-affiliated Andover Newton Theological School (which itself has a large Unitarian Universalist student base) and the ailing Episcopalian Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

I’m brewing some thoughts but thought I would open a thread for comments first.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott,

    Lee said yesterday that they hope to retain Meadville’s Chicago presence in whatever details of an arrangement with Andover Newton emerges. It depends on what emerges from negotiations. What a Chicago presence would look like without the current buildings is not at all clear. Though one scenario sees the buildings being leased back to ML b the new owner, a scenario whose logic escapes me, since the real estate is, I believe, owned outright, without mortgage loans against it. It’s just too early in the process to know quite what will happen. But it looks promising at this point that it will happen with AN / AN-CRC.

    Myself, I think that, for students to gain benefit of the proposed association with AN in their formation and degree programs, geographic proximity/ shared campus/ adjacent campi/ etc. would be very important.. But so many of the details under negotiation are still in the air that it is impossible to say.

  2. Honestly Scott I don’t know what to think. It has been a long time since I have given much thought to my Alma Mater. My first impression is that I personally will miss the campus. However, there could very well be some interesting and exciting possibilities in Newton if they plan things well.

    I do have one question, however. Why didn’t M/L work something out with Chicago Theological Seminary? Certainly the “commute” is less. They (or “we” as I am a DMin student there) are also liberals and UCC. Also, they are constructing their own new building and they share a librarian. Anyway, just curious.

  3. Hi Scott,

    This is Larry Ladd, the board chair of Meadville Lombard. Paul (above) is correct that the location is not yet determined.
    Andover Newton is affiliated with the UCC and the American Baptists although its student body is very diverse at many dimensions, including denominational affiliations. Unitarian Universalists are 18% of the student body, second only in size to the UCC contingent.
    Colgate Rochester Crozer is Baptist in origin but, like Andover Newton, draws students from many traditions. It has an affiliation with Bexley Hall, which is Episcopalian.

    With best wishes,


  4. Hi Adam,

    In a confidential process, the Meadville Lombard board looked a three different seminaries as potential partners, taking all factors into consideration. We kept the process confidential (and continue to do so) to protect our relationships with those institutions. Our process included use of experts on theological education to research the potential strengths and weaknesses of potential partnerships as well as conversations with the potential partners. On balance, the board’s best judgment is that Andover Newton represents the best opportunity to further Meadville Lombard’s mission of preserving and enhancing its mission of UU-identified ministerial formation. Only the conversation with Andover Newton will determine, ultimately, whether a partnership is worthwhile and what form it might take.

    With best wishes,

    Larry Ladd (ML board chair)

  5. The situation at M/L is not unexpected. The situation is difficult for most stand alone, small theological schools.

    But I am also suprised that Andover/Newton was chosen over Chicago Theological Seminary, which M/L has a history of sharing faculty with. I was hoping for a partnership simmilar to the one between Earlham School of Religion, and Bethany Theological School (both in Indiana). I am also concerned about how a partial or complete relocation to Boston will change the culture of M/L. The Chicago location has allowed M/L a more independent culture and relationship with regards to the power structure in Boston. I realize that confidential conversations have taken place, but invocations of confidentiality can also be used to avoid public transparency.

    The plans speak of the formation of a grand Oxford style theological university (perhaps a bit like Graduate Theological Union in California). Such an endeavor would be difficult to pull off, and I am skeptical that it can in any way that is affordable (especially to potential doctoral level students who would benefit most from such a grand university).

  6. Thanks Derek. For a minute I thought that perhaps my imagination had gotten the better of me and AN was actually closer to M/L that CTS and, therefore, less complicated than it seems. I also share your concerns about confidentiality being sometimes more of a burden than a help. Actually, however, I think your most interesting point has to do with aspirations of the GTU kind.

    I think the real question at this point (no doubt also confidential) is the ultimate intention and plans of Andover Newton. A combination with another seminary is well within the culture of M/L, which hasn’t really been independent since moving to Chicago. This ecumenical/interfaith context, in fact, is (or was) its greatest strength. My studies at UCDS and CTS were every bit as important to me as the courses I took at M/L and I believe there were more of them in the end. M/L greatest gift (other than Dr. Godbey) was the community and support it provided me and others in the discernment process.

