Admittedly naive, but determined, Sam Calian didn't come to preside over a funeral, when he accepted the presidency of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1981.

When Carnegie Samuel Calian came to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1981, he had no experience in development or fund-raising. “I was the most unlikely person to be president,” he recalls, reflecting on the twenty years he has served in that office. “But I really had a sense of call. I was naive. I didn’t really know what I was getting into.”

What he was getting into was an institution whose endowment had dwindled to $11 million and which had already downsized its faculty once. One month into the job Calian learned the school’s antiquated boiler heating system needed replacement at a cost of $300,000, which wasn’t in the budget.

One of PTS’s dour Presbyterian board members suggested possibly the institution should “be closed decently and in good order.” But that wasn’t what the first-generation Armenian- American theology professor had come to Pittsburgh to do. “I didn’t come to preside over a funeral.”

The board agreed to take the money for the boiler out of the endowment fund, and Calian vowed to try and turn a new page in the seminary’s life. The first step was to improve morale. The campus itself, located on a donated estate in northeast Pittsburgh, was shabby in many spots, so Calian enlisted the entire student body, faculty, and board members in a spring cleanup. 

Classes were dismissed, and people rolled up their sleeves and took brooms and paintbrushes in hand to beautify and spruce up the campus. More than 150 people turned out. All the classrooms were painted. A 70-year-old female board member painted alongside students a third her age. 

“It was great for morale. People had a real sense of accomplishment,” says Calian. Local churches got into the act, providing dinner for all participants. The event was even featured in the local newspapers. 

From that point on Calian never looked back. Without any fund-raising experience, he and his staff and trustees have rebuilt that $11 million endowment into one that stands at $146 million this year. Of the annual PTS budget of about $9 million, almost $5.3 million comes from endowment income, about 60 percent, compared with 20 percent two decades ago.

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