The University of Chicago plans to buy the shared 3.5-acre campus of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) and the McCormick Theological Seminary, 5460 S. University Ave. The institutions signed a non-binding letter of intent on May 5.
The U. of C. plans to use the campus for its own educational and research work following a "limited period of time" that LSTC and McCormick will be able to lease space in their buildings, according to a news release.
LSTC's Board of Directors and McCormick's Board of Trustees have both unanimously agreed to the plan, which is expected to close later this year.
“The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the McCormick Theological Seminary are valued and respected neighbors, and the University of Chicago is committed to being a good steward of this important property for its intended purpose of education,” said U. of C. Executive Vice President Katie Callow-Wright in a statement. “We look forward to working with both institutions as we move toward finalizing this agreement.”
LSTC formed in 1962 and moved to Hyde Park in 1966. "The school has a history that goes back to five predecessor schools dating to 1860, and each of those schools moved at least three times," said president James Nieman. "That's actually the real nature of theological education, being on the move."
Nieman said his experience as a teacher and administrator shows him that schools know how to shift with pressure or an opportunity: "This is an opportunity for us, and we're taking that opportunity and trying to seize it as a way of creating a new and more nimble future for ourselves."
McCormick was founded in 1829 as Hanover Seminary in Hanover, Indiana. It moved to the North Side of Chicago 30 years later, where it was renamed for industrialist Cyrus McCormick.
McCormick sold its Lincoln Park campus to DePaul University in 1975 and moved to Hyde Park. Originally headquartered in what is today the U. of C.'s Alumni House, 5555 S. Woodlawn Ave., McCormick moved into its current building in 2003. The building’s construction was an opportunity to expand the school's partnership with LSTC.
McCormick President David Crawford said the school moved to Hyde Park because of the preponderance of seminaries in the neighborhood. "It was a really wonderful place for us to be in community with our other seminaries that are part of the (Association of Chicago Theological Schools) consortium," he said. "Being here gave us all an opportunity to share resources and work together on a variety of projects."
He said it will continue to be located in the neighborhood: "McCormick has moved multiple times over the last 193 years, so this is not a new thing for us. We have made these moves, and it has always advanced our work and our involvement in the community. And we expect that this will do that as well."
McCormick is historically affiliated with the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but the school is an independent, ecumenical institution.
As a seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the mainline Lutheran denomination in the United States), Nieman noted LSTC's responsibility to support its institution and prepare future leaders for it.
"To that respect, to the degree that anything detracts from that, we want to say it's not a part of what we do. To the degree that anything will help us contribute to a stronger profile that helps us prepare leaders for our church and for other denominations, that's what we want to be doing," he said.
Nieman said the plans are in line with his institution's 2020-drafted strategic plan. The Board of Directors decided that owning and operating a campus was not critical to LSTC's mission and will lease a new building.
The seminary’s enrollment is stable; Nieman said the institution is "actively assessing our future options and ways of locating, with the commitment if at all possible — and we believe it fully is — of remaining in Hyde Park."
"We're committed to the neighborhood, and we're committed to being part of ministry on the South Side," he said.
Crawford said McCormick's move is also mission-driven, not money-driven.
"We have an opportunity here that almost every institution in the country would like to have coming out of the pandemic, and that's the opportunity to reconsider and reimagine what you need in the way of space to fulfill your mission," he said. "I don't think there's an institution in the country that's not looking very hard at what kind of space it has and how much space it needs."
He said the move will allow the school to further direct its energy outside seminary walls. McCormick does programming at the Cook County Jail, where 66 detainees have gone through a theological certificate program. Its Trauma Healing Initiative provides trauma-informed training for congregations in Chicago, and its Center for Reparatory Justice, Transformation, and Remediation is a cross-denominational effort focused on reparations.
"This is the opportunity for us to really become even more involved in the communities we serve and not be tethered to a single building that is, frankly, bigger than our needs," Crawford said.
"All schools are facing challenges with enrollment, and all schools are facing challenges with costs. But for us, we've gone through all of that process of reinvention and come out in an extraordinarily solid place, both operationally and financially," Crawford said. "For us, this was a wonderful bit of timing that all three schools at this particular moment could find alignment of interest to sign this letter of intent.”