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European Baptists ponder future of international seminary

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (ABP) -- European Baptist leaders gathered in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct. 1-2 to discuss the future of the cash-strapped International Baptist Theological Seminary.

The seminary is owned and operated by 51 Baptist unions and conventions that make up the European Baptist Federation. The school has been hit hard by a weak dollar diminishing the value of gifts from the United States, rising maintenance and energy costs and a global banking crisis that has eroded endowment funds.

Leaders said finances could force IBTS to sell all or part of its campus in Prague, where it relocated from Ruschlikon, Switzerland, in 1995. The first preference is to remain on the current campus, a 19th-century estate renovated in the 1990s with the labor of hundreds of mission volunteers from the United States. But leaders said that will require significant cost cutting and increasing income, possibly requiring the appointment of a development officer.

If leaders determine the school must move, options are to either seek a more affordable site in Prague or relocate to another EBP partner union, possibly changing the language of instruction and accreditation.

Formed in 1949 to train pastors for southwest Europe, the seminary at Ruschlikon faced a financial crisis in 1991. The then-Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention ceased funding the school, claiming the teaching there was more liberal than what was being tolerated in the increasingly conservative SBC.

Facing 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, 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 days of the Iron Curtain, Baptists in much of Europe were cut off from the rest of the world and denied opportunities for higher education. 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 having had 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 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 Ruschlikon drew outrage from moderate Southern Baptists, prompting many churches at the time to redirect their mission gifts to the newly formed Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Many SBC missionaries assigned to Europe switched to the CBF's new global-missions enterprise. Today IBTS is one of 15 seminaries, theology schools and Baptist-studies programs identified as ministry partners of the Atlanta-based CBF.

EBF representatives overwhelmingly affirmed the need for IBTS to continue but said serious issues remain about reducing costs and increasing income.

About 1,200 men and women -- most from the United States and many from North Carolina -- came to Prague at their own expense to repair dilapidated buildings on the seminary's new campus in 1994 and 1995.

Now, officials say, the cost of looking after historic buildings dating to early 19th century is starting to take its toll. Twelve years after renovation, the seminary now has capital needs to replace worn-out equipment. Utility costs have risen astronomically.

The Czech crown, meanwhile, is a currency of speculation and therefore very strong against the Euro and dollar, dramatically affecting the value of donations from Western Europe and the United States. A recent newsletter described the combination as "really quite critical."

The seminary houses one of the largest English-language theological libraries on the continent of Europe, with about 69,000 volumes. In 2008 IBTS was host to the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance.

A fund-raising campaign during the seminary's Diamond Jubilee in the 2008-2009 academic year raised the equivalent of about $75,000 in U.S. currency.

 

--Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.

       
 
 
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