Please note: This web-only version of Melinda R. Heppe’s Balance Sheet is roughly twice the length of the print version. The limited column inches of magazine publishing occasionally force us to cut perfectly good information for the sake of expediency. Not so on the web.

“Everyone who is nominated for the scholarships says, ‘This will help me go where the church needs me,’” said Cynthia Halverson, director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Fund for Leaders in Mission. Evidently the applicants have been doing their homework, because that is exactly what the fund is designed to do. 

Of the ELCA’s 10,649 congregations, 2,231 don’t have a called pastor. (This number has grown from 1,144 of 11,120 congregations in 1988.) Granted that some of those churches are too small to support even a part-time pastor (in ELCA parlance, a “called pastor” must receive at least a one-third-time salary), there are plenty that can afford to pay pastors a living wage—but not enough extra to pay off a heavy educational debt. And among ELCA seminary graduates who have debt, the average is just under $25,000. 

ELCA Seminaries/ELCA M.Div Candidates 2002-03
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago 173
Trinity Lutheran Seminary 142
Wartburg Theological Seminary 135
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg 141
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia 151
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary 105
Luther Seminary 332
Pacific Lutheran Seminary 62

That number has spiraled up from $10,000 just ten years ago, in part because of the rising cost of living and in part because of the steady increase in seminary tuition. In the 1950s, students at the seminaries of the churches that would merge in 1988 to become the ELCA paid no tuition at all; their denominations paid for their theological education. By 1970, tuition was approaching $1,000, by 1980 it had reached $2,000. Last year, tuition for full-time M.Div. students at the eight ELCA seminaries ranged from a low of $6,742 at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, to a high of $7,500 at both Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California.

No Way to Keep Up

In the early years of the ELCA, it became obvious that even if the church could continue to increase the number of dollars it gave to theological education, it couldn’t keep up with rising costs. The church’s Division for Ministry (which includes the Department for Theological Education) began doing some creative thinking about how to assure funding. Officials began to imagine a fund like the much-loved World Hunger appeal, an ongoing special giving opportunity. 

While the founders of the Fund for Leaders in Mission were looking for startup money, two groups that had long supported various Lutheran projects were flirting with each other and looking for projects to share. Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood were both “fraternal benefit societies” founded in the early years of the twentieth century. They had followed parallel paths of expanding beyond life insurance and into making a lot of money and giving a lot away to congregations and larger church groups. Lutheran Brotherhood grew large enough to become a Fortune 500 company. As they merged into what’s called Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans, each gave $500,000 as start-up money for the Fund for Leaders. “It was an opportunity to reduce redundancies, to begin to .pool funds and processes,” said James Yagow, Thrivent’s manager of Lutheran community relations. Once the start-up money was in place and the fund was formally approved by the 1997 ELCA assembly, Halverson was hired and the fund moved into high gear. “We made a lot of noise at the 1999 assembly,” she said. 

Starting with Eight 

Apparently so, because enough money was raised to give the fund a face—eight of them, in fact. In 2000, one student from each seminary was given a scholarship, and although fresh-facedness was not a qualification per se, it was an earnest group that smiled from the Lutheran magazine and the ELCA web site. Halverson, who declares herself “very proud that we never used models” even before there were scholarship recipients, nevertheless knows the power of pictures—and sound bites—from real people. Each year since then, two more scholarships have been granted at each school (and the previous ones continued). “It’s so much fun to be involved in the distribution of the scholarships,” said Halverson.

The ultimate goal of the fund is to support full scholarships to every ELCA member studying at an ELCA seminary for what the ELCA calls “rostered ministry”—a category that includes pastors and other church professionals. It’ll take some time to get there, however. The expansion of the Fund for Leaders scholarship program to meaningful support to all students who meet the criteria is not scheduled to begin until 2007, although there is some hope it may happen sooner. That hope is based in part on the growth of the fund, which has a $5 million endowment and gifts promised beyond the $16 million mark. Another encouraging sign has been the early success of the $1 matched to every $2 given in Thrivent’s $1 million challenge grant, which began in March and runs through August 2005. The noise about this “million-dollar challenge”—actually, the challenge is for the fund to raise $2 million in order to claim Thrivent’s $1 million—has been considerable: ELCA churches and pastors and Thrivent members have received multiple mailings full of elegant promotional materials which list ways to give including cash, life insurance, life income agreements, wills and bequests, stocks and bonds, real estate, and retirement funds, and they can be routed toward current scholarships or the fund’s endowment. Scholarships can be named for a gift of $25,000. It is easy to order free resources promoting the fund. The total raised toward the match as of the end of July was $305,702 in cash and $250,000 in pledged commitments.

Much of it, including the fund’s recent first large bequest, has come from people without a history of giving to theological education, and Halverson is well aware that seminaries have their own ongoing fund-raising, and that for some donors, the choice will be between supporting a school and supporting the fund. “We dealt with that question from the beginning,” she said. “Big time. When we make our case we always say, ‘If you have a relationship with a seminary, keep it up.’ But for the most part, lay people don’t have a particular connection to a seminary. They are interested in people and relationships, though, and understand the need for pastors.” She pointed out that the first bequest the fund received was from a woman who had no previous history of giving to theological education, and Halvorsen keeps in touch with seminaries, meeting. regularly with development officers. She says her perception is that giving to the fund has not slowed giving to the schools.

The fund’s eleven-member steering committee includes a president, a chief financial officer, an admissions director, and a development officer chosen from the administrations of ELCA seminaries. 

At the Heart: Mission 

“The heart of that message is not only the needs of students but the mission of the church. Theological education has always been central to how Lutherans get mission done,” said Jonathan Strandjord, the ELCA’s director for theological education. "The Fund for Leaders is a rallying cry which aims to mobilize the church for the work of inviting, preparing and supporting a new generation of leadership. Every time I explain the fund to a new audience, what I see are smiles and what I hear is ‘It's about time!’” 

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