Daniel Aleshire is executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.

I had a conversation with someone not long ago who is on the short list of candidates for the presidency of an ATS school. The person had called me to talk about the school, the presidency, and whether I thought this was the right job for this candidate. In the course of the conversation, I said that the president’s work at this school would primarily be nurturing a constituency and raising money. We talked some more about the school’s many contributions, its unique programs, and I said again, “The primary job of the next president of this school will be nurturing a constituency and raising money.” We talked a little longer and focused on the opportunities the presidency might provide for the candidate, and I said, “Whether or not you want to remain on the list of candidates depends on how much you want to nurture the school’s constituency and raise money.”

You may be wondering which school I was talking about. This advice is so true of so many ATS schools that you could never guess the school’s identity from this conversation. Increasingly, the job of the president at almost every ATS school, both at this time and in the future, is to cultivate a constituency and raise money. 

Some things change so convincingly in theological education that it is safe to say that the change is permanent. The old ways in which U.S. and Canadian theological schools derived their income have dissipated, and schools need to develop new ways. I think ATS schools, particularly Protestant schools, have found additional money in two ways over the past twenty years. In the eighties, ATS schools added degree programs and began to take more seriously the income that could be generated from tuition, particularly from degree programs other than the master of divinity. Many schools also established new sites or campuses that extended the reach of existing degree programs to new “markets.” The second way in which seminaries derived new income was by riding one of the most, if not the most, dramatic and extended rise in the stock market that has ever occurred in the U.S. If schools were spending prudently at 5 percent of their endowment’s value between 1990 and 2000, and were reasonably positioned in equity holdings, they would have doubled or tripled the value of their endowments, even if no new money were added. While this was not the case with many schools, the number of ATS schools that had new operating money simply because of the increase of their endowment values is substantial. 

As we begin this decade, my hunch is that neither of these income generators of the past twenty years will be income generators in the next twenty. So, where is the money going to come from if not the denominations, if not from new degrees or locations, if not from greatly increased endowment values as a function of market growth? 

It will come, as it already does, from individuals who have resources, who care about their church, and who want to ensure the quality of ministerial and priestly leadership in the future, and from a few congregations that have a sense of kinship with a particular seminary or with theological education in general. As the pressure on congregational budgets increases, and congregations are faced with a choice between funding medical coverage for their staffs or continued contributions to a seminary operating budget, medical coverage will win every time. So, in the final analysis, the money will come from individuals who have a reason to be loyal to an institution. 

A few observations about the future of funding in theological education: 

1 Developing a culture of realism is fundamentally important.

The money is not going to come from the denominations, so there is no use complaining about the fact that it is not coming from denominations. The money, at least not the amount that is needed, isn’t going to come from tuition. The entrenched culture in which theological schools operate holds that a student shouldn’t have to pay too much for a theological education. The money is going to come from individuals, and seminaries need to be realistic about their primary funding base. 

2 Schools will need to nurture the shifts in their governance and institutional habits that will help them cultivate individuals who will become loyal donors.

This will take time, and not a little bit of creativity. I once conducted a retreat for the board of an ATS school whose members are entirely elected by the denomination. Sixty percent of the members of this very small board were clergy. The school’s denomination, which is fully in control of the selection and election of the board, will give approximately $30,000 for operations (of an educational and general budget of $6-$7 million). The trustees and I spent much of one of our sessions of this retreat talking about the difficulties of finding and nurturing substantial donors when the board is selected without regard for development. This school has a structure that reflects the days in which the denomination paid much of the bill. In those days, the structure of control and the sources of money were calibrated. They are out of calibration now, and the structure will change much more slowly than the revenue streams will change. This school is deeply committed to its denomination; it would not know what kind of school to be if it were not preparing persons for ministry in its denomination. The denomination is committed to this school, but it can no longer fund the school the way it has in the past. As a result, the school will need to develop a conversation with the denomination about who should be elected to the board, including the need for persons of financial means. As this conversation matures with this or any denomination, the denomination will quickly find itself worrying about who gets what kind of access to its wealthiest donors. In the meantime, the seminary will need to find creative ways to cultivate and nurture individuals because some of the most typical ways, like board membership, will not be available in the near future. 

3 Because future donors will most typically be individuals, seminaries will need to increase their capacity to make a compelling case to individuals, and to nurture their friendship in ways that are attentive to their needs and concerns.

Nurturing a constituency is no longer a function of attending endless denominational meetings. While those meetings must be attended, nurturing a constituency is increasingly about cultivating a community of individuals that has been formed around an interest in the seminary and the seminary’s unself-serving interest in them. While this work can be structured, organized, and facilitated by development staff, in many ways it is the president’s work as he or she reaches out to these individuals in pastoral ways. 

4 Presidents, and others responsible for personal donor contacts, need to develop the discipline of asking, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, for money.

I don’t think that one can be effective at nurturing relationships as a means of cultivating donors for theological education without treating this effort as if it were a spiritual discipline. The temptation, on the one hand, is to nurture relationships in a way that manipulates individuals for the sake of their potential gifts. That is unchristian. The temptation, on the other hand, is to nurture relationships so that the president has a new set of interesting and wealthy friends who are never asked for money. That is anti-institutional. The only way to avoid these two temptations is to treat this work as work that grows out of one’s spirituality. 

5 Finally, I think we need a change in some of the deep narrative of the kind of work to which senior leaders in seminaries should give their energy.

Some senior administrators think of development as a diversion from their real tasks rather than at the heart of their real tasks. One ATS president resigned, in part, because he had come to realize that his responsible work for the school was fund-raising, and that his best self-understanding of his calling was pastoral. In order to be fair both to himself and to the school, he decided to resign and accept a pastorate. I think that faithfulness in presidential work guided, supported, and complemented by effective professional staff in development is not possible apart from being at peace with the need to cultivate a constituency, and when the need and the moment are right, to ask for their gifts.

The Apostle Paul had some good instincts about fund-raising. He wasn’t afraid to ask: “Now as you excel in everything in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking” with reference to the offering that Titus was in the process of receiving [2 Corinthians 8:7]. Paul also had a sense of the mutuality of Christian philanthropy. “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance,” he says to the giver “and their need [that of the receiver], so that their abundance may be for your need” [2 Corinthians 8:14]. While this may not be the kind of sparkling language with which a talk like this should close, Paul’s words voice the spirit of our work. Theological schools have serious financial needs and as those needs are met, schools will develop an abundance that meets the needs of communities of faith.


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