European Baptist leaders OK plan to move Prague seminary - Word&Way

European Baptist leaders OK plan to move Prague seminary

ROME (ABP) — The elegant complex of 19th-century buildings that houses the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic, will likely be sold now that European Baptist Federation leaders have green-lighted a plan to move the seminary as a cost-saving measure.

There is a chance, however, that the campus — to which the seminary moved from Rüschlikon, Switzerland, in 1995 and for which many teams of Baptists from the United States and elsewhere contributed thousands of volunteer hours and dollars in renovations — could be saved.

Officials of the federation — which owns the seminary and represents 51 national and regional Baptist bodies in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East — voted to sell the campus at their Sept. 22-25 council meeting in Rome. The sale and move, following the recommendations of a special strategy group, will take place over a three-year timetable, including a last-ditch effort over the next year to retain the current campus by boosting income from renting parts of the campus or finding strategic partners to share the site.

"There was a very good debate, and the decision, while not unanimous, was certainly overwhelming," said Tony Peck, the EBF's general secretary. "People definitely want the work of IBTS to continue, but the seminary has made cuts and we feel we've cut as far as we can. There is definitely sadness, because people feel the site is wonderful, and that it is in an excellent position for EBF in Europe. But there are financial difficulties in managing such a large site."

The strategy group has been studying the 162-student school's future for the past year, after severe financial difficulties put its continued existence in doubt. Hits to its donations and investment funds due to the global financial crisis, a weak dollar diminishing the value of U.S. gifts, skyrocketing energy costs and a significant amount of deferred maintenance combined to create significant shortfalls in the IBTS budget.

If the current campus — located in a picturesque park about three miles northwest of Prague's historic city center — can't be saved, options are to either seek a more affordable site in the Czech Republic or relocate to another EBF partner union. The council determined that such relocation could involve a strategic partnership with another Baptist seminary or "compatible theological community."

The council set up an implementation group to carry out the sale and relocation. Its membership will comprise three people chosen by EBF leaders, three members of the seminary's board of trustees and up to three others chosen by the implementation group itself for their expertise in the subject areas needed.

Formed in 1949 to train pastors for southwest Europe, the seminary at Rüschlikon faced another severe financial crisis in 1991. That year the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention cut off its funding for the school, claiming the instruction offered there was insufficiently orthodox for the increasingly conservative SBC.

Facing the rapidly increasing costs of operating in Switzerland, trustees voted to sell the campus and to move to a less-expensive location. With costs in Prague about half those in Switzerland at the time, a sale price of more than $20 million allowed the seminary to move with only a bridge loan, pending final payment on the Swiss property.

The relocated seminary took a new name, International Baptist Theological Seminary, along with a new vision. During the Cold War era, Baptists behind the Iron Curtain that separated Western Europe from Central and Eastern Europe were denied opportunities for higher education. With the fall of the Soviet Union and its dominance over the region, a new political climate allowed seminaries and Bible schools to reopen — but without a clear understanding of how they would be accredited and recognized as official Baptist institutions.

Long home to a smattering of Baptist students from Eastern Europe and now geographically located at the midpoint between Baptists in Eastern and Western Europe, IBTS in 1997 began focusing its efforts on graduate studies and recruiting top graduates from unions and seminaries across Europe and the Middle East. The seminary awarded its first doctorates in 2007 and celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008-2009.

The SBC defunding of Rüschlikon drew outrage from moderate Southern Baptists, prompting many churches to redirect their mission gifts to the then-newly formed Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Most SBC missionaries assigned to the EBF switched to the CBF's new global-missions enterprise, and thousands of Baptists from CBF-affiliated churches traveled to Prague in 1994-95 to help refurbish the campus.

Today IBTS is one of 15 seminaries, theology schools and Baptist studies programs identified as ministry partners of the Atlanta-based CBF.


Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press. This story includes reporting from ABP Senior Writer Bob Allen, and The Baptist Times, the newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.