Facing a severe funding shortfall, Canada’s Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary is making steep cuts in order to be financially sustainable. The school, located in Langley, British Columbia, is cutting three staff positions out of 13, not filling two vacancies and reducing hours and salaries for other staff.
Together with other cutbacks, this will result in a savings of about $257,000 in 2020-21 and $117,000 the following year.
In a letter to supporters, board chair Ron Penner notes the financial emergency requires “significant organizational restructuring and downsizing” if the seminary is to be financially sustainable.
In an interview, seminary president Mark Wessner identifies three reasons for the crisis.
The first is “accumulated debt,” the result of some new programs that didn’t work out such as Ministry Lift, which found the seminary offering workshops and classes through churches across Canada.
The program was well received, Wessner says, “but the business model never quite worked. It had to be subsidized every year.”
The other reason is a drop in support from the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. CCMBC gave $200,000 to the seminary in 2016. That fell to $100,000 last year.
“That’s a big hit on a budget of $1.2 million,” Wessner says.
CCMBC executive director Elton DaSilva acknowledges the decline in support, attributing it to how the conference “allocated more funds to church planting for a season with less going toward education.”
More recently, the conference has been unable to give more due to declining donations, forcing it “to make difficult decisions about where to allocate funds.”
New financial models
Another reason for the financial challenge is the cost of operations.
“The traditional seminary model is very expensive,” Wessner says, noting tuition from about 100 students only covers a third of the budget.
At the same time, there was a flattening of donations from churches. Donations from individuals were starting to grow, he says, but not enough to make up the shortfalls. The result was a $300,000 funding gap over the past few years.
“We have to close the gap to be sustainable,” Wessner says, noting it couldn’t be done without reducing staff, which was “very painful.”
Helping the seminary survive was a gift of $500,000 over two years from a group of concerned individuals.
The gift gave the seminary a “two-year runway, time to come up with a new business model, give it breathing room,” Wessner says.
Looking ahead, Wessner says the goal is for the seminary to be out of its financial crisis in two years.
One way it will do this is through a new model that finds “scholar practitioners” — pastors and others with theological expertise and academic qualifications — teaching locally in churches across Canada.
“We want to bring the seminary to the churches,” he says, noting the costs would be less due to not having to lease space.
He is also hoping for continued support from CCMBC, something DaSilva wants to provide.
The conference, DaSilva says, is committed to “working closely with the seminary to find a solution that will see them reach sustainability with the potential for growth.”
Wessner says the seminary will continue to employ faculty at its British Columbia location.
“We need to have a core of expertise doing teaching and research,” he says.
As for its 20-year partnership with Canadian Mennonite University, where two seminary faculty provide courses in Winnipeg, Man., “we want to continue working with the university, but we need a different financial model,” Wessner says. “The current one made sense at the time it was created, but now is unsustainable. We want to work toward a new model.”
Wessner is optimistic the plans will work out and that the seminary will be sustainable by 2022. But, he says, “it will be a bumpy two years to get there.”
By John Longhurst for Mennonite World Review