Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, one of the last bastions of liberal Christian theological education in North America, has announced they are selling their historic 1100 South Goodman campus to an undisclosed buyer. In a persuasive letter addressed to the CRCDS community, school president Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle acknowledged, “The world around us is changing and it is now time for Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School to consider in a new way how, to best carry out its mission in the rapidly changing landscape of the church and the world in the 21st Century.”
Citing several reasons why this move must be made at the right point in time, for the right price, and for the right purpose, Dr. McMickle pointed out that the building is no longer sustainable and that the campus resources are no longer in high demand from the students. He said, “The number of students who commute to campus continues to rise and these students have no need for our dorms; they do not eat meals in the refectory, do not require a physical library, do not need a campus bookstore and do not have the time to enjoy the beautiful campus grounds.”
The president carefully explained this is the right move. With revenue from the sale, the school can purchase a new space, and in doing so, recalibrate and reconstitute what kind of seminary it wants to be. As Dr. McMickle put it, “Great care will be given to the discussion of exactly where the school will be located in the future and just what kind of facility will best meet the needs of its mission. Should we build a new campus? Can a renovated existing structure meet our needs? Should we commit to remaining within the city limits of Rochester or explore opportunities in the surrounding suburbs? What is the best physical space for delivering the type of education CRCDS has come to exemplify over the years and what are the opportunities for utilizing space to meet new needs in our community and beyond?”
The president also used this letter to expound upon the multifaceted legacy of CRCDS and its remarkable history of forming progressive leaders in a multitude of locations such as Hamilton, NY, downtown Rochester, Chester, Pennsylvania, and its present spot on South Goodman. Clearly one of the school’s prime and unique assets is its special adaptability in the face of rapidly changing theological and ministerial landscapes. Employing an analogy that has made McMickle one of the nation’s most revered biblical orators, he compared CRCDS to Ancient Israel, “moving with God from place to place, rather than a temple complex where the school’s identity and physical location are inseparable from its mission and purpose.”
Practically speaking, the president contended that the school just doesn’t need that much space anymore. It is clear based on trends in organized religion that the landscape is changing in terms of church attendance and membership, careers in ministry, donors, alumni/ae relations, and the struggle for seminary students to afford the ever-rising cost of higher education.
The landscape is also changing in terms of what a modern American seminary should look and feel like. In order to survive another 200 years in an increasingly urban, multicultural, interfaith, deeply ecological, interdisciplinary and overtly political environment, CRCDS will need to not only change the way it is structured geographically, but to change the way it is oriented and commissioned to teach the Gospel. As Dr. McMickle said in his letter, “God has presented us with a great opportunity to lay the foundation for a new period in history of our school.”
Writing this reflection from the perspective of a proud CRCDS graduate (2004- 2006) I am totally on board with this monumental transformation- both in physical location and the school’s call to a new embodiment of community service. At the same time, I do have one critical remark to make and one point of advice for the school.
The critical remark relates to the supposed lack of interest in campus resources. This may be true of the students who pay to use these resources as part of their all ready inflated tuition, but one of the reasons why the school has been declining in enrollment and suffering financially has less to do with the worth of the campus resources and more to do with the school’s lack of ingenuity. In crucial ways it lost some of its focus on being a community center and social justice hub. For example, students may not want to eat in the refectory, but there are thousands of hungry kids in our community who do. Why was CRCDS not more imaginative in working with charter schools and other organizations that serve youth to bring these hungry minds and bodies to campus?
What is more, current students may not need the library and bookstore, but there are plenty of under -serviced people in our community who would be delighted to use the beautiful library and to have access to books and computers in general. And although it may be true that students are too busy to leisurely enjoy the campus grounds, there are nature- deprived people in our community who would jump at the chance to tour the campus and/or use its facilities for workshops, seminars, retreats, office space, teach ins, conferences, voter registration drives, encampments, blood drives, concerts, pray ins, die-ins, worship services, podcasting and radio broadcasting, meditation, and so much more.
Lastly, it may be true that the campus was built for a different theological era, but the cardinal virtues of charity, compassion, openness, collaboration, and community engagement never go out of style. Far too often the doors were locked at CRCDS. Far too often the classrooms were empty and the halls were silent. Far too often the dorms were empty when they could have been filled with summer campers, foreign exchange students, boy scouts, hikers, recuperating soldiers, and even the homeless. Far too often the school was a cloister on a hill rather than an epicenter of raising political and social consciousness.
So no matter where the school ends up, it will only thrive if it is fully engaged with the public. In other words, the only way to succeed as a progressive and liberal Christian seminary today is to be a community center, social innovation hub, and beacon for interfaith work. Ultimately the people will support the institution but the institution must exist primarily to support the people. For it is clear to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that no liberal Christian seminary in America can survive in this secular, irreligious and virtually distracted world if they are just training ministers to be “pastoral, prophetic and learned.” It is hard for me to say this out loud but the world does not need more pastors: it needs more social change agents. The world certainly does not need more prophets: it needs people who can do the hard work of social change. And the world does not need more learned people. God knows there are far too many of them already. In the words of the mystic and theologian Howard Thurman, what the world needs more of “is people who have come alive.” The world needs compassionate people who know how to transform their spiritual care into active hope.
That being said, it is always easier to criticize and judge problems than it is to get in the ring and offer your support to find solutions. As an alum I am willing to be part of an alumni oversight committee to help facilitate questions, concerns, and ideas about the move. Or better yet, I would be willing to form an alum group to ensure the school remains fully engaged with the community after the move.
The bottom line is that I believe in the legacy and future of CRCDS. Although it has shortcomings-just like any other institution-it also has a tremendous track record of cultivating brilliant and dedicated servants of the Christian faith. It has been at the forefront of numerous social and political battles including the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the disabled rights movement, the anti-war movement, poverty and income inequality, and America’s global political hegemony.With this impressive history under its belt I know in my heart that the school is well positioned to be a leader on all of these issues for the next 200 years.
Yet in doing so it will behoove the school to always remember that Jesus of Nazareth was not a Christian: he was a social change agent. Jesus did not found a church: he founded a social justice movement that broke down every institutional barrier imaginable. And Jesus did not put education ahead of service. As he repeatedly taught his disciples throughout his rabbinical ministry: to serve is the highest form of education and to love with unconditional compassion is the highest form of knowledge.