Debate over relationship between San Francisco Theological Seminary and the PC(USA) may rise at General Assembly 

When is a historically Presbyterian seminary no longer a “Presbyterian seminary”?

That question is on the docket for the 224th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), although not in that clear of form.

The question at hand is the relationship of the San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) to the General Assembly of the PC(USA) — an institutional relationship that goes back to the seminary’s founding in 1871 by local Presbyterians, in association with the synod. In the past few years, the seminary had been looking for ways to remain sustainable and to expand its programs. That culminated with the announcement in February 2019 that the seminary would become a graduate program of the University of Redlands (U of R or Redlands) in Southern California, a merger which became effective on July 1 of that year.  SFTS has in recent years been the only PC(USA)-affiliated seminary on the West Coast.

In an interview with Jana Childers, dean of the new Graduate School of Theology (GST) at Redlands that now encompasses STFS, she made clear that this was not a merger of SFTS with an existing graduate theology program and was intentionally designed to preserve the Presbyterian ethos of the seminary.

The PC(USA) Committee on Theological Education (COTE) has a different view of the merger. COTE’s conclusion is that if the seminary no longer exists as an incorporated entity and is now part of a secular university, then it has ceased to exist as a Presbyterian seminary. This distinguishes it from the seminary at the University of Dubuque, which is embedded in a Presbyterian-affiliated school in relationship with the PC(USA).

In response to questions from the Outlook (submitted in writing at COTE’s request), COTE’s executive committee through its staff liaison, Barry Ensign-George of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, clarified that this kind of review is standard practice after an institutional realignment, and that COTE held similar discussions with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary when it left the Interdenominational Theological Center.

A change of status could potentially have significant implications for GST/SFTS and its faculty members. GST/SFTS appears to have lost its seat on COTE; the online directory of COTE voting members does not list any representative from the seminary. A complaint filed in connection with a pending judicial case states that the Presbyterian Foundation “is withholding payment to SFTS of funds that are due to it as a Presbyterian theological institution,” and states that a change in the status of SFTS “may void the calls issued to ordained SFTS faculty members by PC(USA) presbyteries.” An action pending at this General Assembly does not include SFTS on the list of PC(USA) seminaries authorized to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The 2020 General Assembly

On the docket for the 224th General Assembly are some items that, rather than clarifying the situation could make it even more complex. In other words, as it stands now the question of SFTS’s status is coming before the assembly somewhat indirectly — but it’s there.

In its Agency Summary to the 224th GA, COTE says that from the time of the merger announcement, “COTE engaged in intensive work seeking a clear understanding of the exact nature of what SFTS called a partnership and a merger and that U of R has also called an acquisition.” The report says the work included discussions “with SFTS, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Foundation, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), and persons with particular history and expertise on seminary mergers.” The discussions continued following the merger, but at the time that summary was written the status was, from COTE’s perspective, that “the COTE team remains in conversation with leaders of this new entity with the goal of bringing a proposal to the 224th General Assembly (2020) when such a proposal is completed.”

In the written responses to the Outlook’s questions, COTE stated that “prior to the public announcement of the merger COTE had no discussions about the status of SFTS” and that the first COTE knew of the merger was when it was announced in February 2019. Regarding GST/SFTS and its membership status, COTE stated that no specific proposal will be brought to the 224th General Assembly for its consideration, but indicated that COTE hopes to have an agreement with GTS/SFTS by July 1, 2020.

COTE’s agency summary is an information item, meaning the assembly isn’t being asked to formally approve it. But one action item that would address the status of SFTS is among many that are being recommended to be referred to the General Assembly in 2022, as the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is asking that this year’s assembly – which will meet entirely online and on a shortened schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic – consider only business designated “core and critiical.”

One of the action items on the list to be referred to the assembly two years from now includes this proposal: Item 02-30, which contains proposed changes to the General Assembly Organization for Mission regarding COTE. That proposal includes a list of the nine institutional members of COTE and the two covenant members, and then notes that SFTS and the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation are still in conversation with COTE about their category of membership. This deferred action item contains no further explanation for the change in the status of SFTS — why it was no longer on the list of COTE institutional members in the agency report.