    What does it mean, though, to move half-way across the country to merge (and you can call it what you like, but it would be a merger) with another seminary with a different culture and expectations? I am sure that Larry and others are asking these questions and trust that they will come to an agreement that works for them. Still, it will be interesting to watch.

    I am somewhat less concerned about the culture change in relationship with the UUA, just because the UUA’s gravitational pull doesn’t seem all that great to me (I mean this is a good way) in what the UCC calls an ESMs (Ecumenical Shared Ministries). When you have more than one denomination trying to run things, those voices tend to drown each other out. At least that is my experience in a UU/UCC congregation in Natick which is, after all, only a few miles from Newton…

  7. So M/L is at it again — another grandiose plan by my almer mater that will no doubt land flat on its face as all the others have in recent years. I am dismayed at the ineptitude of the current leadership by Lee Barker and the Board at the school. Talks with Starr King collapsed after M/L made outrageous conditions for a merger, curriculum changes announced by the administration ended in a near-revolt, and plans to build in Chicago have now been dropped for another fanciful plan. When will the mindless cliches and nonsense stop? It seems that the only people here who are winning are the consultants that M/L is funding from the generous gifts of donors. It is time to say goodbye to the administration and the board. Let’s get people who care about our faith and not just about their own egos. I am ashamed to say that I am a graduate of the school in its current state of affairs. And please do not concern yourself with a glib reply to me, Larry Ladd, as I consider you part of the problem.

  8. I should note my comments policy. So long as you are a real human being (and are not the one person subject to a life ban) , don’t slander or devolve into abuse, and leave a real email address — I’ll allow it.

  9. I wanted to continue just a momment to expand on my thoughts about why a grand theological university like GTU is difficult to pull off.

    GTU, the Graduate Theological Union in California is a consortia of 9 schools, including our own Starr King School for the Ministry. At an economic level the constituents schools get better financial support from their various Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations; and the actual entity of the Union itself gets much poorer financial support because it has no built-in supporting faith community. As a result, the tuition for GTU students working on PhD and ThD degrees is about $25,000 per year. This makes advanced theological education financialy prohibitive for most practicing clergy who could benefit from an advanced scholarly degree in Biblical studies, ethics, homiletics, etc..

    GTU also has a reputation for contentious turf battles among its member schools, and this requires a very gifted GTU president to mediate. When the president is not gifted in this way, students can suffer.

    It seems to me that these kind of problems are inherent with any attempt to build or sustain a grand, Oxford-style theological university consisting of multiple member-colleges. It seems Oxford works because it has the weight of history and tradition behind it.

  10. My own small training college, Unitarian College Manchester, closed its building 20 years ago and moved in to one building with three other denominational colleges. It’s worth saying that those other denominations (Methodist, Baptist and United Reform) are generally more conservative than the United Church of Christ and American Baptist. Despite that the colleges work very well together, and relationships are very good.

    I believe the Unitarian seminary in Kolozsvar did the same, but under very different circumstances under the communist regime.

    I would have thought that the logically step for Meadville Lombard would be to move in with one of the other colleges in Chicago. It seems strange to move in with a college so far away. But I have fond memories of Andover Newton, and it seems it has become by default a major place for UU training, so maybe it could work. I’ll watch with interest.

  11. If money is the question, moving the school clear across the country is expensive no matter which coast is chosen.

    Then there is the matter of what is going to happen to the library and the special collections.

    A serious question that must be asked is why M/L relationships with U of C and the largest cluster of theological schools in the nation has collapsed. There has also been a reduction of support by the UUA since their plan was not chosen.

    Where are UU midwest students going to go? We have been having a number attending United Seminary in the Twin Cities. Meadville was founded to serve the west and the present direction is moving against its original mandate. The school is going to make education even more inaccessible since there is presently a Harvard option as well as Andover Newton in the East.

    The notion of mergers themselves have to be considered. We shut down Crane and St. Lawrence to little avail. Now students in those areas cannot attend UU seminaries. I recall one case in Massachusetts where multiple churches were merged only to create a congregation the same size as one of the small original churches. The merger meant more money and lost membership. Will the same happen with the current merger.

    The Humanist Institute provides a program in New York and it might also be approached.

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