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God’s Kingdom, Our Winebrenner:  A Path Toward Financial Sustainability

The “operating system” that I’ve been developing over the past few posts exists within the larger context of a theological education system that includes certain assumptions about the economics of higher education. Jumping to the conclusion, the current economic assumptions that many seminaries are built upon is unsustainable over the long-term (this belief has been affirmed through various conversations with Chris Meinzer, Senior Director of Administration & COO of the Association of Theological Schools).

The following is a summary of the system in place at many seminaries. In order to work toward breaking the cycle we need to be honest about where we are as an “industry” and where the true problems are found. Unfortunately, many schools are unaware of the assumptions and implications underlying their financial operations because they are so immersed in their own environment and have never given thought that it has been built and created by their particular school.

Multiple items could serve as a starting point, but I’ll use rising organizational costs. Since 2015 Winebrenner has lowered operating costs by nearly one million dollars. Such things as over-staffing (“administrative bloat” is a real thing at many schools) contribute to this as well as generally inefficient systems.

Schools have limited ways to pay for these costs, tuition is one of the primary ones. Current tuition is almost overwhelmingly market driven (schools identify a set of peers and establish a price based upon what others are charging). This was confirmed through research and several conversations during our “tuition reset” discussions early last year. So, students are charged what the highest price the market allows, for that particular school. However, students often can’t pay that amount so they outsource to the federal government through student loans or through donors or family members or churches – schools don’t see themselves as part of the problem, so they ask students to find other sources to pay for the high cost (the brokenness of the student loan system is its own topic, confirmation can be seen in many of the current federal congressional discussions related to loan forgiveness plans).

There is another way that many schools increase revenue to meet the rising costs – donor support, which can be thought of this is an internal way to offset or even “outsource” rising costs. Instead of addressing rising costs or tuition that burdens students, school seek out churches or individual donors who can serve as “angels” to pay for bad stewardship decisions. Unfortunately, this seems to get lost in the entire discussion, but is so critical.

Before Winebrenner adopted a “revenue first” budget approach, the Trustees would simply add more funds to the anticipated revenue for donor support. I’ve been to enough ATS events and have spoken to enough Presidents to know that Winebrenner is not the only school who had this practice. I can gladly say that we moved away from this practice several years ago.

Also, there has been a disregard for the finances within the overall academic unit. There is often a significant dis-integration of academics and finance when looking at overall operating costs.

In summary, rising organizational costs market-driven tuition, over-reliance on donors, and poor practice in budgeting combine for an unsustainable economic model. Schools often get confused about this because many have either cut their total budget or at least held it steady, but they miss how this has pushed them to not be smart about HOW they spend their funds.

Now that the “problem” within the inherited system of theological education is clearer, we are actively working to develop an operating system that addresses and fixes the concerns identified above. The operating system that has been examined in this series is, in many ways, a solution to the problem outlined in this post. In the coming weeks I’ll be examining how this shift in thinking and operating will need to infiltrate every operational aspect of Winebrenner.

– Dr. Brent Sleasman, President

– Photo by Matt Walsh (Unsplash)

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