Also the customary resolution in which the General Assembly is being asked to authorize celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the various theological institutions [00-10] – an item that is up for action at this year’s General Assembly – does not include GST/SFTS on the list of those institutions. Similarly, an action item (Item 00-09) asking the assembly to approve new seminary presidents and trustees (which would include the Redlands president and trustees if SFTS were continuing as an institutional member of COTE) does not include SFTS.

Furthermore, the page on the PC(USA)’s website that lists “Your Presbyterian Theological Seminaries at a Glance” also has removed SFTS from the list of Presbyterian theological seminaries and lists its status as still  “in conversation.”

The placement of these four items of GA business raises an interesting polity question of what it takes to change the status of an institution with the PC(USA). The implication of the 2013 COTE Manual of Operations is clear that one of the assigned functions of COTE is “to  recommend to  the  General  Assembly  those  theological  seminaries  which shall  qualify  as  members  of  the  Committee  on Theological  Education.”

If the General Assembly alone has the authority to make this decision, what power does COTE have once COTE has made its recommendation involving a particular institution, but before the General Assembly has acted on that recommendation? The Outlook asked COTE about that, but did not receive a direct answer to the underlying polity question.

In its written response, COTE’s executive committee said:

“Much that has been said in relation to the Committee on Theological Education and the merger of San Francisco Theological Seminary into the Graduate School of Theology of the University of Redlands misrepresents COTE, its members, and what has happened in the communication between the two. COTE’s desire is to be in relationship with the Graduate School of Theology of the University of Redlands as the successor to the San Francisco Theological Seminary. COTE’s goal is two-fold: to promote theological education in the PCUSA; and to preserve and protect the investment generations of Presbyterians have made in Presbyterian theological education at the former SFTS and the eleven other Presbyterian-related seminaries. COTE looks forward to resolution of disagreement about the specific form of relationship with the Graduate School of Theology of the University of Redlands as it seeks to continue the work of SFTS as soon as possible, to focus on the purpose and functions assigned to it in this difficult time for theological institutions and our denomination.”

Another polity question is what weight the COTE Agency Summary carries. COTE has submitted it to be received as an information item that does not need assembly approval, which typically would not carry any authority for decision-making. Without acting on the proposed change in the Organization for Mission – Item 02-30, which is being referred to the General Assembly in 2022 – would the 2020 General Asembly actually have removed SFTS from the list of institutional members?

The San Francisco Theological Seminary campus in San Anselmo, Calif. —(Photo courtesy of SFTS)

Would it be appropriate for the question of the status of SFTS to somehow be made explicit at this year’s assembly – and for this assembly to act directly on that?  That’s for commissioners at the 2020 General Assembly to decide.

In an update posted on the University of Redlands website, Childers seems to be encouraging that approach, stating: “If you are moved to participate in SFTS’s strategy to work for a fair hearing and due process at General Assembly, we would be grateful for your support! If you are a commissioner or are connected to any commissioners through personal or professional relationships, please let us know. We are looking for people to have the delicate and essential conversations, and we will be happy to equip you in this work.”

COTE said in its written response that while it is not making an explicit recommendation to this year’s assembly regarding the status of GST/SFTS, “the 224th General Assembly is free to make its own determination regarding this relationship.”

The  question underneath all this wrangling: Does SFTS remain a Presbyterian seminary until the General Assembly decides otherwise?

The remedial complaint

That is the situation with relevant items coming to the General Assembly this year. But there is more going on than what’s pending before this assembly.

Following notification from COTE that SFTS would be removed from the list of institutional members, a remedial complaint was filed May 18 with the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), the highest court in the PC(USA) system. Seminaries by themselves do not have the standing to file complaints, so the complaint was filed in the name of Childers and four sessions of churches from across the country on behalf of SFTS.

On May 27, the GAPJC formally accepted the complaint and it will be heard as case 2020-05 at a future session of the GAPJC — meaning not until after the 224th General Assembly has concluded. The complaint that was filed

lists COTE, the Presbyterian Foundation, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Office of the General Assembly, and COGA as respondents.

The complaint alleges 7 irregularities which can be summarized as:

  • COTE overstepped its authority,
  • The application of rules diverged from General Assembly rules,
  • That a “fundamentally unfair” process denied SFTS due process,
  • That the names of the president of Redlands and the names of trustees were not submitted to the General Assembly for approval,
  • That COTE and the Foundation erred in saying that SFTS no longer exists as a Presbyterian seminary,
  • That the Presbyterian Foundation overstepped its authority in determining that SFTS is no longer a Presbyterian seminary eligible to receive funds from the Foundation, and
  • That the Office of the General Assembly and COGA failed to remove items related to COTE from the consent agenda.

