Interim President Lang Lowrey's Address to the Board of Trustees
February 4, 2011
First, just for the record I want to note that during the “official” recruiting process for Interim President – no one mentioned that the NYC weather would be so unaccommodating this year. Not that I mind of course! Yet you would think that God might have noticed that General is facing enough challenge ‘as it is’ and that at the very least the weather might give us a break.
It dawned on me the other day as I crawled into my office (on all fours) that perhaps God is not throwing more us one more curve snow-ball (with the record low temperatures and snow) but to the contrary was giving us a great gift trying to remind us that just as the world is changing so must GTS as well! For not only did the 18” of snow create a calm sense of Divine beauty over the Close but I noticed that our community built a new snow bell tower in the middle of the close. For me it was a striking symbol that our struggles are perhaps a loving reminder of what we are capable of building here at GTS If we are willing to recognize the reality of a rapidly changing world and that we quickly embrace the significant change that we need to make in our Mission, organizational structures and in our financial constructs to be an ongoing contributor to the mission of the church.
Unfortunately I have seen too many organizations fail to embrace the changing landscape of their Mission. Most often well meaning and qualified leaders realize that the amount of change needed in the timeframe that is required to survive is too risky so they sanctify the status quo and pray that the problem will outlive their time to lead.
This is not to mention that change will affect us personally – not only the way we have always done things but often in our pocket books. Therefore given the institutional risk and personal implications to the need for rapid change, I have noted that most organizations go about change by finding ways to deny it or sanctify it. Even when change is accepted as necessary, it is often too late or the approach to fixing the problem “is like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Sadly, I have seen too many shipwrecks not to say in my second address to you that GTS must change rapidly if we are to be a contributor to the mission of the church.
I pray that you will receive this message not as criticism of the past but as an observation by a hybrid Priest and businessman who sees the theological education landscape changing at a very rapid rate. All the leading indicators from attendance in seminaries, to statistics in our parishes, to the increasing cost of theological education point to this rapid change. We must either embrace these changes rapidly or have the flagship of theological education in the Episcopal Church perish.
You might be surprised to know that I am less concerned with the financial aspects of this change. Most assuredly, the Plan to choose life is complex , daunting and based on many things out of our control coming together to be successful. Yet we are likely to close on the first of four closings on the sale of assets in a few weeks which paves the way for the renovations and the building of our new library. We have an excellent partner in The Brodsky Organization and the stakes of failure are now very high for M$T bank. The attorney general has approved our plan, most the documents are signed and $5mm is on deposit. Clearly the plan has challenges ahead but if all goes well we could be substantially out of $41mm in debt in the next 12-18 months.
After the first closing we need to focus on the renovation plan. We have worked very hard in coming up with construction budgets and bringing on professionals to ensure we stay within those budgets. We do have complications as the bank is now requiring us to vacate 422 by June and close on the transaction to reduce debt. We must now start moving faculty, students and moving out market tenants which will undoubtedly be an inconvenience to all. This will be the part when we must remember the name of our plan and understand that we will have to move the tents quickly to make the plan work and not get back into hot water with the bank.
At the same time we start renovations we will also need to choose the best way to leverage the Tutu center. We have brought in an exciting team including Jeff Small our new trustee and Matt Tarkenton (an associate of mine in Atlanta) whom understand how to leverage real property transactions. We must find a way to maintain Tutu’s mission and build the endowment to at least $35mm or find other suitable means to accomplish our goals. For as I am sure you remember while the sale of assets substantially reduces debt we still must balance the budget in large part by leveraging Tutu.
This is not to mention that balancing the budget is a difficult task in itself. In addition to leveraging Tutu we need to reduce $1.5mm year in non-cost of capital costs to break even. So I am sure by now you ask why I am less concerned about the financial aspects of the plan when I say we need to change rapidly.
The reasons I say this are fairly simple. First, we have no choice financially speaking… we either change or perish. M$T bank has accepted the plan as the best plan and we are close to completing the first and crucial sale of assets that gives us operating headroom , the renovations and reduction of debt. So as concerning the financial aspects of the plan are Change itself is really not a concern.
No, my concern is our ability to rapidly change institutionally to a rapidly changing theological education landscape. I say this because we must attract another significant M.Div. class to GTS and we must revisit our MA program that was basically put adrift last year because we must stabilize our tuition at current levels or find ourselves back in default of our loans and find ourselves in the middle of the plan not having the revenues needed to finance our costs.
Given the spectacular year that we had last year this is very possible. Yet we need to offer our existing students and new students an even greater experience at GTS by replacing outstanding professors like the Koenig’s and Bishop Carnley. We also need to add practical theology to our strengths and be the best at church leadership in the world. We need to do a better job of involving our students in the education process and we need to promise them a more robust formation experience and back it up by focusing more on their deployment . This is not to say that we do not compare favorably to other seminary’s but only to say that we must be the best if we are to attract the quantity and quality of students that we have been used to having at GTS.
We will have to do all of this rapidly given what the leading indicators are telling us. If we move at glacial speed ( as I have observed is our custom) the opportunity will pass us by and even though we might have successfully restructured our financial landscape we will have failed to offer what students will be looking for in this rapidly changing world of theological education.
All of this will take a restructuring of the way we make decisions in all aspects of the institution. It will mean improving our business office and the willingness by those whom serve GTS to embrace the need for rapid change. The willingness to change is what I worry about because just maintaining the status quo is a losing proposition.
I am thankful that capable leaders like Bishop Sisk and Bishop Lee, Sandra Johnson, Sandy Davies, Jack Murray and Ken Kramer have joined the effort to lead this change. These leaders in addition to others whom have fought to keep GTS alive ( including students , staff and dedicated faculty) and especially your very committed executive committee and alumni members , not to mention the new energy among us like James Reho, our new dynamic chaplain … all bring great hope for our future.
Given this leadership and the good work that our trustees do in care of GTS no doubt we will change rapidly. Yet perhaps the greatest reminder of the hope for our future is the divine beauty of this place (especially with it crowned in snow). I just pray that we at GTS remember that the very essence of the Gospel of Christ is transformative change and that if we embrace it here at GTS perhaps we will send what we achieve out unto the world.