Seminary's move eased by court decision

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Leaders of financially embattled Claremont School of Theology see its relocation from the Los Angeles area to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, as a matter of survival.

Claremont School of Theology is one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries supported by the Ministerial Education Fund apportionment of the United Methodist Church.

The prospects for the United Methodist seminary's move recently brightened, thanks to a decision by Judge Dan Thomas Oki of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Oki's ruling frees the seminary to sell its 16.4-acre campus in Claremont, California, at fair market value. Charles Clark, a lawyer for the seminary, puts that at about $36 million.

"The money will allow us to retire our debts and also to pay for the transition and the relocation," said the Rev. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, president of  Claremont School of Theology. "We hope that we will still have a substantial amount to return to our endowment."

Claremont School of Theology students join in a campus worship service. The financially embattled United Methodist seminary continues to point toward a relocation from Claremont, Calif., to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Photo courtesy Claremont School of Theology.

Claremont School of Theology went public in 2017 with its hopes to right itself financially by selling its campus and embedding within United Methodist-affiliated Willamette University.

But the seminary ended up in court with The Claremont Colleges, a neighboring group of liberal arts colleges and graduate schools in Claremont, 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. 

At issue was whether Claremont School of Theology was required, because of decades-old grant deed restrictions, to give The Claremont Colleges a "right of first offer" to buy the land — with a price likely to be millions lower than fair market value.

Oki ruled on Jan. 23 that The Claremont Colleges instead would have a "right of first refusal" if the seminary finds another buyer. That means The Claremont Colleges could still buy the land but would have to match the other group's offer.

The Claremont Colleges issued a press release noting that in 2016 it had offered the seminary $14 million for most of the property. The press release emphasized that Oki's ruling enforces a restriction that the land be used for educational purposes.

"That is what is best for both the Claremont community and the colleges," said Kim Lane, assistant vice president/communications, in an email. "In addition, that stipulation will play a role in determining fair market value."

By occupying existing space at Willamette, the seminary can cut $2 million or more a year in operational costs while retaining its name and identity, Kuan said.

Both he and Steve Thorsett, have argued that a partnership would benefit both schools.

"CST's progressive approach to theological education — coupled with our shared commitment to educating students to contribute to and enrich their communities — will enhance academic offerings for students and faculty and further Willamette's mission," Thorsett said.

Kuan said the schools have a memorandum of understanding but are still working out details, a process he believes will lead to an affiliation agreement this spring.

Sam Hodges, Dallas-based writer, UMNS

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the Ministerial Education Fund is at the heart of preparing people for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The 13 United Methodist seminaries help students to discover their calling through the challenging curriculum. The fund enables the church to increase financial support for recruiting and educating ordained and diaconal ministers and to equip annual conferences to meet increased demands. Please encourage your leaders and congregations to support the Ministerial Education Fund apportionment at 100 percent.