A complaint presents only one side of a case.

In accepting the case, the GAPJC removed Childers as a complainant (saying she does not have standing because she’s not an employee of a General Assembly entity) and dismissed several respondents from the case as well, stating that the only proper respondants against whom a claim can be made are COTE and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. All other respondants from the original complaint – meaning the Foundation, the Office of the General Assembly and COGA  – were dismissed.

In doing so, the clerk of the GAPJC, Deborah Little Cohn, wrote in a May 27 preliminary order for hearing (GAPJC Remedial Case 2020-05, Childers, et al v. The Committee on Theological Education, et al.) that none of the allegations involving the Foundation, the Office of the General Assembly or COGA constituted irregularities or delinquencies under the PC(USA) Constitution, the General Assembly Manual of Operations or the Standing Rules of the General Assembly, even if the allegations in the complaint were found to be true.

The Foundation “is only alleged to have exercised fiduciary responsibility as directed” by COTE and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the order states. “The GAPJC does not have the authority to order the Foundation how to direct its funds or substitute its judgment for the Foundation’s fiduciary responsibility.”

And the Office of the General Assembly and COGA “did not act outside the General Assembly Manual of Operations” in referring recommendations from COTE and the Presbyterian Mission Agency to the 2020 General Assembly, the order states.

Asked for comment, Tom Taylor, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Foundation, said in a statement to the Outlook:

“Contrary to the claims in the remedial complaint and Dr. Childers’s misinformed public statements, the Foundation neither makes ecclesial decisions about the relationship between any seminary and the PC(USA) nor manages SFTS’s investments or donations. The Foundation’s job is to make legal decisions that are faithful to donors’ intentions for funds donated and titled to the Foundation, whose interest income benefit ministries. Carrying out our legal obligations, including keeping specific donor information confidential, is precisely what we will do with any funds that the Foundation stewards for any ministry. We are grateful that the church’s GAPJC recognized these realities and dismissed the Foundation from the remedial complaint, leaving us to carry out our legal duty that the church established us to do.”

The remedial complaint, 66 pages in length, also includes GST/SFTS’ version of an extensive timeline of the merger process including the discussions with various entities leading up to the merger. And clearly, there are disagreements among the parties about what happened along the way.

The complaint states that 10 days following the merger, COTE sent a letter on July 10, 2019, stating that “SFTS is no longer an Institutional member of COTE.”

Jana Childers
Jana Childers

In an interview, Childers descibed the process as unfair; and the complaint refers to what happened as “the excommunication of SFTS from the PC(USA).”

As noted earlier, COTE  disagrees with the timeline presented in the complaint.

In written comments to the Outlook, COTE leadership stated that “COTE is deeply disappointed that several sessions brought this complaint. Their view of the facts, and Dr. Childers’ public statements, are inaccurate in numerous respects, including suggestions that the former SFTS sought clarification from COTE or the General Assembly regarding the effect of the merger that incorporated it into a secular university on its relationship to COTE or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  COTE will defend its actions, and provide its response to these inaccuracies in the context of the remedial case.  It remains open to discussions with the University of Redlands regarding the current and future status of the former SFTS.”

So when is a historically Presbyterian seminary no longer a Presbyterian seminary? Headed into the General Assembly later this month, there is significant uncertainty and debate about the answer to this question.

The PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, and COTE both released public statements June 9 about the dispute — a sign of the depth of the disagreement.

It’s possible some assembly commissioners may attempt to move the item recommended for referral to the 2022 assembly to this year’s assembly for a fuller discussion of the relationshp between SFTS and the denomination, or to seek to raise that issue through one of the other three COTE items up for consideration this year.

If that doesn’t happen, it may fall to the GAPJC to try to determine exactly what transpired – and to clarify the question of how the PC(USA) makes decisions about such institutional relationships. In the changing world of theological education, that’s a question with real implications for SFTS now, and potentially for other institutions down the road.

STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is a semi-retired geologist teaching online classes at Hope International University, writes the GA Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.