In 2010, when Michael Jinkins arrived as the new president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the school’s trustees wasted no time in giving him a challenging assignment. At their first meeting after his arrival, the board asked Jinkins to begin drafting a ten-year strategic plan that would be concrete yet visionary, would engage the entire campus, and would have a positive impact on the church at large. They wanted the plan to answer a key question: How can our seminary better serve the church? 

In short, it was a tall order. 

The document that emerged — called “Covenant for the Future” — was unveiled in 2011, but its centerpiece initiative will unfold this September when all students pursuing master’s degrees at Louisville Seminary, regardless of denominational affiliation, will begin receiving full-tuition scholarships. By 2021, the school plans to cover students’ living expenses as well. 

In Trust recently asked Jinkins to explain how the plan took shape, what it will cost to sustain it, and his advice to schools that would like to follow Louisville Seminary’s lead. 

President Michael Jinkins, what drove the decision to offer free tuition?

The idea had been around for a good ten years, but it came of age after we pulled together a diverse group — trustees, faculty, staff, students, and administrators — to create the strategic plan. We asked ourselves, “What does the church need from us?” Then we invited members of the larger seminary community to weigh in with their ideas. 

The result was a flood of proposals. As we sorted through them, one theme dominated. People told us, “The church needs gifted pastors who can take risks, build ministries, start new congregations, and build bridges to bring people together. If they’re dragging along $30,000 or $40,000 in education debts, they’re simply not in the position to do that.” 

So our mantra became this: We want to liberate our graduates to go wherever God calls them.

Louisville Seminary had experimented with this tuition-free concept before, right?

Several years ago, two of our donors put in place a generous scholarship program that allowed us to recruit top-quality students who showed the greatest promise for ministry. These were students with obvious capacities for leadership. The program, designed for exceptional people who wanted to make a difference, was hugely successful. We saw some qualitative shifts in the graduates going out into churches. The experiment undergirded everything and served as a pilot for what we’re doing now on a larger scale.

At what point did you bring your chief financial officer into the discussion to see if it was possible from a financial standpoint?

For a long time, no one on the strategic planning committee brought the idea to the table — even though several of us were thinking about it. We were worried about the cost. Finally, during one of our breaks, I turned to our CFO, who was part of the group, and asked, “How much money would it take?” 

He ran some numbers and reported that if we limited enrollment to 130 master’s degree students — at the time we had about 160 — and added $2.5 million to our endowment, we could offer a full-tuition scholarship to every student. This would include current students as well as the entering class. That seemed doable, and so we made it our short-term goal. 

Then I asked him how much it would cost to cover the housing expenses for master’s students. He did more calculations and estimated our endowment would need to grow by $13 million to $15 million. That became our longer-term goal.

How were you able to raise the initial $2.5 million?

We’re still working on it. From Day One, the trustees were excited about the idea and became its greatest champions. I remember the meeting when we laid the strategic plan before them. The board chair went around the room and invited each trustee to offer an opinion. It was astonishing. Every single person said, “I’m in.” One board member described the plan as a game-changer, because it puts the spotlight on the quality of our school’s education. Another trustee paid his entire pledge up front so we could launch the tuition scholarship program on time.

How have you stepped up your fundraising efforts to close the gap between what Louisville Seminary has now and what it needs to support the new program?

Part of our challenge has been to educate our donor base about the financial needs of people going into ministry. Most students don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, and they’re preparing to enter a profession where the pay is meager at best. A lot of people don’t realize that.

So, I spend a good deal of time on the road. Last fall, for example, I covered seven states in 14 days! When I visit with people in different settings, the first part of my message is not, “Can you give us money?” Instead, I explain, “We’re here to serve the church, and we want to do that by delivering new ministers who show great promise for ministry.” Then I tell them we’re introducing tuition-free enrollment this year and we really need their help to make it permanent. 

Our advancement team has learned not to articulate the vision of the school’s annual fund by saying the fund exists to keep the lights on. By contrast, we say the annual fund is what makes it possible to deliver high quality education. People understand and respond with comments like, “Wow, if I want to make a difference right now, I need to get involved.” By changing the rhetoric, we’re able to kick off the new program this fall. Growth in the annual fund is making it possible.

Q What advice would you give to seminaries interested in following your lead and offering a similar program? 

From the beginning we’ve hoped that other seminaries would do this. We’ve never viewed it as some sort of competitive market-positioning strategy. Instead, it’s a way to meet a vital need in the church. With this in mind, let me offer a couple of suggestions. 

First, schools considering a similar plan should count the costs and assess their strengths. Louisville Seminary has a solid base of long-time friends and a lot of people who are showing interest in supporting the plan. We also have an endowment that already provides many need-based grants and merit-based scholarships.

That said, when people ask me how things are going at the seminary, I answer, “They’re going great; we’re barely getting by!” I’m joking, of course, but like most schools, we continue to scratch and push to raise every dollar we can. We operate on a very close margin, and we’re very conservative in our spending. Still, we’re fortunate. Our endowment is robust and our position is strong. 

The second issue involves a willingness to trim enrollment in the interest of quality. If a school’s main goal is to increase its number of students regardless of the quality of theological education provided, I wouldn’t recommend this. At Louisville Seminary, we talk about quality every day. The idea of limiting the student body to 130 didn’t worry us at all. It’s all about quality.

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at a glance

Founded:  1853

Church affiliation:  One of 10 seminaries in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Student body:  165 students (115 FTE) from 20+ denominations. 69% Presbyterian; 31% non-Presbyterian

Denominational funding:  Less than 1% of annual budget

Faculty:  13 full-time plus president, dean, and library director

Governance:  Elected board of trustees of up to 37 members

President:   Before moving to Louisville Seminary in 2010, Michael Jinkins was academic dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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