In 2014, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education published Through Toil and Tribulation: Financing Theological Education 2001-2011, an analysis by Anthony T. Ruger and Chris A. Meinzer of revenue and spending of theological schools during a period that encompassed the Great Recession as well as declining levels of formal religious affiliation. The fifth in a series of studies of revenue in theological education, this report told a tale of hard times and the ways in which some schools were able to strengthen their financial position in spite of a poor economy and changing religious environment, and it outlined best practices in the institutions and leaders who saw improvements during these years.

A summary of the report in the Autumn 2014 issue of In Trust provided a “snapshot” of the pertinent data, especially data from the 20 schools that strengthened their net assets by 40 percent or more over the course of that decade. As Ruger and Meinzer noted at the time, “This is a remarkable achievement when enrollment, investment markets, and gifts were wobbly.”

The authors listed four characteristics of schools that were successful during this time:

  1. Conviction. Leadership shared a conviction that deficits are unacceptable and toxic.
  2. Teamwork. Successful schools exhibited collaboration among board members, administration, and faculty.
  3. Development. Development efforts succeeded when the board produced a balanced budget. Put simply by one president: “Donors don’t want to fill your hole. They want to build a mountain.”
  4. Vision. One school talked about a 40-year strategic plan. Another school topped that with a 100-year plan. These claims are surprising. Most three-year strategic plans are out of date in 18 months. How could any institution plan so far in advance? 

The 40- and 100-year plans were not “plans” in any conventional sense. They were statements of the school’s values and vision. Put another way, the “plans” were the translation of the mission into the corporate, shared vocation of the school. 

No one knows what the next five, ten, or hundred years will bring. But your school can learn from the past by studying what worked during the difficult decade that began in 2001.