Established more than two centuries ago as the nation's first theological seminary, Andover Newton Theological School is on the verge of dramatic change.
Its enrollment in steady decline for more than a decade, the Newton seminary plans to scale down its operations and relocate. It could also merge with another school, potentially Yale Divinity School in Connecticut.
In a letter sent Thursday to students, faculty and alumni, seminary leaders said the changes were made necessary by "seismic changes that are taking place in the church and, by extension, in theological education."
"As much as we cherish it, the large campus we occupy today was built to meet the needs of another era," the letter stated. "It is clear that Andover Newton's current mode of being — even with modifications — is not financially sustainable."
Enrollment in US seminaries has fallen over the past decade, from about 73,000 in 2004 to 67,000 in 2014, according to the Association of Theological Schools.
Beyond relocating, the seminary plans to offer fewer programs to fewer students. Under a new model, it would focus more narrowly on preparing students for the Christian and Unitarian Universalist ministry "in lieu of the broad range of programs and options available today."
The faculty and staff would be substantially smaller, school leaders wrote. Even so, "it is not yet clear that this model would bring us to financial sustainability."
The seminary has also had preliminary discussions to join Yale Divinity School as a "school within a school." It would relocate to New Haven but retain some independence.
Either way, the school will begin the process of selling the campus, which has an assessed value of about $40 million, and transition to a scaled-back program. The school will continue to offer academic programs for at least two years so that current students can complete their degrees.
"For those who are unable to finish their degrees in two years, numerous options will be made available through carefully constructed partnerships with other schools," seminary leaders wrote.
The seminary is primarily composed of students with backgrounds in the United Church of Christ, Baptist, and Unitarian Universalist congregations.
In a letter to the Yale Divinity School community Thursday, Dean Gregory Sterling said conversations with Andover Newton were "still in a preliminary stage," but said the two schools share a "common heritage and ethos."
"We are both concerned with the preparation of ministers," he wrote. "In an era when the numbers of those entering the ministry is decreasing, it makes a great deal of sense to combine resources."
The school currently has about 225 students, many of whom attend part-time. There are 14 faculty members, and 32 staff members.
The school's troubles reflect the broader challenges seminaries are facing, school officials and others said.
Nancy Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church, said that the idea of a free-standing theological school is a thing of the past.
"Today only the nimble will survive," she said. The church and its institutions are faced with a similar dilemma to Darwin's famous finches: Adjust and adapt to the reality of a changing environment or go the way of the Dodo bird."